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An early look at the back end of the Orioles bullpen

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In spring, the Orioles indicated they would go with a closer by committee approach. Yet early on, Cesar Valdez is getting all the looks at the end of close games.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox
Cesar Valdez uncorks a pitch against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Regular closers are a luxury the Orioles apparently can’t afford at this point in their rebuild. Which is fine. It’s understandable.

In fact, it’s been that way since Brandon Hyde took on the skipper mantle in 2019, and in his third year as Oriole manager, that doesn’t seem likely to change.

And a handful of names were discussed this spring as potential closer committee members. Those names included Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong, and Cesar Valdez. Unfortunately, an injury knocked Harvey out of the equation, and it looks like it’ll be a while before he returns.

Near the end of March, MLB.com’s Joe Trezza went over the closer situation, and Hyde had this to say:

I’m going to be giving guys opportunity pitch in the back end of our games. We don’t have established closers. We have guys who’ve gotten a taste of it, but nobody with a bunch of saves or [who has] pitched in a ton of high-leverage spots. All of these guys are going to get an opportunity to pitch at the end of games. I will probably go with the hot hand and matchups.

Valdez could have been stretched out in spring training to be a starter. Or long reliever. Then again, maybe he’ll get the chance for some two-innings saves as the season progresses since he proved to be surprisingly durable out of the bullpen in 2020.

Tanner Scott has not gotten a chance to close out a game yet this season and has been used at various points through the first several games instead. Although Scott showed strides in the control department last year, he’s still allowing an average of 5.3 BB/9 for his major league career, which could be stopping him from working the final inning of close games.

Late-inning candidate Shawn Armstrong started the season on the paternity list and missed the three-game series in Boston. He appeared against the Yankees Monday night and was not crisp, allowing a grand slam to Giancarlo Stanton in the fifth inning, although he was only charged with two of those runs after coming on to relieve Jorge Lopez.

In the first half of last year’s 60-game season, O’s manager Brandon Hyde went to Cole Sulser at the end of close ballgames more often than anyone else. Sulser converted two of three save opportunities last July and three of five opportunities in August, but the right-hander didn’t get a single chance to earn a save in September. Sulser finished the 2020 season with a 5.56 ERA and 1.50 WHIP while displaying a shocking lack of control with 18 walks versus 19 strikeouts (1.12 K/BB).

Back to the present season, when the Orioles recently played a pair of close games against the Red Sox in Boston, and the same guy earned the save in both cases: Cesar Valdez. Tanner Scott earned the hold in the season opener on Friday, and Valdez worked around a hit to earn the O’s first save of the year.

The following night, Dillon Tate got hold honors, and Valdez worked around a walk to earn his second save. Valdez struck out one batter in each appearance of those two appearances.

But Valdez hasn’t gotten a save opportunity since, with the Birds winning by an eight-run margin in the series finale in Boston before losing the first two games of the Yankees series by seven and five runs, respectively.

Last night Baltimore was leading New York by a score of 2-1 in the late innings, but wasn’t able to hand that lead off to a closer. In the top of the eighth, Valdez and Armstrong were warming up in the Orioles bullpen. When the bottom half of the inning began, Armstrong was on the mound in the hold situation, which would have seemingly left Valdez to potentially close it out. But that chance didn’t come.

Armstrong allowed the tying run to score after a questionable scorer’s decision that awarded Gary Sanchez a hit when it just as easily could have been an error by left fielder Ryan Mountcastle. Then Valdez was brought in to clean up the eighth inning and wound up pitching 2.1 innings, allowing one run, and earning the win in extra innings.

Valdez is an unconventional choice for closer, based on the fact that his fastball usually hovers in the mid-80s range. But in his first season with the O’s last year, he showed the ability to limit baserunners and hard contact, and the equity he built up has carried over with Hyde into the early going this year. Even though the current situation probably won’t last, and we’ll see a bunch of guys with saves next to their names by season’s end, we’ll see how long Hyde keeps going to Valdez.