Bullpen remains team’s pride
Strong relief corps to return intact next year
The men: This season, as in so many previous years, the relief corps was perhaps the Orioles’ most successful and widely respected group. For the second straight year, the team had a pair of All-Stars. Closer Zach Britton received the honor for the second straight season and Brad Brach was named to his first midsummer classic after taking over for the injured Darren O’Day as the team’s primary setup man.
The Orioles’ relievers led the American League with a 3.40 ERA and ranked third in the majors.
Britton had a historic season, converting all 47 of his save opportunities while posting a 0.54 ERA. Brach finished the season 10-4 with a 2.05 ERA in a team-high 71 appearances, and saw his responsibilities grow significantly as O’Day dealt with hamstring and shoulder injuries that limited him to 34 appearances.
Also ascending in 2016 was rookie Mychal Givens, who built on a strong debut in 2015 to strike out 96 in 742⁄ innings with a 3.13 ERA in 66 appearances. Givens was as good against right-handers as fellow rookie Donnie Hart was against lefthanders. Early-season struggles for Brian Matusz meant the team was without a left-handed specialist for most of the year, cycling through Ashur Tolliver, T.J. McFarland and Brian Duensing before settling on Hart. The 26-year-old allowed five hits in 44 plate appearances by lefties and allowed one run in 181⁄ innings overall.
Primarily in a long-relief role, Two-time All-Star closer Zach Britton converted all 47 of his save opportunities this season. Vance Worley quietly had a strong year, compiling a 3.20 ERA out of the bullpen and averaging over two innings per relief appearance. The alternatives: Plenty of arms came through the bullpen as the season went on — practically too many to list. The Orioles used 23 relievers.
Down the stretch, Tommy Hunter and Oliver Drake became crucial parts of the bullpen, though they only had a September sample size to work off this year.
Hunter, who pitched for the Orioles from 2011 to 2014 and part of 2015 after a brief stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, rejoined the team after his release by the Cleveland Indians in late August and had a 2.19 ERA in 12 appearances. Drake, who was up for part of 2015 and early in 2016 with limited success, allowed two earned runs over 121⁄ innings over his last 10 outings. The future: The past two winners of the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year awards — Hart and Givens — were relievers, a sign of the value the club puts on developing its bullpen assets. Some in the organization take more pride in that fact than others, but every level features some impressive relief arms who could come up to the big league bullpen.
Pedro Beato (2.65 ERA in 65 appearances for Triple-A Norfolk) and Jason Stoffel (2.44 ERA in 55 appearances for Norfolk and Double-A Bowie) led Orioles minor leaguers in appearances. They were two of a handful of mainstays on a pitching staff that was in flux because of the major league team’s needs all season.
In terms of upside, the closest wave of relief pitching can be found in the Arizona Fall League. Hardthrowing left-hander Tanner Scott, who throws a fastball in the high-90s, had a 4.76 ERA in 641⁄ innings with 81 strikeouts and 57 walks for High-A Frederick and Bowie. Another fireballer, 21-year-old Jesus Liranzo, had a1.87 ERA in 27 appearances between Low-A Delmarva and Bowie.
Also joining them in the Fall League from the Baysox are Jimmy Yacabonis (2.64 ERA in 50 appearances between Bowie and Frederick) and Stefan Crichton (3.73 ERA in 48 appearances for Bowie).
Below them in the system is the wave of relievers that constituted so much of the team’s 2015 draft class, including left-hander Garrett Cleavinger and right-hander Ryan Meisinger. Cleavinger, a third-round pick, struck out 102 batters in 761⁄ innings between Delmarva and Frederick, while Meisinger, an 11th-round pick, had a 1.57 ERA with 94 strikeouts and 21 walks in 742⁄ innings for the same two affiliates. The skinny: There were times this year when a string of short starts contributed to a worn-out bullpen. But when this unit was at full strength, it was among the best in the game.
The good news is that the whole bunch will be back next season, though arbitration raises will make Britton, Brach and Worley more expensive. The team will also maintain a good bit of flexibility as Hart and Givens have options. The Orioles won’t often find themselves to be lacking fresh arms.
Of course, all of this discounts the fact that the Orioles’ season ended with a head-scratching relief decision by manager Buck Showalter, who didn’t use Britton in the wildcard game against the Blue Jays. But no matter how the relievers are deployed, the depth and quality of the bullpen is likely to be a strength for years to come.