The roster churn under Mike Elias has been swift and merciless. It unsurprisingly hasn’t led to much winning as he enters his third year as Orioles general manager, but what it has done is enabled the O’s to get a look at a bunch of different players while also trading veteran contributors in exchange for prospects to bolster an improving farm system.
You can look around the diamond at the major-league level and see that the O’s are getting younger and more talented, though the progress has mostly been slow. But one area where things haven’t been as plodding is the bullpen.
When Elias first took over, the bullpen, like the rest of the roster, wasn’t good. After just one season, things already took a giant step forward (granted, in a pandemic-shortened season):
2019: 5.79 ERA (30th), 5.38 FIP (30th), 8.60 K/9 (28th), 4.06 BB/9 (23rd), 0.4 fWAR (t-27th)
2020: 3.90 ERA (9th), 4.11 FIP (11th), 8.83 K/9 (24th), 3.90 BB/9 (12th), 3.0 fWAR (t-5th)
(O’s bullpen data via FanGraphs.)
The Orioles improved in nearly every major category, all the while going from a bullpen looking like this on Opening Day in 2019:
Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry, Nate Karns, Jimmy Yacabonis, John Means, Pedro Araujo
… to one looking like this:
Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong, Dillon Tate, Hunter Harvey, Travis Lakins, Paul Fry, César Valdez, Cole Sulser, Fernando Abad
That’s not to suggest this is a perfect group and changes won’t be made. Of course they will! Injuries and trades happen. Sulser’s frustrating season makes his hold on a roster spot tenuous. And the O’s have a number of interesting arms on the cusp of the majors who will demand innings.
Let’s run through the more intriguing names in the bullpen quickly:
Fans have been waiting for Scott to put everything together, and he finally did it in 2020. Harnessing his high-powered fastball and filthy slider, he posted a 1.31 ERA and 3.48 FIP in 20.2 innings. The strikeouts (10.02 K/9) weren’t as impressive as Scott has shown, but at the same time, he cut down on the walks (4.35 BB/9) while generating weak contact (93rd percentile in exit velocity; 87th percentile in hard-hit percentage). He’s currently the O’s best reliever, which makes him both someone to possibly build around and (more likely) a fascinating potential trade chip.
Acquired from the Mariners for Mike Wright, Armstrong has been a nice find. Like Scott, he also posted lower strikeout and walk rates in 2020 but avoided barrels more and kept the ball in the ballpark. A lower back/S.I. joint injury limited him to just 15 innings, but in that time he was one of the O’s most effective relief weapons (1.80 ERA, 2.99 FIP).
Tate is no longer a starting pitching option, but he still seems to have the arsenal of one. Per Statcast, he throws each of his four pitches at least 16 percent of the time (a sinker, slider, four-seamer and changeup). It worked in 2020; in 16.2 innings, he put up a 3.24 ERA and 3.55 FIP. Still, his expected wOBA (.320) was nearly 100 points higher than his actual wOBA allowed (.221). The pitch he threw the most — the sinker — was also his least effective pitch (.373 wOBA). Regardless, he is not a finished product and it’s a great sign to see him contributing.
After a promising 2019 in which Harvey stayed healthy and moved to the bullpen, he appeared ready to make the leap to become one of the steady arms in the O’s bullpen. It didn’t happen … mainly because he dealt with yet another injury. Harvey began the 2020 season on the injured list while dealing with elbow discomfort, and he didn’t make his first appearance until the end of August. He wasn’t good in his 8.2 innings (4.15 ERA, 5.85 FIP, 6.23 K/9). There’s still time for Harvey to work his way to becoming a reliable reliever, but the first step comes with being able to stay off the injured list. That’s no small feat.
Lakins, Fry and even Sulser to a lesser extent merit shoutouts after finishing in the top three for most innings in the O’s bullpen. But the 35-year-old Valdez stole the show among the fringe relief options — and he didn’t even make his O’s debut until Aug. 29. Armed with a devastating “dead fish” changeup that he threw more than 80 percent of the time, Valdez completely baffled hitters on his way to a 1.26 ERA and 2.14 FIP in 14.1 innings. Going from a “who’s that?” pitcher to a near-lock for the 2021 bullpen: not bad, right?
With Zach Pop selected in the Rule 5 Draft by the Diamondbacks and then traded to the Marlins, Mattson has a little less competition among O’s prospects to make the bullpen. The O’s didn’t want to risk losing Mattson and added him to the 40-man roster, and the 25-year-old with high minor-league strikeout numbers is one step closer to earning a shot. He could easily make the team out of spring training or be the first relief call-up.
Scott, Tate, Harvey and others being for real would be a nice boost for the Orioles, who are also beginning to see some returns in their starting pitching development. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer are strong bets to earn rotation spots when the season opens, and a number of starter prospects aren’t far behind: Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Kevin Smith. Throw in waiver claim Ashton Goudeau, Rule 5 picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, and a number of other fringe arms between Norfolk and Bowie, and it’s not hard to see the progress of the O’s near-the-majors pitching depth. That’s not even factoring in the heavy hitters, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall.
Bullpens can be fickle, though, and it’ll be interesting to see if O’s relievers can produce in a season of more than 60 games. Depth and youth and promise are all nice, but actual major-league success shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox