The Orioles 2020 bullpen was a patchwork unit that was effective despite its faults. The group never truly found its closer. Three of its more experienced arms were traded away during the season. And arguably the most promising talent of the bunch landed on the injured list (again), tossing just 8.2 innings total. The relief corps should be more settled entering 2021, but roles remain up in the air.
Most major league bullpens are built around a closer, established or not. The Orioles don’t exactly have one of those, and it’s unclear if they ever will.
A season ago, 30-year-old rookie Cole Sulser opened the summer as Brandon Hyde’s ninth-inning option. But after blowing three saves in the span of a month he was moved to low-leverage appearances for the remainder of the season.
Cesar Valdez became Hyde’s preferred option for save chances down the stretch. The 35-year-old was back in the big leagues for the first time since 2017, and he was not going to waste the opportunity. Valdez recorded three saves in September and pitched to a 1.26 ERA overall. If there was a “clubhouse leader” for the closer’s role entering 2021 it would be Valdez and his mid-80s fastball.
Of course, we cannot forget about the man that was the assumed closer-in-waiting just a couple of years ago. Hunter Harvey is as talented as they come, but he continues to battle his health. Once again, an arm injury caused him to miss time. He returned for the final month of last season, but did so with reduced velocity and struggled to miss bats. As long as he is fit he will be a crucial member of the bullpen, but whether or not he gets the chance to save games will depend upon his performance.
And we would be remiss not to mention Tanner Scott here. The flame-throwing lefty was simply one of the best relievers in baseball last year. Over 25 appearances he tossed 20.2 innings, struck out 23 batters and had a 1.31 ERA and 351 ERA+. He cut down on his walks, kept home runs to a minimum, and induced weak contact. In short: he was the ace of the Orioles bullpen.
It’s also entirely possible that Hyde and general manager Mike Elias zig when we expect them to zag. Sulser was the surprise closer in 2020 while more established arms like Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier were still on the roster. Another mid-season sale on relievers seems less likely this year, but the chances that Hyde turns to someone like Dillon Tate or Travis Lakins Sr. with regularity instead of the names listed above is non-zero.
What would be interesting is if the Orioles deployed a true closer-by-committee approach, allowing the game situation to dictate the closer rather then pre-determined roles. Someone like Scott or Valdez could be the best choice in a one-run game with the heart of the lineup due up, whereas it may make more sense to turn to Sulser with a three-run advantage and the 7-8-9 hitters coming to the plate.
The more you analyze the possibilities, the more apparent it becomes that the Orioles have built a rather deep relief unit. The number of legitimate closing options that the team has is impressive on its own. Add to that the presence of formidable middle-inning pitchers like Tate, Paul Fry, and Shawn Armstrong and it’s easy to see the O’s finishing the 2021 season with one of the ten best bullpens in baseball. And that’s before we even really know how the two Rule 5 picks and the plethora of young pitchers fit into the mix.
While it’s always beneficial to have a bullpen that is more than three or four quality pitchers deep, the 2021 Orioles may need to count on their relievers more than any other team in baseball. As it stands, there are three definite members of the team’s rotation: Two rookies and a former All-Star with one full year’s worth of big league experience. There isn’t going to be a 200-inning workhorse walking through the doors at Camden Yards. Instead, we will all be crossing our fingers that the likes of Wade LeBlanc, Felix Hernandez, and any other over-the-hill veteran can provide some much needed protection.
My expectation is that Hyde and Elias prefer to have a defined closer. It makes things simpler and allows the players to better prepare, both mentally and physically, for when they might enter the game. If that is the case, it makes sense that Valdez would begin the season as the closer and be given every chance to keep that job for the duration of the summer. Should he falter, a healthy Harvey is the most logical replacement given his ability to blow a pitch past any hitter in the game, a crucial trait of any bona fide ninth-inning man.