When the MLB lockout delayed spring training this year, pitching staffs across the league were bound to be playing catch up at the start of the regular season. That means starters on pitch counts and innings limits. That, in turn, leads to plentiful use of the bullpen. The Orioles are no exception.
When you consider how thin Baltimore’s starting pitching is in terms of talent and experience, the relief corps takes on even more importance. Long relief in particular.
In the early going this season, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has shown a willingness to deploy his relievers for multiple inning stints. That’s a good thing, because there will be a lot of innings to go around for sure. In years past, the O’s have started out with a decent bullpen, only to find their relievers’ performance tail off due to overuse as the season wears on. It’s a balancing act of knowing when to send out certain relievers, and when to hold them back.
Case in point: Adam Plutko, circa 2021. He came out of the gate strong last year, pitching to a 1.20 ERA through his first 10 appearances. But when the dust settled and the season was over, the right-hander was left with a 6.71 ERA, and an even higher FIP. Plutko isn’t even in the organization anymore; he’s playing for the LG Twins of the Korean Baseball League.
As most know, relievers tend to be volatile from year to year, with the ability to break out one season and then drop back into obscurity just as quickly. And for a team like Baltimore – which is still only inching toward competitiveness – there’s some extra leeway when it comes to interchangeable parts like relievers.
The O’s appear content to use the bullpen this year as a proving ground for several of their young arms. Inexperienced pitchers who couldn’t crack the starting rotation out of spring training – like Keegan Akin and Michael Baumann – are now slipped into relief roles with the chance to prove themselves and potentially earn a promotion to starter. The club can now also take a chance on young guys like Felix Bautista, a Dan Duquette era acquisition, and Cionel Perez, a waiver wire pickup from last November, to name a few.
Many people were up in arms recently when Mike Elias shipped Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser to the Marlins right before the regular season began. But the Orioles weren’t a couple relievers away from contention when they sent those two off to Miami. Plus, there’s plenty of pitchers that can slide right into those roles, and they will probably make us forget about Scott and Sulser pretty quickly.
Jorge Lopez looks poised for a high-leverage late inning role; possibly as the closer. Hyde may choose to mix and match at the end of games, but Lopez should get first dibs. He looks confident on the mound, and there’s a noticeable increase in his velocity too. Although Lopez’s first two appearances were scoreless, last night he allowed two runs to the Brewers in the ninth and took the loss. He’s going to need more time to try and settle in.
Former Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells looked dynamic in Sarasota this spring, racking up 14 strikeouts in 11.1 innings, along with an ERA under two, as the Orioles attempted to stretch him out into a starter. It’s still a work in progress, though, so the team entered the season with Wells as an opener of sorts. He struggled against the Rays this past Sunday in his first start, allowing three hits, four runs, and two walks in 1.2 innings. He’ll have to do better than that next time he hands the ball off to a bulk reliever.
Speaking of which, Keegan Akin has filled a valuable role in the first week of the season, giving the O’s length out of the bullpen. On Saturday, starter Jordan Lyles gave up five runs in five innings, and Akin pitched three scoreless frames in relief to finish that game. Two nights ago, Akin threw 2.2 scoreless relief innings behind starter Spenser Watkins, who exited after the third.
Another arm that offers some length is Michael Baumann, whose velocity is up from last year. He earned a victory in his lone appearance so far, pitching 2.1 scoreless innings in relief while touching the high-90s on the radar gun. Like Akin, Baumann is another young arm that can easily slot into the rotation at some point this season.
Not to mention, with staff ace John Means succumbing to a left forearm injury last night, one of the aforementioned relievers could get their shot in the rotation as a result.
We’re only six games into the 2021 season, but so far, the Orioles’ arms seem to be a little bit ahead of the bats. That hasn’t made a difference with their record, as the club stands at 1-5 at the start of play today. But once the offense picks up, the bullpen will have to keep pulling its weight if the O’s plan to avoid another 100 loss season.