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Checking in on the reliever trade market

The Orioles have a good thing going at the back of their bullpen, but there is room for improvement in the middle innings.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot to like about these Baltimore Orioles. The team is cruising, winners of eight in a row and now trailing the AL East-leading Rays by just one game. However, a small but noticeable issue popped up at the end of their win on Sunday afternoon.

All-world closer Félix Bautista was unavailable after appearing in the first two games of the series. The same was true for set-up man Yennier Cano. And Brandon Hyde also wanted to stay away from Mike Baumann, who had thrown 30 pitches over 1.2 innings the day before.

Fortunately, starter Kyle Bradish had gone 7.1 innings, and the Orioles entered the ninth inning with a five-run lead. There would seemingly be no need for the big guns anyway.

But then the lead started to slip away. Eduard Bazardo gave up three hits before he was yanked. And then the normally solid Danny Coulombe also had some trouble of his own before he did eventually wiggle out of it to secure the sweep and earn his first big league save.

It is not a crisis that the Orioles bullpen had a bad day with their top two arms on ice plus a guy with a growing role in Baumann also held back. Most units can’t go beyond their top arm or two without getting a little antsy.

But expectations of this team are shifting before our eyes. The playoffs are no longer a reach goal, but instead an assumed outcome among most prognosticators. With that, the level of play from each portion of the roster also needs to rise. That includes a bullpen that, on the whole, is fantastic, but could also use more depth.

An overwhelming majority of the bullpen’s value comes from Bautista and Cano. Together they account for 3.4 out of the unit’s 4.6 total fWAR. Coulombe (0.8 fWAR) and Bryan Baker (0.6 fWAR) round out the top four.

Bautista has already thrown 44 innings, and remember that he experienced knee pain last season after his 65.2 innings. The Orioles would probably love to back off of him a bit if they could do so without jeopardizing their standing.

Cano leads the unit with 44.2 innings, an amazing accomplishment for a pitcher that entered this season with 18 total big league innings in his career. His season high for innings pitched in the minors was 69.2 in 2021.

There is no indication that this duo is slowing down. In fact, Bautista looks more locked in now than he did at the start of the season. But the variability of relievers paired with the tweaked strategy in the playoffs that tends to ask even more of bullpen arms plus the Orioles already-precarious rotation suggests that the team needs more relief help.

Making things worse are the injuries to Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens. Both righties were expected to provide dependable middle and late-inning work this season. Tate is yet to pitch in the big leagues this year and is currently seeking an ominous second opinion for his forearm. Givens pitched in four games with the O’s back in May, and was bad. He rehabbed in June, had some soreness, and then got put on the 60-day IL. He won’t be back until August at least. It seems entirely possible that the Orioles will need to make do without either for the remainder of the season.

Bullpen help is not at the top of the Orioles’ needs list this deadline season. But if the club cannot land an ace for their rotation it makes a lot of sense to look for relievers that would make Hyde feel a lot better about prying the ball from his starter early on in a crucial postseason game. It’s a position group on the trade market that tends to be deep this time of year, which could make the cost more palatable for a Mike Elias-led regime that is yet to part with any of their top-tier homegrown prospects.

So, who’s available? Who makes sense?

Well, the Kansas City Royals have already dealt away Aroldis Chapman, indicating that others in their bullpen could be had. Their closer Scott Barlow is a free agent after next season, has a 3.25 FIP, 112 ERA+, and has 44 strikeouts in 34 innings. His breaking ball-first approach from the right side would be unique in this Orioles ‘pen.

Elsewhere in the AL Central, the White Sox are another team primed to sell. Kendall Graveman has a nice track record and a big fastball, plus he’s signed through 2024 on a deal that pays him $8 million per year but beware his suspiciously low .225 BABIP when considering his overall numbers. Reynaldo López and Kenyan Middleton are two pending free agents worth watching as well. López has a 2.45 ERA and an opponent batting average of .178 since May 5. Middleton is a Baseball Savant darling that loads up on strikeouts (11.7 K/9), although he has largely had mediocre outcomes beyond a stellar month of May.

Detroit is likely to shop 34-year-old José Cisnero. He’s a free agent at year’s end and has looked like a perfectly fine, serviceable middle relief arm this season. He entered June with a 2.03 ERA, but one really bad outing just before the all-star break soured his otherwise impressive numbers.

There may or may not be options elsewhere in the AL. It would be shocking to see anyone in the East sell. The Guardians probably won’t go all-in or sell off their young relievers. The Athletics would probably give up anyone they could, but that is a real bad bullpen. It remains to be seen what the Mariners and Angels do. If Shohei Ohtani goes, then it would be a free-for-all in Anaheim.

In the NL, the contenders and pretenders are separating themselves, making it easier to guess who buys and sells these next two weeks.

Bucks Showalter’s pricey Mets are done. They have plenty to offer in veterans David Robertson, Adam Ottavino, and lefty Brooks Raley. Robertson isn’t quite his vintage, Yankee-era self, but he’s been darn good with a 1.96 ERA, 10.2 K/9. Ottavino looks more like a run-of-the-mill middle reliever at this point, and he has a player option of $7.25 million next year. Raley doesn’t become a free agent until after 2025, but he’s 35 years old and a career journeyman in the midst of a fine season (2.18 ERA over 33 innings).

The Nationals have some intriguing arms, like Kyle Finnegan and a finally-healthy Hunter Harvey. But the relationship between these two organizations is complicated. Don’t hold your breath hoping something gets done.

It sounds like the Cubs are in sell mode, but it probably won’t be nose to tail. That makes Michael Fulmer the most likely arm to move. He’s been good since late May (1.33 ERA over 20.1 innings) and brings the sort of relief experience the O’s hoped to have in Givens/Tate.

Pittsburgh’s bullpen is full of worthwhile arms, including closer David Bednar. But none of them are particularly close to free agency. That doesn’t mean they won’t move, but this organization is supposed to be done rebuilding. They need to move forward, so they likely will have to be overwhelmed in order to do anything drastic.

The Cardinals may be on the other end of the spectrum. They have oodles of players that could be offloaded by August 1. That includes most of their bullpen with Jordan Hicks the most alluring. The 26-year-old averages triple digits on his fastball and strikes out 13 batters per nine innings. He also issues 5.4 walks per nine and has a history of injuries. Chris Stratton and closer Giovanny Gallegos are also around as less exciting, but possibly safer, options.

Brad Hand and Daniel Bard are two veteran arms with the Rockies that would have been headliners just a few season ago. The shine has worn of of each at this point. Hand is a league-average pitcher at this point (4.99 ERA, 101 ERA+). Bard’s high-level numbers are good (2.20 ERA), but he has also issued 26 walks in 32.2 innings while striking out just 28.

If the Padres do decide to throw in the towel, they might have the most desired relief arm on the market in Josh Hader. The former Orioles’ draft pick has been superb once again with 52 strikeouts and a 1.03 ERA over 35 innings. He would be just a rental, but also a true difference-maker. Nick Martinez and Tim Hill could also move, and each has an additional year of control, but there isn’t much to get excited about there.

Obviously, there is a wide range of impact from the players mentioned here. Hader and Robertson could be immense additions. Whereas someone like Fulmer, Barlow, and most of the others would be nice to have but ultimately provide little support for the club’s current late-inning setup.

It’s unclear what the Orioles’ plans for the deadline will be. Elias said back in May that he expected the team to be “buyers.” Their performance since then has only cemented that premonition. It would be absurd for them to not supplement this squad in some way.

But this is the first time we will see Elias at the helm of a truly competitive team. We don’t really know how he is going to approach it. It doesn’t feel Elias-esque to give up any highly regarded prospects for a reliever rental, but his actions this month could entirely alter our understanding of the GM.