Sunday’s win over the Diamondbacks saw the return of two veteran faces to the Orioles roster. Outfielder Aaron Hicks got the start in left field in his first game back from a back injury that landed him on the IL in August. On Sunday, Hicks went 0-3 with a walk and a strikeout before being lifted for Austin Hays as an eighth-inning defensive replacement. Hicks followed that up last night by going 1-3 with an RBI single, a walk and a K.
Meanwhile, against the D-Backs, reliever Jorge López made his first appearance since returning to the O’s after being waived by the Marlins. The former All-Star closer worked around a leadoff double to post a scoreless 8th inning, including a strikeout of Diamondbacks center fielder Alek Thomas.
The elevation of both Hicks and López to the active roster is sure to be met with some questions among Orioles fans. Hicks missed most of the month of August due to a hamstring injury and back injury. He also returned to Baltimore after his back injury without going on a rehab assignment, and only had a brief rehab assignment for the previous hamstring injury. Brandon Hyde and the Orioles are essentially throwing a player who hasn’t played baseball for over a month right into the thick of the AL East pennant race.
Hicks also wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire before his bouts with injury. Sure, his first three weeks as an Oriole were magical: he slashed .340/.444/.604 with seven extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. He boosted a lineup reeling from the injury of Cedric Mullins and (most importantly) made the Yankees look like fools for paying him to go away.
However, since that magical start, Hicks has gone from a black and orange Cinderella back to an average veteran pumpkin. In 25 games between June 21st and his first stint on the IL, Hicks hit .192, had an OPS of .601 and only produced four extra-base hits.
With López, the O’s are essentially trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice. The 30-year-old’s rise from middling starter to lights-out closer was one of the best stories in the first half of the 2022 season. However, the Orioles’ decision to move on from him also proved to be a huge step in the natural evolution of this dominant O’s bullpen. It allowed Félix Bautista to take over as closer and less than a year later he was the best ninth-inning reliever in all of baseball. The trade also brought Yennier Cano to the Orioles organization—who Chris Holt & Co. molded into arguably a better player than the López he was traded for.
If Holt and his staff can help López rediscover his early 2022 form, it will just be another testament to the O’s coaches’ ability to get the best out of their pitchers. After all, when you’re pitching for your third team in one season—like López is with the O’s—it’s usually a bad sign. The presence of guys like Cano, Danny Coulombe, DL Hall and Jacob Webb also means López doesn’t need to be All-Star caliber to make a difference, but he needs to be better than the 5.55 ERA he posted after leaving Baltimore.
One thing the O’s pitching coaches are known for is getting their relievers to focus on their two best pitches. We’ve seen it with Cano, who threw almost exclusively sinkers and changeups during his early season dominance. Since arriving in Baltimore in July, Shintaro Fujinami has cut down significantly on his cutter usage, focusing on his fastball/splitter combo.
This approach may be exactly what López needs to get on track now that he’s back under the Orioles tutelage. Much of his success in 2022 came throwing about 70% sinkers and curveballs, only occasionally mixing in a changeup and largely foregoing his four-seamer and slider. The sinker and curve have still been López’s primary pitches in 2023. However, he’s cut down on his sinker usage in particular to throw more four-seamers and sliders—and all four pitches have been less effective as a result. We already saw the start of this adjustment in López’s appearance against the Diamondbacks, where he threw four sinkers to one four-seamer and no sliders.
The addition of Hicks and López may not be the last tinkering Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde do with this roster, but it does feel like one last swing at potentially shaking things up for the postseason. If Hicks can hit well enough to earn a spot on the October roster, he’ll join James McCann and Adam Frazier as the only position players with postseason experience. Hicks’ 97 postseason ABs are also more than triple McCann and Frazier’s combined total. His numbers in those 97 ABs aren’t spectacular—a .216 average and .665—but it’s also hard to estimate the value of a seasoned postseason vet in a lineup of players who’ve never experienced anything like playoff baseball.
López could also very well prove to be the missing piece in a bullpen staring down the likelihood of not having Bautista down the stretch. No, López can’t replace the Mountain in the same way the Mountain succeeded him last season. And yet, a unit that consists of him, Cano, Coulombe, Hall, Webb, Fujinami, and Cionel Pérez is one that Birdland can believe in at the end of important September games.
Because López was not in the organization by August 31, he is ineligible for the Orioles’ postseason roster. It’s not a shoo-in that Hicks makes it, either. He’ll need to play well enough in September to earn that spot. Still, the duo’s experience could be an extremely valuable asset for the stretch run. This season has often been defined by the promotion of more young stars. And yet, this pair of veterans stand to play a pivotal part in the season’s final chapters.