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Orioles positional preview: Bullpen

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The Orioles relied far too heavily on their bullpen in 2019. The results were catastrophic. With more uncertainty in this year’s rotation, how will expanded rosters impact the club’s most heavily taxed position.

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, Baltimore announced that Tommy Milone will be the club’s Opening Day starter this Friday against the Yankees. That declaration represents a few things.

The announcement reveals that All-Star pitcher John Means’ “arm fatigue” will not be resolved by the start of the season. It conveys that Tommy Milone, an under-the-radar February pickup, will begin the year in the O’s rotation. And last, but certainly not least, it shows that the Orioles bullpen is going to get a whole lot of action this season.

The Orioles bullpen led the league with a 5.79 ERA and 5.38 FIP throughout the 2019 season. As you may have guessed, the phrase “led the league” does not carry a positive connotation in this particular instance.

Last year’s bullpen, out of necessity, was overworked and paid the price. Only time will tell if a rotation of Milone, Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Asher Wojciechowski and (hopefully) Means will create a similar issue. Well, time or common sense.

The Orioles will once again rely heavily on their relievers this year, but that alone does not pencil the Birds into another “league leading” effort. A short season with an expanded roster should provide Baltimore the opportunity to greatly improve its production from the ‘pen. So is there reason to be optimistic?

Maybe.

The Orioles bullpen is filled with bounce-back and breakout candidates. Two “B” words that find themselves associated with mediocre teams far too often. Still, it does not make them any less true.

The greatest question in the Orioles infield involves replacing a key piece, but the same cannot be said about the bullpen and Jonathan Villar’s longtime, likely-to-be-traded partner Mychal Givens. While Baltimore parted with Villar last winter, the O’s held onto Givens.

Last season marked the second consecutive year that Givens’ performance regressed after beginning his career with three successful season in Baltimore. Givens posted all time highs in ERA (4.57), FIP (4.50) and WHIP 1.190.

While Givens began the year as the Orioles closer, somewhat by default, he struggled when pitching in the ninth. Hitters slashed .256/.344/.526 against Givens in the ninth inning compared to .165/.224/.278 in the eighth. His ERA climbed from an impressive 1.93 to a massive 6.69 in the final frame, while his strikeout/walk ratio shrunk from 5.60 to 2.74.

Perhaps he should fall to “setup man by default” in 2020.

With Givens likely out as a full-time closer, it raises the question whether Baltimore will have one at all. Closer may be the sexiest position in the ‘pen, but there’s no rule that says a team must designate one— especially in a shortened season for a team projected to win less than half of its games.

The Orioles could turn to former first-round pick Hunter Harvey to slam the door from time to time. Harvey impressed everyone with seven electric appearances at the end of last summer.

Many anticipated that a 60-game season would negate an innings limit for the former Tommy John patient, but Harvey is already dealing with arm fatigue. Much like Means, all anyone can do is hope for the best. The Orioles have no reason to rush the righty back, but expect to see that legendary long hair late in games once he’s ready to go.

Richard Bleier should also take the ball in some high leverage situations. The 33-year-old appears to be the most talented lefty in the bullpen, and manager Brandon Hyde could play the matchup game in late innings. Bleier kept his ERA below two through his first three years in Baltimore before it ballooned to 5.37 a year ago. Here’s hoping it boils back down.

Remember the days when everyone was calling for Miguel Castro to get a shot at the rotation? His sub-four ERAs in 2017 and 2018 made him an attractive candidate for a team bereft of starting pitching, and he did make one start in each of those two seasons. However, his 4.66 ERA last season quieted any of those calls. Castro falls into the stereotypical bounce back category for 2020.

After that, things get a little boring. Paul Fry and Shawn Armstrong should provide depth and will have an opportunity to cement themselves as permanent fixtures on the roster. There’s the always enticing potential of Tanner Scott, but the fireballer has provided little indication that 2020 will be the year he heightens his control and puts everything together.

Cody Carroll and Dillon Tate were both a part of the package the Yankees sent Baltimore in exchange for Zach(k) Britton. Carroll’s strong fastball and effective slider put him in a position to contend for a roster spot. Tate will not break camp with the team after taking a come backer off the arm nearly two weeks ago.

With Milone taking the ball on opening day, that likely designates Kohl Stewart for long relief duty. Stewart, who was selected number four overall by the Twins in 2013, signed a split contract with Baltimore in the offseason. He could still end up in the rotation if Means takes longer than expected to return.

Stewart has received unexpected competition from former Mexican League hurler César Valdez. The 35-year-old has limited Major League experience, but has obviously been pitching for a long time. He showed up to camp without a roster spot, but has done nothing but impress.

Waiver claim Cole Sulser tossed seven scoreless innings for Tampa Bay before a roster crunch forced him off the 40-man last year. Sulser did not make his Major League debut until age 29, and still has all three options remaining. He’s pitched effectively in the minors, but has never received a true opportunity to establish himself in the bigs.

“What better place than here, what better time than now?”

There’s been a lot of names thrown around here, but that makes sense this season. Teams will begin the year with a 30-man roster, and Brandon Hyde has implied that at least half of those players be pitchers. If Harvey or Means begin the year on the injured list, that’s another two spots up for grabs.

Every single player in that bullpen has something to prove this year. A few could emerge as trade bait, others hope to establish themselves as Major Leaguers, and a couple may just be happy to be there. Regardless, there will be plenty of innings to go around. Even with expanded rosters, do not be surprised to see the Orioles constantly shuffling to give several players a shot. The fun part will be seeing who makes the most of it.