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Jorge López may be done starting, but his relief days are just beginning

The Orioles needed the right-hander to fill a role for most of the year that probably did not make the best use of his skills.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

While there were plenty of reasons to criticize the 2021 Orioles, perhaps the most obvious flaw of this team was that they handed far too many innings to pitchers that proved, time and time again, that they were not up to the challenge. However, it’s not fair to write off those struggling pitchers altogether. It’s possible they were simply thrust into the wrong role. That certainly seemed to be the case for Jorge López.

This was López’s second season in Baltimore. He appeared in 10 games for the O’s during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season after being claimed off waivers from the Royals that August. Prior to that, he was part of the trade that sent Mike Moustakas from Kansas City to Milwaukee in 2018.

Big league offenses have proved difficult to navigate for López, now 28 years old. Over 350 career innings, thrown mostly in a starter’s role, the righty owns a 6.04 ERA. That is almost a perfect reflection of how things went for him in 2021 with the Orioles, when he tossed 121.2 innings and produced a 6.07 ERA, although that is a tad inflated considering his .340 BABIP and 5.44 xERA.

But no matter how much you slice and dice the numbers, they were not good enough to be a major league starting pitcher in the traditional sense. That is to say that López has accumulated enough innings to show that he cannot successfully face a lineup multiple times in a single game.

As is the case for most pitchers, López’s numbers get worse the more he sees a batter within a game. Strikeouts dip, home runs skyrocket, and the Orioles’ chances of winning typically deteriorate. His OPS against goes from .759 to .911 to 1.079 when he goes from seeing a lineup once, twice, and a third time. It became commonplace for López to look competitive through the first three or four innings of a start only to fall apart in the fifth. And for a soon-to-be 29-year-old with no minor league options left, that could be mighty problematic. Fortunately, there are other roles on a major league pitching staff beyond “starter,” and it’s not as if the Orioles’ bullpen is impossible to crack.

López was moved from the rotation to the bullpen in late August, and he was able to make eight appearances before the end of the year. And guess what? He looked pretty good, allowing two runs (both on solo home runs) while striking out 10 and walking two over 8.1 innings.

Perhaps his best outing as a reliever came on August 26 against the Angels. His fastball averaged 96.9 mph—that was 1.5 mph higher than his season average—and it maxed out at 98.2. Over two innings that day, López struck out four and walked one as part of a 13-1 O’s win.

The early signs were promising, and the Orioles were likely hoping to get an even bigger sample size of López as a reliever. Unfortunately, he had to leave his appearance on September 6 with an ankle injury suffered while covering first base. It was revealed afterward that he had suffered a “significant” sprain to his right ankle, according to manager Brandon Hyde. Due to the timing of the injury so close to the end of the season, that earned the pitcher a spot on the 60-day IL to conclude the year.

López’s future with the Orioles is very much up in the air this winter. He is arbitration-eligible for the first time and is due for a raise somewhere in the area of $1.5 million. As things stand, it could go either way.

It’s not as if $1.5 million is a massive salary for a major league pitcher, especially if the Orioles think he could be a viable member of the bullpen all year long. Add in that he has the ability to start in a pinch, and it’s safe to say that López will more than earn that money. Plus, the team could always offer him a contract, take a look at him in the spring, and then cut him if they don’t see room on the roster, similar to how they handled infielder Yolmer Sanchez last spring.

Considering that the Orioles are still in the part of the rebuild where they are simply looking to cobble together enough innings to survive an entire season rather than compete for a playoff spot, López would seem to be a perfect inclusion. And he provides more upside than many other players that would likely take his spot in the spring.

López was one of the more interesting players to take on a significant role with the Orioles this year. He possesses electric stuff and has the ability to dominate, as he did against the Yankees in early August. If the O’s find the right role for him, he could be a standout in 2022.

Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser, Bruce Zimmermann, Austin Hays, Severino/Wynns, Dillon Tate, Keegan Akin

Tomorrow: Ryan Mountcastle