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Orioles positional preview: Bullpen

After being a major strength for the O’s in 2022, the bullpen faces some setbacks heading into the ‘23 season. When you have Félix Bautista, though, how bad can it really get?

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Philadelphia Phillies Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2023 offseason, there were a lot of areas where the Orioles could stand to improve. Starting pitching continued to be a thorn in the O’s wings, the lineup needed more left-handed options and the front office would look to replace underproducing veterans at second base and backup catcher.

However, one area where Birdland surely felt the Orioles were set was relief pitching. After all, the O’s relief corps was coming off a season where they finished ninth in all of baseball with a bullpen ERA of 3.49. Breakout seasons from Félix Bautista, Dillon Tate and Cionel Pérez invoked fond memories of the days of Darren O’Day, Brad Brach and Zack Britton closing out games in Baltimore.

There was even hope that the 2023 bullpen could be even better. With the additions of Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin to the rotation, key contributors from last season’s rotation could move into bullpen roles in ‘23. Everything was lined up for the bullpen to be a strength the Orioles could once again lean on.

Yet, in perhaps the first speed bump to the Orioles’ success this season, spring training brought some unwelcome news for the pen. Between some pitches picking up injuries and others underperforming in Sarasota, there is now more of a cloud hanging over this Orioles bullpen than before. Still, this coaching staff worked wonders with largely unknown relievers last year. There’s no reason to think they can’t do the same with a more established group this season.

The long relievers: Keegan Akin and Austin Voth

Akin returns in a role that saw him thrive in 2022. The most used reliever by innings pitched last season, the southpaw has become the preeminent multi-inning weapon for Brandon Hyde. While he doesn’t have the truly overpowering stuff possessed by some members of the Orioles pen, Akin’s fastball/slider/changeup mix showed the ability to consistently get batters from both sides of the plate out (though he’s still better vs. lefties). After posting a 1.13 ERA and 0.88 WHIP this spring, the 27-year-old is ready to pick up where he left off last season.

Voth will take on a new role this season after shining as an opener/starter throughout 2023. The veteran right took off after coming over from the Nationals, shifting his pitch mix to incorporate more cutters and curveballs. However, after a rough spring that saw him post a 6.75 ERA across four appearances, Voth will hope that he can rediscover his form once the real games begin. Otherwise, with an established long option in Akin, Voth’s long-term option on the major league roster may be in jeopardy.

The bridge guys: Joey Krehbiel, Bryan Baker and Logan Gillaspie

Krehbiel and Baker look set to return as the pitchers Brandon Hyde is liable to put in the game at any time. After Jorge Lopez was traded to the Twins, Baker largely assumed the role of the fourth-best option in the Orioles’ pen. He especially dazzled in the second half, posting a 2.70 ERA over 30 appearances while striking out better than a batter per inning. Baker features a more contemporary reliever arsenal, with a fastball that sits comfortably at 96 but can reach up and touch triple digits. Unlike most relievers, though, his out pitch comes in the form of his changeup as Baker’s offspeed offering generated a 52% K-rate last season.

Krehbiel was certainly less effective than Baker last year, but still posted a respectable 3.90 ERA over 57.2 innings. Another fastball-changeup guy, Krehbiel features slightly less velocity than Baker, but also offers a four-pitch mix with a cutter and slider. This spring, both Krehbiel and Baker struggled, with a combined ERA over 9.00 in 16 innings of work. With a couple of established righties on the IL to start the season, Baker and Krehbiel will have to show more of their 2022 selves if they want to keep their spot(s) in the pen.

Gillaspie comes in with a much smaller track record after throwing only 17.1 innings in his first major league season last year. However, after posting a 0.00 ERA across seven spring innings, to go along with 10 Ks, he’ll look to take advantage of the injuries and Baker/Krehbiel’s struggles to carve out a bigger role in this season’s pen.

The lefty: Danny Coulombe

If you’re not familiar with Coulombe, don’t feel too bad. The Orioles just acquired the lefty from the Twins two days ago. Your typical soft-throwing lefty reliever, with good breaking pitches, Coulombe should offer the O’s more than just a lefty specialist. Throughout his eight-year big league career, righties have hit only ten points higher than lefties off of Coulombe. A hip injury limited the lefty to only 12.1 innings in 2022, but that small sample size showed plenty of promise. If Coulombe can replicate his 1.46 ERA and .163 BAA across more innings, he’ll prove to be a shrewd acquisition for the O’s.

The setup man: Cionel Pérez

Normally this role would be a two-man gig along with Dillon Tate. However, the veteran righty is set to miss at least the first month of the season as he rehabs an elbow injury that forced him to miss the entire spring. So, at least to begin the season, it looks like Pérez will be the lone bridge separating opposing lineups from facing the Mountain. The electric lefty from Cuba should be more than up to the task. With an overpowering fastball that he combines with one of the sharpest breaking sliders in baseball, Pérez kept lefties and righties equally off balance in 2022. Opponents combined for a measly .220 average and .278 slugging percentage against Pérez last season, as he only allowed eight extra-base hits all year. With a dominant 1.13 ERA and 11 Ks over eight innings this spring, Pérez looks very much ready for Opening Day.

The Mountain: Félix Bautista

Simply referring to Bautista as “the Orioles’ closer” seems like a disservice to what he represents to this team and this fanbase. While perhaps not (yet) possessing the seemingly infallible nature of a Mariano Rivera or 2016 Zach Britton, Bautista is more fun than either. With his signature, Wire-inspired entrance and 6’8”/285 lbs. frame, the flame thrower from the Dominican Republic makes hitters uneasy before he even toes the rubber. Then, he rockets a 102-mph fastball into the strike zone before following it up with one of the most devastating splitters in baseball.

After starting his spring training late due to a minor injury, Bautista impressed more than any other reliever. In 4.2 innings, he racked up 10 K’s while allowing no runs and only one hit. If the Mountain can continue to operate at those heights in the regular season, he’d elevate himself into the Emmanuel Clase category as one of the very best relievers in the American League.

The potential reinforcements

Joining Tate on the IL to begin the season is former and now current Oriole, Mychal Givens. Givens returns to the O’s after being traded from Baltimore to Colorado in 2020, with stops in Cincinnati, the north side of Chicago and Queens along the way. While limited to only four innings in the spring, Givens showed signs of being a strong back-end bullpen option. Those flashes in the spring and his veteran status mean he (along with Tate) will likely push someone like Baker, Krehbiel or Gillaspie to the minors once he’s healthy. Speaking of the minors, DL Hall was optioned to Norfolk with the intention of stretching him back out as a starter. However, I wouldn’t bet against the O’s bringing him back up to Baltimore in a bullpen role after he had moments of success in the role last season.