On September 1, the Orioles had a problem.
Over the previous two days, the O’s had dismantled a major chunk of the bullpen, dealing former closer Mychal Givens to the Rockies and emerging setup man Miguel Castro to the Mets after previously trading Richard Bleier to Miami on Aug. 1.
The trades themselves weren’t the problem, of course. Dealing live-armed but inessential veteran relievers for prospects is a perfectly understandable move for a rebuilding club like the Birds, all part of Mike Elias’ long-term vision for bolstering the talent level throughout the organization.
Still, the Orioles had a month of baseball left to play, and they essentially needed to reconstruct the back of their bullpen on the fly. And so manager Brandon Hyde got to work, spending the rest of the season auditioning in-house righties to secure high-leverage outs in the late innings.
Along the way, he may have discovered some key cogs for the next successful Orioles bullpen.
Perhaps no pitcher put himself more firmly on the map than Dillon Tate, the 26-year-old rookie acquired in the 2018 Zack Britton trade with the Yankees.
Tate first arrived in the majors in 2019, shortly after the right-hander, who’d been almost exclusively a starter in the minors, shifted into a relief role at Double-A Bowie. The conversion paid immediate dividends; after moving to the bullpen, Tate posted a 1.71 ERA in his first 15 appearances, earning a promotion to the bigs last July 26.
The majors, of course, are a different beast than the minor leagues, and Tate struggled in his first taste. Tate made 16 appearances for the Orioles, mostly in mop-up duty, and was torched for 15 earned runs in 21 innings (6.43 ERA). He struck out a decent number of hitters — averaging 8.6 Ks per nine — but his fastball, more often than not, was flat and hittable. He allowed 7.7 hits per nine and carried a 1.286 WHIP.
Based on those numbers, Tate might have been a long shot to break 2020 camp with the Orioles, but he wasn’t healthy anyway; he suffered a right elbow contusion during summer camp and began the year on the injured list. He didn’t debut with the Birds this year until Aug. 17, giving up two runs against the Blue Jays. It looked like Tate might in for another up-and-down season with the Orioles.
But over his next few outings, it was clear that Tate was a different pitcher than the 2019 version. He mixed four pitches — sinker, slider, four-seam fastball, and changeup — at an almost equal distribution; according to FanGraphs, he threw them 35, 26, 23, and 16 percent of the time, respectively. Turns out, a pitcher can have success when hitters don’t know what’s coming. His fastball velocity also ticked up a couple miles per hour, which always helps.
Tate’s ability to chew up multiple innings also boosted his case. On Aug. 31, just after Givens and Castro’s departures created a late-inning opening, Tate entered a tie game in the seventh inning and held the Blue Jays scoreless to the end of the ninth. The Birds eventually won, 4-3, in extras. Tate continued to get high-leverage work for the rest of the season, finishing with a 3.24 ERA in 12 games while slashing his WHIP to 0.840.
Around the same time as Tate’s emergence, another rookie right-hander returned to the bullpen: Hunter Harvey, the mulleted, flame-throwing 25-year-old. The Orioles’ first-round pick in 2013 whose minor league career was ravaged by injuries, Harvey, like Tate, shifted from starting to relief in 2019, taking to it like a duck to water. He was an instant sensation when he arrived in the majors in September of that year, striking out 11 batters in seven innings and posting a 1.42 ERA. He was expected to play a major role in the Orioles’ bullpen right out the gate in 2020, perhaps even as the closer.
But as has been the case throughout Harvey’s embattled career, injuries stymied his plans. He began feeling arm discomfort in camp and was shut down, landing on the IL with a right forearm strain. He came off the injured list on Aug. 30, the day Givens was traded. Harvey remained healthy and on the active roster for the remainder of the year, though Hyde treated him carefully by avoiding pitching him on back-to-back days at first.
Harvey didn’t quite recapture that dominant 2019 magic, however. In 10 outings, his ERA was just 4.15, and he struck out only six batters in 8.2 innings. It’s such a small sample size, though, that it’s hard to read too much into his performance. Harvey can still pump the fastball in there — averaging 97.6 mph on the pitch this year — and can complement it with a curve and changeup, though he didn’t flash the latter as much this year, just 8.3 percent. Overall, he showed more good than bad; Harvey was scored upon in only two of his eight outings, if you don’t include an extra-inning game where he faced one batter, retired him, and still got saddled with the loss thanks to the free-baserunner-on-second-base rule. He figures to be a mainstay in next year’s bullpen, if — and it’s a big if — he stays healthy.
It’ll be interesting to see if that bullpen also has room for Shawn Armstrong, who’s been a regular presence in the relief corps since the O’s claimed him on waivers from the Mariners in April 2019. His first year was erratic — he finished with a 5.13 ERA in 51 games — but Armstrong took a step forward this year, pitching to a 1.80 ERA in 14 games, with a tidy and aesthetically pleasing 0.800 WHIP. Armstrong benefitted this season from focusing more on his breaking pitches and less on his fastball; his slider usage increased from 28.7 percent in 2019 to 46 percent this year, while he threw his heater 43 percent, down from last year’s 58.7.
Armstrong’s only problem this year was his timing. Just as the departures of Givens and Castro opened up opportunities for late-inning auditions, Armstrong was stuck on the IL with left SI joint inflammation. He didn’t return until the Orioles’ final road trip, making three appearances before the season ended. Armstrong is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, in line to get a boost from his $559,100 salary. His performance probably warrants the O’s tendering him a contract this winter, but if the O’s are looking to cut costs, a 30-year-old reliever might be one of the first places they start slashing.
Speaking of relievers with an uncertain future in Baltimore, 26-year-old Evan Phillips could be running out of chances to stick with the club. The Maryland native, acquired from the Braves in the Kevin Gausman trade in 2018, was a frequent passenger on the Bowie-to-Baltimore shuttle this year; the O’s called him up and sent him down six times.
With the Orioles, Phillips showed the same inconsistency as last year. The good news: he racked up strikeouts as much as ever, whiffing 20 batters in 14.1 innings, showing pure dominance at times. But control problems plagued him as much as ever, too. He walked 10 batters and plunked three in those 14.1 innings, giving opponents plenty of extra baserunners. Phillips finished this year with a 5.02 ERA and 1.674 WHIP in 14 games.
Phillips did rattle off a nice stretch of nine straight scoreless outings before a disastrous Sept. 22 appearance in Boston in which he allowed four baserunners, three runs, and didn’t record an out. The Orioles like his stuff, but how long will they wait for him to try to harness his control? With the club needing to clear space on the 40-man roster this offseason to protect minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft, Phillips could unfortunately be on the Orioles’ chopping block.
Between Tate, Harvey, Armstrong, Phillips, and a slew of other relievers who we’ll be writing about in the upcoming weeks, the Orioles could have the makings of a solid bullpen next year and years to come. Perhaps some will be part of the next contending O’s club — or perhaps they’ll be the next Givens or Castro, boosting their value enough that they can be dealt for prospects.