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The problem with the Orioles bullpen is there’s no easy way to make it better

There are a lot of holes on this 24-59 team, but the bullpen has been a particular weakness. Is there any hope for improvement from this bunch in years to come?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody needs a reminder of how bad this 2019 Orioles team has been. The pitching staff has been particularly horrific in sending them to a 24-60 record, making opposing batters look good with a .269 batting average against. That’s added up to a team ERA of 5.82. Both of these are the worst for any team in the majors.

The most recent fun weekend where the Orioles staff gave up just two runs in three games aside, the O’s bullpen has been especially bad this season, with relievers combining to have an ERA of 6.23.

What has made the bullpen so bad? Even someone with poor expectations about the 2019 O’s squad could not have expected a bullpen as bad as this. The struggling relievers fit into three categories: Players who are under-performing expectations, young pitchers who still seem to need time to develop, and some who just aren’t MLB-caliber pitchers.

The challenge for the Orioles is to sort out which pitcher belongs in which group, and then to find a way to improve the ones who are capable of improvement.

Under-performing players:

Coming into the season, Richard Bleier looked poised to be one of the best players on the roster, having just finished a remarkable 2018 season in which he pitched to a 1.93 ERA and established himself in the Orioles ‘pen.

Unfortunately, he has missed time this season recovering from the injury that ended his 2018 season, and has failed to live up to expectations when healthy. No one who has a 6.45 ERA on July 1 is having a good season.

I would venture to say that I don’t believe 2019 Bleier to be the “true” Bleier, or the Bleier of the future. He had about two full seasons of innings from 2016-18 with a combined 1.97 ERA and 1.168 WHIP. He deserves more of a chance to see if he can return to that form.

Mychal Givens is another player who came into the season with high expectations that he has failed to meet so far. He has blown five save chances, four of which have turned into Orioles losses. His command in particular has been poor, with a 4.2 BB/9 standing out as opposed to 2.5 in 2017 and 3.2 in 2018. He is striking out more batters than ever with a 12.9 K/9, but it’s not helping him.

A third bullpen guy who is under-performing is Miguel Castro. Castro was an exciting find in 2017, and he continued his positive momentum into 2018. Unfortunately, his ERA has risen almost a run and a half in 2019, and he joins many of the Orioles who don’t seem to be playing up to their potential this year.

One positive of these three players is that they clearly have the ability pitch better given their past performance, and they all have at least two more years before they hit free agency. Hopefully some, if not all of them can regain their previous form and make themselves trade bait in the years to come.

Developing players:

One other factor that likely has contributed to the woes of the bullpen is the inexperience of the pitchers. Seven of their relievers this season have been rookies. Several others who debuted before this season are still fairly young, particularly Tanner Scott, who turns 25 this month.

While it would be nice to have found more rookies producing results like John Means, it is to be expected that many of these young, inexperienced players are not yet having good results at the major league level.

Some of them it might be time to give up on. David Hess, for instance, has already pitched 169.1 major league innings . He has been shuffled in and out of the rotation, and has had a couple of good starts, but has often looked over-matched by major league hitters. As he moved up the levels of the minors, Hess’s ERA generally trended upwards, and he has only a 5.85 ERA over his time in the majors.

Other young pitchers, on the other hand, I am still excited about and would love to see more of. For example, Evan Phillips hasn’t had good results in his 17 innings this year, but that is a very small sample size. He’s only 24 years old, has had good AAA results, and has a 60 fastball on the 20-80 scale as rated on Fangraphs.

Another pitcher that I still have hope for is Tanner Scott. He hasn’t had any sustained Major League success, but he with his exciting fastball he has one of the higher ceilings among the relievers the Orioles have used this year. He’s only 24 years old and I hope the Orioles continue to give him as many chances as possible to figure out how to succeed.

Trying out all of these pitchers is probably one of the reasons why the bullpen has struggled so much this year, but we all know that this year isn’t about winning. The Orioles are playing for the future right now, and sifting through young, inexperienced arms in hopes of finding successful major league players is something that could help them win in the future. The team has certainly done that this year; already twenty players have pitched in relief, not counting the three position players who have played mop-up duty.

Many of these pitchers may never make their way off of the Norfolk/Baltimore shuttle. However, among these pitchers we may discover a gem, or at least find a few who can stick at the major league level.

The most recent stellar Orioles reliever was Zack Britton. He was an exciting prospect who never quite turned out as a starting pitcher, but was a phenomenal reliever. Two current interesting Orioles prospects, Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate seem to have been converted during this year from starters to relievers.

Harvey’s long road to the O’s from the 2013 draft might finally be getting somewhere now that, in short relief stints, he’s hitting 99 miles per hour and striking out a lot of hitters. Tate, who was acquired for Britton last July, has also seen modest success so far, and while it may be too early to get overexcited, there’s enough reason to hope these players could be part of a better Orioles bullpen in the near future.