The Orioles’ big off-season move so far has essentially been the departure of Jim Johnson via trade. However, when taking a closer look at the wide assortment of bullpen candidates, it seems that the Orioles actually have some very impressive depth from which to fill out the ‘pen. Let’s take a look.
Locks (These players, if not traded, injured, or moved to the rotation, will be in the 2014 bullpen)
After a week of holding out for a third year, Balfour has finally lessened his demands, allowing the Orioles to ink him to a 2 year 15 million dollar contract (with 500,000 deferred each year, such that the Orioles will be paying him 7 million a year). This substantive deal makes the Jim Johnson trade look much better, in hindsight, as the Orioles have essentially swapped their 84.8 SV% closer for the A’s 92.7 SV% closer and a few other lesser pieces paid for with the monetary difference. As Alex Conway discussed last night, Grant Balfour is a good, but not elite, closer who should be a solid replacement for Jim Johnson. Barring injury, it looks like the 9th inning is in good hands.
Despite talk of giving Hunter a shot at the 2014 Orioles rotation, expect Hunter to be back firing high 90s fastballs in the 8th inning. Being a fly ball pitcher, Hunter has historically struggled with the long-ball. However, his 1.1 HR/9 rate in 2013 halved his HR/9 from 2012, and the Orioles expect him to continue to repress that number in 2014. Overall, Hunter is a very solid bullpen piece who fits the prototypical late-inning mold of a power pitcher with high-end velocity. However, to fully establish himself as a big league set-up man, Hunter will have to prove that he can be effective pitching multiple games in a row, as Buck Showalter seemed hesitant to throw Hunter on back-to-back days in 2013. Of course, he also threw multiple innings in 26 of his appearances.
O’Day will undoubtedly be back in 2014 as one of, if not the best side-arm reliever in the game. O’Day gives Showalter extremely valuable late inning match-up diversity when coupled with the former and latter options on this list. While some of O’Day’s peripheral statistics like HR/9, H/9, and K/9 declined slightly from career norms, I wouldn’t worry about this as O’Day had some injury struggles late in the year that could have stemmed from overuse. If the starters can go deeper in games, O’Day should gravitate back towards his career norms. Either way, O’Day will continue to provide the Orioles with value in 2014.
At the beginning of the offseason, many people around baseball speculated that Brian Matusz could be on the move this winter due to his climbing arbitration salary and his failure to become the ace pitcher the Orioles hoped he would be. However, following the trade of Jim Johnson, it looks like the Orioles will hold on to Matusz, and even give him one last shot to fill the back end of the 2014 rotation. Despite this, barring a spectacular return to his second-half 2010 form, expect Matusz to join Hunter and O’Day as late inning options to help pave the way to Balfour. Over the past season-and-a-half, Matusz has shown an extraordinary propensity for dominating the game’s leading left-handed sluggers, so even if Matusz cannot re-discover how to pitch to righties, he should provide solid value to the Orioles’ 2014 bullpen.
Webb is a very solid ground-ball reliever who should serve a similar role as Luis Ayala did in 2012: a 6/7th inning reliever who consistently gets groundball outs and provides a bridge to the later-inning relievers. For more on Webb, check out Alex Conway’s analysis: a more optimistic, but still very realistic evaluation of his potential 2014 value. Thus, Webb could turn out to be a mid-late inning reliever, who either way is likely to be a key cog in the 2014 Orioles’ ‘pen.
Solid Maybe’s (These players each have a reasonable chance at making the cut, especially if previously mentioned players get moved to the rotation or traded. However, they do not have the same job security as the others)
It might come as a surprise to some that Patton is not a lock. However, when one looks at the major regression that Patton experienced from 2012 to 2013, there is no reason to hand Patton a spot. If in Spring Training Patton looks like the 2012 version (2.43 ERA, 0.8 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9, 7.9 K/9) he is definitely deserving of a spot. Yet if he looks as he did in 2013 (3.70 ERA, 1.3 HR/9, 2.6 BB/9, 6.8 K/9), it might make more sense for one of the Orioles’ many other lefty options to join Brian Matusz as the second left-hander in the bullpen.
I see Brach as a bit of a wildcard for the 2014 bullpen picture. If he can command the ball, his funky delivery and decent stuff tend to draw lots of swings-and-misses analogous to a late-inning reliever. However, because of his lapses in command, Brach has only been a very average middle reliever (as suggested by Tucker) over the last couple seasons. A decent comparison would be to Alfredo Simon, as Simon struggled with his command earlier in his career with the Orioles, yet has become a more effective bullpen option in the last couple years for the Cincinnati Reds due to improved command. Thus, it would be premature to project Brach as locked into the 2014 bullpen. However, if he can find his command, do not be surprised to see him pitching in Baltimore in 2014.
While Britton has been thought of as a starter for his entire career, it could be that the Orioles’, if not impressed with Britton’s spring training starts, try to move Britton to the ‘pen in a similar role as T.J. McFarland in 2013. Then again, the Orioles’ might decide to move on from Britton, despite his still apparent talent, if they don’t believe he can at least be an average long reliever. Tucker took a look back at Britton to see what went wrong.
De La Cruz is another interesting piece, who, like Brach, has the potential to rack up K’s at the back of a big-league bullpen if he can harness his command. The Orioles signed De La Cruz to a major league deal and Dan Duquette has said that he believes De La Cruz is ready to perform at the big league level. So even if De La Cruz could not be considered a lefty bullpen lock, he is certainly in the picture.
To be honest, out of all the guys not locked into the bullpen, I like Stinson the most. After being called up at the end of the season, he showed improved velocity (mid 90s) and much sharper stuff than in his early-season sport start against Toronto. In 10.0 innings from late-August to the end of the season, Stinson allowed just one earned run. Closer to the end of September, Buck Showalter seemed to develop some faith in Stinson in relatively high-leverage situations. While some might disagree, I think Stinson has the ceiling of a late inning reliever, not just a mediocre swing-man that some project him to be. However, the Orioles might prefer to stash him in AAA as an insurance starter.
Probably Not’s (While these guys have some varied appeal, they are simply too far down on the depth chart to be reasonably projected as part of the big league ‘pen at this time)
Escalona has a power-pitcher appeal but had a tendency to allow blow-up innings with the Rockies last year. Tucker wrote a brief report on Escalona. After flashing potential in 2012, Johnson struggled mightily with health and effectiveness in 2013. While putting up strong minor league stats, Belfiore struggled in a brief major league cup-of-tea. Chris Jones was mediocre in the AFL and is low on the left depth chart, and T.J. McFarland might be converted back to a starter in AAA as the Orioles no longer have to keep him on the 25 man roster. Again, there is an outside chance that one of these guys impresses so much in the spring that the Orioles cannot help but bring them north with the big club, however it would be much more reasonable to project them as part of Norfolk’s pitching staff.
In summary, the Orioles have a plethora of bullpen options who have the potential to contribute to the big club in 2014. Dan Duquette has quietly built substantial depth from which Showalter can construct a bullpen staff with the potential to be one of the best in the league.