Somewhat buried under the news that the Orioles clinched a playoff spot this weekend was an injury update on closer Félix Bautista. Originally feared to be lost for the rest of the season in addition to 2024, there now appears to be some legitimate hope that the big righty could return and contribute to the team’s postseason run.
O’s manager Brandon Hyde said on Sunday that Bautista threw a side session of 20-25 pitches, and it “sounds like it went pretty well.” Now the team will wait to see how his body reacts. This was already an escalation from playing catch on flat ground, something he been doing for a while.
Obviously, there are still several steps remaining between a side session and effectively pitching in a big league game, but this scenario would have felt like a fantasy when it was announced that Bautista had suffered a UCL injury last month. Oftentimes that is an injury associated with significant surgery that costs a pitcher well over a year of their career. While that could still be in Bautista’s future, it doesn’t sound like this particular incident was the cause.
Orioles GM Mike Elias explained last week that Bautista’s UCL injury was “acute-on-chronic” and that doctors didn’t “see a risk with Bautista throwing.” In that same meeting with the media he also said that there is some “significance” to the tear, and claimed that the Orioles won’t do anything that adds “long-term risk to him or to his recovery.”
It’s not exactly a clean bill of health. Bautista is not 100%, and it doesn’t sound like he will get there any time soon. But the Orioles appear confident that if he isn’t in pain, then he can pitch without causing more issues.
A name often evoked with UCL injuries that do not require Tommy John surgery is former Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. He suffered a partial tear to his UCL in 2014, shortly after debuting in MLB. The treatment he received was six weeks of rest and a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection. Tanaka remained a formidable member of the Yankees rotation through 2020 and is now back pitching in Japan, never needing the surgery.
No one with the Orioles has said that Bautista’s injury is similar to Tanaka’s. In fact, Elias actually said that the closer did not receive PRP injections, although that could also indicate different treatment philosophies rather than unique injuries. The GM also admitted that “at some point...we’re gonna want to sit down and talk about what’s the best way to get this behind us,” indicating that some sort of surgical intervention may be necessary.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like both the Orioles and Bautista are being opportunistic. This Orioles team just clinched a playoff spot, is in position to be the top seed in the AL, and has a chance to do something special in the playoffs. Regardless of how bright the future may be for this organization, the stars do not often align so perfectly. So if the best reliever in baseball can pitch without relative risk, then he’s going to pitch.
The Orioles would love to have him back in the bullpen, even if in a reduced capacity. Prior to his injury, Bautista was having an incredible season. Over 56 appearances he had a 1.48 ERA, 33 saves, and 110 strikeouts in just 61 innings. He was likely to receive some down-ballot Cy Young votes, a rarity for a reliever, and become the ultimate weapon for Hyde in the postseason.
To be fair to the rest of the Baltimore bullpen, they have held things together in Bautista’s absence. Since August 25, the team’s relievers have a 3.35 ERA over 75.1 innings of work, enough to be the 10th most valuable group by fWAR in baseball.
It has required standout performances from a number of familiar faces. Shintaro Fujinami has pitched some of his best innings in an Orioles uniform (9.64 K/9, 1.93 ERA over 9.1 innings). A pair of lefties, Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez, have combined for 14.2 shutout innings. DL Hall’s shown flashes of an elite arsenal. Jacob Webb has been a dependable middle relief option out of nowhere. And the list goes on.
But the relief corps without Bautista is also missing something quite crucial to a playoff push: a dependable strikeout pitcher.
Since they lost their closer, the Orioles relievers are striking out 6.93 batters per nine innings, the second-worst rate in the league, in front of only the Nationals. Jorge López paces the group with 12.38 strikeouts per nine in that time, but he isn’t eligible for the postseason roster due to joining after September 1st, so there has to be an alternate solution.
It isn’t Yennier Cano. The All-Star has been good for most of the season, but he isn’t missing many bats anymore. He’s struck out just one batter in his last 7.2 innings, although his ability to get a ground ball has plenty of utility as well.
Right now the top options for a need-a-strikeout moment would probably be Fujinami or Hall. That’s two pitchers with plenty of juice, but also quite a bit of variance. They will certainly be pitching crucial innings in October regardless, but you can bet Hyde would love to have a more dependable option at his disposal.
We do not know if an injured Bautista is truly better than any of the other names mentioned until we see him pitch. But one would have to imagine that if he’s happy with how the ball comes out of his hand, the Orioles are happy, and no injury flare ups happen, then he’s going to be a force late in games.
The Orioles have shown they can win games without Bautista. But there is no doubt that his return would provide both a boost on the field and a physiological edge that comes with having the sport’s best reliever in your back pocket. It feels like the opposing team has three fewer outs to work with, a huge advantage as the O’s head to their fist postseason since 2016.