The Baltimore Orioles bullpen being overworked again


Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Orioles ace Chris Tillman had a rare rough outing, giving up seven earned runs and failing to get through six innings. Once Tillman’s day was done, the bullpen was called on to get the last ten outs. They came through allowing one run in 4 1/3 innings on route to an Orioles victory, but used four pitchers in the process. There’s no doubting the Orioles have talent in their bullpen, but as the starters continue their short outings, can the bullpen keep this pace?

One of the main concerns for the Orioles coming into the season was the starters’ inability to go deep into games. In today’s game it’s an issue for a lot of teams. However, there’s no doubting it’s been a major issue for the Orioles over the last few years.  In 2013, the rotation threw just 939 innings, which was 11th in the American League. They also had only two complete games and Chris Tillman was the lone 200 inning starter. That’s a lot of innings for any bullpen, but it’s especially difficult for a contending team whose bullpen has to throw in a lot of high-pressure situations. So far this season, the Orioles have continued that trend of short starter outings.

There’s no doubt that Tillman has emerged as the ace and has begun the season in the All-Star form Orioles fans saw last season. However, in five games this season, Tillman’s pitched into the seventh only twice.  It’s hard to imagine the Orioles are too concerned about Tillman of all the starters, and his short outings are probably a product of an unusual number of foul balls. Their concern should be with the other starters.

It’s difficult to find flaws with pitchers coming off back-to-back solid seasons, but both Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen have hardly been innings-eaters throughout their tenure with the Orioles despite their success.  In 28 starts last season, Gonzalez averaged only 6 1/3 innings. So far this season, he’s pitched six innings only once. Chen, on the other hand, averaged less than six in 23 starts last season, and has averaged a shade over five in four starts this year.

There’s no denying the Orioles were well aware of the struggles Gonzalez and Chen have had getting deep into games. Inserting Ubaldo Jimenez into the rotation was meant to take some of the pressure off those two and push them lower in the rotation.  However, thus far in the season, Jimenez has been far from the stopper that the Orioles hoped for. In four starts Jimenez has pitched six innings only once and has a disastrous 6.75 ERA. Jimenez may be better than that ERA, but he pitched only 182 innings in 32 starts last season so the Orioles shouldn’t be expecting him to turn into an innings-eater.

So far the Orioles are 28th in the league starters’ IP, and only have three starts of at least seven innings. That’s obviously not good enough for a contending team.  It’s early, and the Orioles should see more quality innings from starters other than Tillman. However, without a lot of innings-eaters on the staff, the Orioles bullpen could be taxed all season. The bullpen has been solid, but it’s going to be difficult to pitch that many innings and keep that pace for the rest of the season. The good news for the Orioles is they have quality pitching depth in AAA if they need to give anyone a break. The bad news is they don’t have a lot of flexibility in their roster, and numerous roster moves are going to be difficult. As Orioles fans have seen in the last two seasons, contending teams play in a lot of close games. The Orioles bullpen will need to be fresh if they want quality innings late in the season.