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Orioles positional preview: Bullpen

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Hunter Harvey’s injury put a storm cloud over what was looking like an impressive group, but Baltimore’s bullpen should still be solid.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

So, I would love to be writing this preview after an uneventful spring, one that saw the same Orioles bullpen that entered camp be the one that leaves it.

That isn’t the case, however, as Hunter Harvey’s March 12 oblique injury robbed the Orioles for the time being of one of the centerpieces of their relief crew.

Even with Harvey’s absence, though, the bullpen should be solid for the Orioles in the 2021 season, and could be one of the team’s strengths.

All but one spot, as of Monday night, was finalized. Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong, Paul Fry, Wade LeBlanc and Cesar Valdez return from last year. They’ll be joined in the mix by Rule 5 picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, along with Adam Plutko.

Scott, Fry and LeBlanc are lefties. A final opening should go to either Dillon Tate, Cole Sulser or Travis Lakins, all of whom were on the big club last year.

The Orioles’ bullpen will have its work cut out for it this year, as the not-exactly-rock-solid rotation leads one to think that manager Brandon Hyde will be picking up the phone early and often this season. As such, Hyde will be needing pitchers to come in at all situations of the game, rather than just be counted on to nail down a victory the starters have spent six innings setting up.

Fortunately for Hyde, he’s got some talent in the group. Leading the way is Scott, who for a while languished in the organization while waiting for his talent to all come together. Last season, it did, and the 26-year-old used his hard fastball and knee-buckling slider to compile a 1.31 ERA while striking out 23 in 20.2 innings and allowing batters to hit only .164 off of him. Whether the Orioles use him in a setup or closing role, he represents a shutdown option — provided his control, which saw him walk more than two fewer batters per nine innings last year, remains in check.

Hyde also has a fine middle relief option in Fry, who struck out 29 in 22 innings in 2020 and finished with a 2.75 ERA. Even as a lefty, Fry has shown himself to be just as effective against righties, permitting a .227 average last season against a .273 average against lefties. He pitched 12.2 of his 22 innings last season in the sixth and seventh innings but showed a knack for pitching under pressure, allowing only a .200 average and .473 OPS in situations deemed high leverage by Baseball Reference. He’s a trusted choice for Hyde in a variety of situations, and a good example of the versatility he’ll be looking for.

If Scott and Fry are the surest bets, there are others who are encouraging options, if not locks for success. Armstrong will be in the later-inning fold with Scott and was terrific last year with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings, but he also pitched to a 5.13 ERA the year before. He relied more on a cutter last season, throwing it on 46.3 percent of pitches versus 27.8 in 2019, and his fastball rate went from 59.7 to 42.7. If leaning on a pitch with more movement is the simple reason his numbers improved, then he could be in store for another bright season.

Valdez was a headline story in 2020, popping back up in the majors for the first time in three years and compiling a 1.26 ERA in nine appearances and 14.1 innings. He saved all three of his chances and could retain the closer role, but at 36 and with a fastball that averaged 85.7 miles an hour, he’s far from a guarantee. A 1.29 ERA in seven spring innings, however, eases the mind a bit.

LeBlanc, whose rocky season last year ended with an 8.06 ERA, may very well see his role shift as the season progresses. He’s in the bullpen for now, but he started all six appearances last season, and could be either a long reliever, spot starter, or first man up if any of the rotation picks flame out early. He had a 2.25 ERA in eight spring innings, though, so he’ll go into the season with a bit of momentum.

Then there are the new guys. Plutko, acquired two days ago, is another of those could-start, could-relieve pitchers that fits right into Hyde’s style of versatility. He had a 4.88 ERA in 10 appearances last year, four of which were starts. Sceroler comes from the Reds’ farm system, where he started 47 of his 56 appearances over three seasons but hasn’t appeared above high-A ball. And Wells, from the Twins’ system, has started in all but four of his 50 minor-league appearances, and had a 1.65 ERA in 32.2 innings at Double-A, the highest level he’s reached.

The team will get a boost from the eventual return of Harvey, provided he doesn’t hurt something putting his uniform back on, and he looks something like the 2019 flamethrower who struck out 11 in 6.1 innings. If Harvey returns to form, the Orioles get a pretty strong endgame with Harvey, Scott, Armstrong, Fry and Dillon Tate all in the mix.

Oh right, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself with Tate. If the final opening in the bullpen goes according to merit, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting it ahead of the 26-year-old, who was the fourth overall pick in 2015 and who saw his ERA fall from 6.43 to 3.24 last year while frustrating batters to the tune of a 0.84 WHIP and .158 batting average against. With stats like that, it’s hard to imagine Tate being left out of any bullpen scenario.

His BABIP of .190 and 9.00 spring ERA, however, could have the O’s worried, and with Tate having options left, Baltimore could be taking advantage of that luxury to give Tate a chance to smooth out whatever season-opening troubles he’s having. If so, Sulser, who started strong as the closer but faded last season to the tune of a 5.56 ERA, or Lakins, who had a 2.81 ERA in 22 appearances last season, will be the picks.