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The Orioles need Cionel Pérez to figure it out

Cionel Pérez’s regression has contributed to the lack of depth in Baltimore’s bullpen.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles have surprised the baseball world as a whole, but their identity quickly becomes apparent to anyone paying attention on a daily basis. Baltimore boasts several talented players that can handle multiple positions. Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias fill out the lineup card based on matchups, and the Birds often turn to their bench late in games.

The rotation includes several pitchers capable of providing five or six strong innings but no staff ace. Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano have been nearly automatic, but mid-inning relief has proved to be a challenge.

The last two points represent the greatest threats to a successful playoff push. The Orioles could dip into the prospect bank to acquire a front line starter, but it remains to be seen whether the front office will go big this early into the window.

Tyler Young examined the reliever trade market earlier in the week. It would be borderline negligent if the Birds failed to acquire additional bullpen help, but how did things get so dire?

Baltimore expected to receive significant contributions from both Mychal Givens and Dillon Tate. Both pitchers have a proven track record of succeeding in high-leverage situations, and Baltimore anticipated having both available late in games.

Cano’s ascent came as a complete surprise. The 29-year-old failed to make the Opening Day roster, and nobody in the organization expected an All-Star campaign from the righty.

Cano essentially canceled out one of the injuries, but it’s not like the bullpen remained status quo. Bryan Baker fell off after a mostly impressive 2022, and Austin Voth failed to recapture his magic as a starter or reliever.

Sure, Danny Coulombe has had his moments, but the Birds have yet to overcome what has quietly become the team’s most significant case of regression. Cionel Pérez posted a 1.40 ERA over 66 games last season. He held a 4.45 ERA over 33 frames before pitching last night.

Baltimore activated Pérez yesterday after the 27-year-old spent 15 days on the injured list with forearm soreness. Pérez certainly has the chops for high-leverage situations, but will he have the stuff down the stretch?

Opponents hit .309 off Pérez in the first half after posting just a .220 average against the lefty last season. Pérez went from a 27.3 Whiff Percentage to only 16.4% this season. The whiff percentage ranks in just the second percentile of pitchers this year, while his chase rate falls in the bottom fourth of the league.

Pérez only walked 21 batters last season, but the reliever has issued 19 free passes in 26.1 fewer innings. His strikeouts are down, and the average exit velocity from opponents has spiked.

His fastball command held steady from last year, so what changed? MASN’s Ben McDonald speculated last night that the pitch clock impacted Pérez more than most. The former top pick suggested Pérez felt like a guy that needed the extra time.

Baltimore turned to Pérez last night in a game that had essentially already been decided. It could have gone better. Pérez walked the first two batters he faced, allowed an RBI single to JD Martinez, and walked in another run with the bases loaded.

The Dodgers possess an extremely potent lineup, but Pérez did little to inspire confidence moving forward. Last season may have been an outlier, but the Orioles would take half the production Pérez turned in last year.

Few things in life are more volatile than the performance of relievers year to year. There’s no guarantee that Pérez, Baker or Voth can reach their previous peaks, but the trio have left room to improve on the field this summer.

Nick Vespi did an admirable job to save the bullpen on Monday but had to pay the price. The Orioles optioned Vespi five times last season, and the 27-year-old will almost certainly return at some point.

Mike Baumann has taken on a larger role, but he still feels a step away from becoming a consistent late-inning reliever. Maybe Big Mike takes that step down the stretch, but the Birds could certainly use some internal help in addition to any trade acquisitions.

DL Hall remains a mystery after returning to Sarasota to strengthen his arm. Hall and John Means could eventually help Baltimore on the mound, but neither can be counted as a sure thing at this point.

The Orioles need to bolster the bullpen. Pérez can help the club by finding the zone and missing more bats, but Baltimore has little reason to trust the lefty right now.