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A Tanner Scott breakthrough would be a huge boost for Orioles

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The lefty is a candidate for a breakout season as he enters his third substantial season in the majors. If he can harness his control, the 25-year-old could be an asset this summer.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of compelling storylines in the Orioles’ bullpen this season.

There’s the Mychal Givens question, and whether or not he’ll return to the borderline All-Star form he was at in previous seasons. There’s the Miguel Castro question, and whether or not he’ll be the shutdown pitcher someone with 98 mile-per-hour heat and a wicked breaking ball should be. And there’s Hunter Harvey, who could be an All-Star fireman or out for the season in May and no one would be surprised.

Overlooked, arguably, in all of this is Tanner Scott. Which is interesting, because there are few relievers who could better help the Orioles with a breakout season than the hard-throwing Ohioan.

This isn’t a new subject. Scott has been on the radar since he was drafted in 2014 and first began throwing smoke in spring training, but it’s been slow going since then. It took him until 2017 to crack the big leagues and 2018 to find a regular home there, and so far, the results have been lukewarm: 115 strikeouts in 81.1 innings, but a 5.31 ERA over those appearances and a 1.648 WHIP.

Should he find a stride at age 25, however, it’d be a big plus for his team. Harvey has the highest ceiling of anybody in the Orioles’ bullpen, but Scott is up there as well.

Should Scott find consistent success, he’d give the Orioles a power lefty arm they haven’t had since Zack Britton was traded. He’d be a good complement for the hard-throwing righties at the end of the bullpen, he’d add to what could be a strength for the team with Givens, Harvey and Castro, and he’d fill a hole in manager Brandon Hyde’s arsenal.

Hyde has situational lefties with Paul Fry and Richard Bleier, he has long relief, he has prospective closers and set-up men, but he doesn’t have a go-to left-hander to come in, face a left-handed hitter in a jam, and strike him out.

Scott could be that pitcher, or a closer, or a set-up man. He could be a building piece for the future, or someone to sweeten trade offers...a lot of options are on the table if he finds his stride this season.

The next question is whether or not he can.

Scott’s experience in the major leagues provides reason for both hope and discouragement. On the plus side, he’s as good as he’s ever been at striking men out (12.6 per nine last year, and 12.8 the year before) and his ERA fell from 5.40 in 2018 to 4.78 last year. He also improved from the first half to the second, going from a 5.56 ERA before the break to a 4.20 mark after.

He also proved hard for left-handers to hit, which is to be expected of lefty pitchers but not always a certainty. Left-handed batters hit only .188 against Scott last season, with a .682 OPS. This was an improvement from his mark of .218 the year before.

For comparison’s sake, Fry and Bleier have never allowed an average below .200 as Orioles. And Bleier had two seasons with sub-2.00 ERAs.

On the down side, Scott didn’t necessarily pitch better overall. His WHIP went up from 1.556 to 1.785, and his control suffered as he went from 4.7 walks per nine innings to 6.5. His batting average against went from .263 two seasons ago to .277 last year.

Looking forward, there’s some reason to believe Scott is working his way towards becoming a dependable reliever. While he appeared uncomfortable in some of the spots in which he was placed last year — the 16-inning win over the Angels, during which he blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the 15th, comes to mind — the numbers reveal a knack for handling his tougher assignments.

In late and close situations (as deemed by Baseball-Reference), he allowed a .214 average (though a .976 OPS). When pitching with the Orioles ahead or trailing by one or two runs, he allowed a .225 average (though, again, a less encouraging .850 OPS).

It’s still a small sample size with Scott, who has yet to play a full season in the majors without a stint in the minors, but it hopefully shows that he is growing into a comfort level with higher leverage and more pressure-packed spots.

Clearly, the control is the first and foremost thing Scott needs to work on. When you’re striking batters out left and right and allowing few hits, but still allowing runs and baserunners at a dangerous rate, there are very few culprits left.

But he’s a worthy project for the Orioles, because at 25, he still has room to grow and time to make that jump. Making that improvement this year would help the Birds considerably. Few commodities in baseball are more valuable than hard-throwing, overpowering lefties, and the Orioles could be on the brink of finding one on their roster.