Note: On 4/3/22, the Orioles traded Cole Sulser to the Marlins. He is no longer on the Orioles 40-man roster.
Cole Sulser entered 2021 as a fringe bullpen piece looking to rebound from a disappointing COVID-shortened season. This year, he will report to Sarasota as one of the Orioles’ most important relievers.
Brandon Hyde surprised just about everyone when he tabbed Sulser as the closer to kick off the 2020 season. Hyde praised Sulser’s ability to throw strikes and utilize his fastball up in the zone. Unfortunately, after a brief period of success, Sulser stopped throwing strikes.
Sulser walked 17 batters in just 22.1 innings during the abridged season. He eventually forfeited the closer role to César Valdez and finished the season with a 5.56 ERA and 1.500 WHIP.
Sulser revealed in the offseason that he had fractured his toe earlier in the year. The injury likely impacted his ability to pitch, but it still seemed fair to wonder if the moment was simply too big for the rookie.
Cleveland drafted Sulser in the 25th round of the 2013 draft. The righty hung around in the minors before the club shipped him to Tampa in a deal for Jake Bauers. Finally, the Rays gave Sulser a shot with seven low-leverage appearances in 2019. Sulser did not allow an earned run in 7.1 innings.
The Orioles claimed Sulser on waivers prior to the 2020 season. Sulser eventually justified the move with a bounce-back performance last year.
So, what changed? Sulser regained his reputation as a pitcher that pounds the zone. His walk rate dropped by nearly 50 percent and his numbers improved in almost every category. Sulser’s ERA decreased to 2.70 and his WHIP shrunk to 1.121. His FIP dropped to 2.98 and the strikeout rate climbed to 10.9/9IP. Sulser’s season walk total increased by just six despite the fact that he pitched 40.1 more innings in 2021.
Baltimore used Sulser in low-leverage situations early last season, but the righty worked his way back to late-inning relief. Sulser paired his high fastball with an impressive splitter that tamed batters on both sides of the plate. He completed eight of 11 save opportunities and added three holds to his record.
Cleveland drafted Sulser out of Dartmouth where he earned not one but two engineering degrees. Sulser has spoke in the past on his appreciation for advanced data tracking systems and how technology has helped his career. He appears to be a perfect fit for the advanced analytical approach the Orioles are taking with their arms.
End of season prediction: Sulser may be early into his big league career, but the righty will turn 32 next week. Still, he will not be arbitration eligible until 2023 and will not reach free agency until after the 2025 season.
His low price tag and team control make him an attractive trade candidate if he continues to be successful, but he could prove more valuable to Baltimore than anyone else. Sulser, a two time Tommy-Johner approaching his mid-30s, does not fit the mold of a guy that fetches top prospects in a deal. The Orioles are short on quality relievers, and Sulser could provide a boost to a Baltimore club looking to turn the corner over the next few years.
Of course, this all hinges on Sulser’s continued success. The walk rate needs to stay down, and Sulser must minimize the hard contact that stems from fastballs in the lower part of the zone. I expect Sulser’s name to pop up around the trade deadline, but anticipate Mike Elias being underwhelmed by the offers. Sulser finishes 2022 in the Orioles’ bullpen.
Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells
Tomorrow: Jorge Mateo