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The Orioles’ bullpen is still really good, but it needs help

Outside of closer Félix Bautista cracks have started to show in a group that has guided the O’s to their terrific first half.

Baltimore Orioles v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

As the weather heats up and the playoff chase intensifies teams are going to double down on what works for them. For the Orioles, that is often a starter that gets through an opposing lineup twice, hopefully takes care of five innings in the process, and then hands it off to an intimidating line of relievers the rest of the way.

One of the key factors in the Orioles’ success this season has been their dominant bullpen. The combination of a heavy innings load plus positive on-field performance makes for a worthy case as the game’s best relief group. FanGraphs’ WAR metric agrees, valuing the O’s relievers at 4.1 fWAR, tops in MLB.

But there are issues, which have started to pop up in June. The 3.72 ERA they have posted this month is 14th in MLB, and their 4.29 xFIP is 17th. Those aren’t catastrophic numbers in a vacuum, but they could become a problem if the front office fails to bring in (or develop) the sort of high end starter the team needs, and instead they have to lean on their relievers even more.

What’s worse, those numbers are far friendly to the overall group than they deserve to be. And that’s because Félix Bautista has been so darn good in June. Over 6.1 innings the Orioles’ closer is yet to allow a run, has given up just two hits, walked no one, and has amassed 13 strikeouts. All of that together accounts for 0.7 fWAR. The entire bullpen has been worth 0.8 fWAR in June.

Keegan Akin deserves a shoutout for a nice month as well. The lefty has nine strikeouts over 5.2 innings and a pristine ERA. But that is the end of the relative good news.

Yennier Cano isn’t missing as many bats as he did many weeks ago. Walks have been an issue for everyone not name Bautista or Akin. Cionel Pérez is constantly on the verge of being DFA’ed. Austin Voth is hurt. It’s not great!

What happens to these various pitchers from this point forward is anyone’s guess. Outside of Danny Coulombe, this current set up is not a group full of long, successful track records in the big leagues. It’s entirely possible they all bounce back. Cano was making big league hitters look foolish just last month. Baker has had moments where he pitches like a reliable late-inning arm. Mike Baumann has an ideal relief skillset. It might all work out, folks.

But the opposite outcome is also a possibility. Relievers are a volatile bunch my nature. They seem to get shuffled more than any other group on a big league roster, and sometimes it’s all about who’s hot at the time. The moment they go cold it could be time to move on.

Perhaps there are some internal solutions around the corner. Mychal Givens is back to rehabbing. Hopefully he comes back stronger than he looked with the O’s last month. Dillon Tate is also on the mend. To be honest, his rehab stats look pretty terrible (15.83 ERA over 9.2 innings), but that doesn’t tell the whole story, and he has been a cromulent reliever for quite a while. Nick Vespi is in the midst of another nice minor league season. He could return to the ‘pen. There is some hope here.

Along those same lines would be turning to the next generation for some help. DL Hall, Grayson Rodriguez, and Drew Rom have all been developed as starters, and that could be where the Orioles envision their futures. But sometimes you need to take advantage of a situation, and the big league team being among the league’s elite seems like a good reason to shift priorities a bit to maximize the moment.

Each of those solutions is a band-aid, and an uncertain one at that. It’s not like the Orioles haven’t tried shuffling internal options around already this season. And there is no guaranteeing a rookie could step into a big league role and succeed. The ability to try that out is a luxury more than a remedy.

Instead, if Mike Elias really wants to shore up the team’s bullpen situation he may have to do a little midseason shopping in a market that isn’t terribly expensive, but is competitive: middle relievers.

Compiling a list of bullpen arms that could be on the move would take all day.’s Mark Feinsand put out a sizable list last week. In general, any pitcher with an expiring contract on a team that isn’t going to the playoffs is up for grabs. But as the reliever revolution from a few years ago has faded, teams (contenders or otherwise) have began parting with relievers if the price is right. Just look at the Brewers dealing away Josh Hader at last year’s deadline. If a GM is willing to cough up enough of a package, it doesn’t seem like any one is entirely off limits, regardless of a team’s spot in the standings.

As of this writing, the trade deadline is approximately six weeks away. That gives the Orioles enough time to sort out the condition of their bullpen. Are Givens and Tate healthy enough to contribute? Are any of the fringe guys at Norfolk ready to make the jump? Does it make sense to try a rookie in a new role? The answers to these questions will determine the order and probability of their priorities on the trade market.

There is no question that the Orioles should be buyers by the time August 1 rolls around. Everyone agrees they need an ace and maybe even a bench bat. Adding a veteran relievers seems like a smart move too, but how serious they get about it could change a whole lot in the weeks ahead.