One of the most unpredictable aspects of a Major League Baseball team is the bullpen. Because relievers are inherently flawed pitchers who have failed as starters, performance can vary from year to year. As Spring Training starts to head into its final stretch, teams are really looking at the final pieces of the bullpen. Most have the key roles filled, but those bridge roles and specialist roles usually come down to the final days. The Orioles are in a bit of a different spot as most of the roles are still up for grabs and the candidates for those roles may be some of the most interesting choices in Major League Baseball.
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While the Orioles will likely have Tommy Hunter in the closer role for the first time in his career, he will be flanked by veteran relievers Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb. Hunter has the stuff to be a closer and seems to have the desire to take on the role. For the Orioles, this is an optimal decision as the two best relievers, O’Day and Webb, can be used in the more often higher leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings. The late inning trio looks to be as good as any in the division. The rest of the Orioles’ bullpen is what should separate it from the rest of the division.
Because the Orioles have so many pitchers who are out of options, the bullpen, barring a trade or surprise release, looks to be comprised of Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Suk-Min Yoon, Troy Patton (once he is finished with his suspension), and some combination of the following: Steve Johnson, Josh Stinson, Brad Bach, and possibly Alfredo Aceves or Johan Santana. While everyone outside of Johan Santana lacks household name value, the bullpen is shaping up to be one of the most optimal in terms of its composition.
With starters giving fewer innings than ever before, teams have been carrying at least seven relievers on the staff, with some even going to eight in the bullpen. Obviously, the makes the bench quite shallow and gives Managers less opportunities to pinch hit, pinch run, or put in a defensive substitute. With most bullpens becoming even more specialized, teams are using more pitchers than ever. That leaves teams in contention using pitchers who are quite far down the depth chart or overpaying for even league average relief help. The Orioles aren’t overpaying for a reliever and Buck Showalter shouldn’t have the problem of reaching too far down the depth chart in 2014.
Brian Matusz and Zach Britton were once promising starters. For a multitude of reasons, they have failed. But, they project to be above average relievers for a few reasons. Britton is a southpaw who uses a low 90’s fastball/sinker to complement his changeup and curveball. Although he isn’t a hard thrower, he generates ground balls at a 55 percent rate. While the argument can be made that they are giving up too quickly on the elite ground ball pitcher for the rotation, he does become an above average reliever because he keeps both right handed and left handed batters off base at an equal rate. The ground ball specialist is also perfect for those situations when runners are on and a reliever needs anything but a flyball. He is a pitcher capable of pitching multiple innings, even going through the order once. And, on the nights when an Orioles’ starter gets knocked out early, Britton can give five innings or so.
That’s possible because of the presence of Matusz and eventually Patton. The 27 year old already has one successful season under his belt as a reliever, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning in 65 appearances. Matusz is another who is capable of pitching multiple innings and generating elite swing and miss rates against left handed batters. Unlike Britton, Matusz is far better as a lefty specialist. If Matusz continues to struggle against right handers, the Orioles have enough depth make him the specialist.
Patton, another left hander, will miss the first 25 games due to a suspension (amphetamines). Patton, another left hander, gets both right handed and left handed batters at a similar rate. And, he gives a far different look than the other two southpaws as he uses his slider about 34 percent of the time, while Matusz throws a bit harder and uses his slider less. Britton uses his sinker nearly 70 percent of the time. In a division featuring left handed power hitters such as David Ortiz and Brian McCann, and parks with short right field fences, the three southpaws will be needed. But, given their versatility, they can be used in multiple situations and multiple innings.
Yoon gives another option as a right hander who is trained as a starter, but has proven successful as a reliever in Korea. The right hander, who also works in the low 90’s, comes with closing experience as well as being one of Korea’s top starting pitchers. With the ability to pitch multiple innings, he comes to the Major Leagues with a track record as a strikeout pitcher (949 in 1,100+ innings in Korea). Along with Britton, the pair can be used for multiple innings. This is nothing but positive as it will allow nights off for many of the bullpen members and keep the Orioles from having to continually call up relievers.
The bullpen gets even deeper if the Orioles do the right thing and allow Kevin Gausman to begin the year in the rotation. That likely pushes right hander Bud Norris to the bullpen, whose four pitch arsenal would play well in short situations or give Showalter another reliever capable of three or more innings.
A bullpen of Britton, Matusz, Patton, Yoon, Norris, O’Day, and Hunter gives the 2014 Orioles many things that the previous club lacked. The group gives varied looks as Britton is a far different southpaw from Matusz and Patton. On the right hand side, Yoon, Norris, and O’Day also give varied looks. All of this plays out in from Hunter, whom Showalter can limit how many truly high leverage situations he is brought into. The group also allows for multiple innings. Many bullpens have just one long man. This bullpen has at least three who can give more than a couple of innings. Over the course of a season, having that flexible of a bullpen will not only keep everyone fresh, but quell the need to continually use more pitchers who are lesser in talent.
This type of bullpen is exactly what the Orioles need considering their rotation. Last season, Orioles starters pitched 939 innings, ranking just 22nd in Major League Baseball. Only Chris Tillman pitched more than 175 innings last season. The presence of Ubaldo Jimenez helps, but the bullpen will still need to contribute more than the normal share of innings. Gausman will be on an innings limit. Gonzalez doesn’t pitch deep into games on a regular basis. Wei-Yin Chen hasn’t completed 200 innings in either of his two seasons. The bullpen will be used more than the typical contender’s bullpen. Consider last season, only the Pirates and Indians made the playoffs with fewer starting pitcher innings than the Orioles received.
Before his first full season as Orioles Manager, Buck Showalter explained that the best way to protect a young rotation is to work backwards with the bullpen. His rationale was quite simple, explaining that younger pitchers and even most pitchers in general do not give more than five or six innings on a good night. So, a team must have a quality, versatile group of relievers. This may not have been the plan, but the 2014 Orioles are forming a useful, varied, and what looks to be highly functioning group of relievers. Because most are failed starters with a better repertoire than a typical relief prospect, the Orioles bullpen projects to be deeper than most of its divisional competition. At the very least, it projects to be better than last season’s version. Last year’s group posted a 4.2 WAR value, which ranked 9th in the American League. This season, the additions of Britton, Yoon, and others should improve that value based on performance, but with the idea of one pitcher covering multiple innings rather than a specialized approach.
In comparison, the Yankees are searching to fill many roles, while the Red Sox are hoping that the bullpen that was taxed heavily in 2013 will once again produce. The Rays continually remodel their bullpen. And, the Blue Jays are still sorting through rotation pieces, let alone bullpen issues. In this, the Orioles gain a small advantage. Their bullpen projects to be deep, varied, and interchangeable. It is the ideal bullpen setup in today’s pitching climate. They are not raiding the Minor Leagues for starting pitchers to serve in the bullpen. They are not overpaying relievers on the free agent market. Instead, they have built enough organizational depth to take the once hoped for starters to be key members of a flexible bullpen. Buck Showalter can play the matchup game or he can simply call on a pitcher to cover two or three innings at a time. No bullpen, especially in the American League East, has those types of options.