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Orioles bullpen enters season with more depth and talent than a season ago

The Baltimore relievers were the backbone of the team’s resurgence last season. An offseason of tweaks has improved the unit’s depth without sacrificing roster flexibility.

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

No one, aside from perhaps a few folks in the Camden Yards warehouse, expected much from the Orioles’ bullpen last season. After all, it was a collection of recently-failed starters and inexperienced, seemingly raw, minor league journeymen. Even for a position as volatile as “major league reliever,” this seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

Instead, it turned into one of the better groups in the league, a unit that manager Brandon Hyde could lean on when his starter was about to turn an opposing lineup over for the second time. It even withstood a midseason trade of closer Jorge López, and in his place rose rookie Félix Bautista, now one of the game’s most feared ninth-inning options.

All of the key arms from 2022—apart from López—are back in Baltimore for 2023. This level of continuity from year-to-year is rare, and it should have the Orioles feeling rather rosy about the group’s outlook. But the offseason moves by GM Mike Elias feel like someone hedging their bets on a repeat.

Mychal Givens is back with the organization that drafted him. Provided he makes it through the spring without an injury, he’s set to take on a middle-inning role to open the season. But his experience closing games could be an asset should the need arise.

Andrew Politi is a new face on the 40-man roster. No one is guaranteeing a spot for the Rule 5 pick just yet, but through three appearances this spring he has been quite good (3.0 innings, no runs, two hits, five strikeouts, no walks). Nathan Ruiz from The Baltimore Sun noted this week that the Orioles are “fascinated” with Politi’s stuff.

And while newbies Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin are not part of the bullpen competition, their presence has impacted it. The rotation has quickly become crowded, and it could push Tyler Wells and Austin Voth from starting last season to relieving this year. DL Hall may also be impacted as he now seems like more of a longshot for the big league rotation, and could therefore factor into the ‘pen set-up.

Meanwhile, some of the holdovers from last season have struggled a bit this spring. Joey Krehbiel has allowed eight runs over 1.2 innings. Bryan Baker got lit up in his first outing (1.0 IP, three runs) before bouncing back in his second, although walks have been an issue in both. Cionel Pérez is yet to give up a run but has allowed four base runners in only two innings of work.

Obviously, these are extremely small sample sizes we are working with, and there is no reason to draw conclusions from them, especially when we have an entire season’s worth of date from last summer. But that too can paint a grim picture for some.

Krehbiel struck out just 7.02 per nine innings last year, and his 4.67 FIP was far larger than his 3.90 ERA. Even though he stuck in the big leagues all year in 2022, the 30-year-old likely entered camp on the bubble for the Opening Day roster.

Pérez is far more secure in his spot, but many expect him to experience setbacks this season as well. A season ago, he was fortunate to have only a 4.3% home-run-to-fly-ball rate, and his 87.4% left-on-base rate was by far the best on the team. That could land him closer to his 3.62 xERA rather than his 1.40 actual ERA.

The team’s toughest bullpen decisions, however, will likely be what to do with Voth and Politi when spring wraps up. They are unique because they are both on the bubble and without the ability to be optioned; Voth because he is out of minor league options and Politi because he is a Rule 5 pick that cannot be optioned without being offered back to his former club. Givens and Pérez also cannot be optioned, but their spots on the roster seem quite safe to begin the year.

Everyone else is flexible. Krehbiel may not make the Opening Day roster, but his two options and recent big league success should keep him in the organization. The same goes for Keegan Akin and his one remaining option. Other fringe candidates with options are Mike Baumann (one option) Nick Vespi (two), Logan Gillaspie (two), Yennier Cano (two), and Noah Denoyer (three).

That ability to promote and option dependable arms is an asset that could prove worthwhile right out of the gate. Unfortunately, the Orioles are expected to open the season with injuries. Dillon Tate will be out for another month or so with a forearm injury, Bautista is still rehabbing the knee injury from last season, Hall has been slowed by back discomfort, and Vespi is nursing a hernia repair from January. Some of them expect to be ready by Opening Day, but with just weeks left to prepare that cannot be assumed.

FanGraphs currently projects the eight-man bullpen to be Bautista, Pérez, Baker, Givens, Akin, Wells, Politi, and Voth with Tate and Vespi on the IL. That sounds formidable, but so would a few other variations that included Baumann or Gillaspie. Not to mention the possibility that an electric arm like Hall could also be in the mix.

It’s a remarkably deep group that may see some individual performances dip from a season ago but the improved depth and overall talent should be enough to adequately follow-up the unit’s breakout performance last summer.