Should the Baltimore Orioles trade for a reliever?


If Britton’s struggles continue, should the Orioles bring on some help? Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Baltimore Orioles took a two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth against the Oakland Athletics. Given that Zach Britton — the former club’s closer — had a 1.30 ERA prior to the All-Star break, many fans on the East coast went to bed, for they expected the game to end with the score static. These fans (of whom I am one) woke up to a rude surprise: Britton allowed a three-run home run to Josh Donaldson, leading to a 5-4 Baltimore loss.

As is generally the case following a blown save, the irrational section of the fanbase will demand changes. Because said blown save occurred during trade season, many of these demands will come in the form of suggestions for hypothetical deals — in this instance, for a relief pitcher. In the past few days, we’ve seen two contenders make upgrades to their bullpens. On Wednesday, the Texas Rangers shipped Jason Frasor to the Kansas City Royals; then yesterday, the Los Angeles Angels received Huston Street from the San Diego Padres. If the Orioles wish to fend off the Toronto Blue Jays in the race for the AL East crown, they’ll need every advantage they can get. But do the Orioles have to import an arm, and if so, whom should they import?

As it stands right now, Baltimore has two elite relievers: Britton, and Darren O’Day. Yesterday’s meltdown notwithstanding, Britton has pitched exceptionally this year, with a 1.86 ERA in 48.1 innings. O’Day has been even better, as his ERA sits at an unfathomable 1.11 in 40.2 innings. Britton has peripheral improvement to support this, as his 2.07 SIERA ranks 16th-best out of 152 qualifying relievers; while O’Day’s peripherals aren’t as astounding (his 2.69 SIERA ranks 38th), he has made a career out of overperforming, and I see no reason why he should stop now.

Behind those two, though, things become a little shaky. Ryan Webb has had his ups and downs in his debut season in Baltimore; the net outcomes, while respectable (3.18 ERA, 2.92 SIERA in 39.2 innings), are nothing particularly special. Tommy Hunter‘s performance has fluctuated even more, as he has bounced from closer to mop-up man to middle reliever; as with Webb, his stats (3.82 ERA, 3.29 SIERA in 33.0 innings) don’t turn any heads. Brad Brach and T.J. McFarland have subpar peripherals (3.93 and 3.88 SIERAs in 33.0 and 31.1 innings, respectively) to accompany decent results (3.27 and 3.16 ERAs respectively), and Brian Matusz has melted down (4.68 ERA, 4.08 SIERA in 32.2 innings) after a successful 2013.

So the Orioles could probably use some help in the bullpen, especially considering the ineffectiveness of their starting rotation. But for which pitchers can they trade?

Let’s look at the options. The most prominent candidate is Jonathan Papelbon, whom the Philadelphia Phillies would like to unload, along with the rest of his 4-year, $50 million contract. He wants out, too, and the Orioles have expressed interest in him. On the surface, he has dominated this year, to the tune of a 1.21 ERA in 37.1 innings. However, that number belies a more mediocre 3.18 SIERA — not much of an upgrade from the MLB-wide relief average of 3.42. The latter number is no fluke: Papelbon has seen his velocity decline for several years now, which has caused his advanced stats to suffer. ERA and other basic metrics don’t show it yet, but Papelbon isn’t significantly better than the average reliever; for $12.5 million in this year and next, the Orioles should stay away at all costs.

Other, more reasonable options do exist. While the Padres and Rangers have already sent relievers to World Series hopefuls, they have more chips — namely, Joaquin Benoit and Joakim Soria. Both have excelled this year: Benoit has a 2.04 ERA, to go along with a 2.42 SIERA, while Soria’s 1.61 SIERA substantiates a 2.59 ERA; moreover, neither has a ridiculous contract to hinder any potential movements. However, the Orioles might have to focus solely on Soria, as Benoit could stay put. The Padres have said that they want to keep either Street or Benoit; since they dealt the former, they will probably hold on to the latter.

Soria is an interesting case. He has had a career year thus far for the worst-in-the-majors Rangers, as the aforementioned 1.61 SIERA blows his previous career low (2.37 in 2009) out of the water. He has struck out an obscene 34.2% of the batters he’s faced, while only walking a measly 3.3%; plus, he doesn’t have — nor has he ever had — a platoon split to speak of. As such, many teams have expressed interest in acquiring his services. If the Orioles can get their hands on him, he would certainly assist them in their hunt for October.

The Orioles’ phenomenal relief pitching sparked their surprising 2012 season and subsequent playoff run. In 2013, the bullpen was more average, as it has been so far in 2014. Obviously, swapping out Matusz or another scrub for Soria can only improve matters, but trades for one-year wonders haven’t worked well for the Orioles in the recent past. We all remember the disastrous Francisco Rodriguez trade of last year, in which Baltimore sacrificed a solid prospect for a reliever with a hot start that melted down upon arriving in Charm City.

In general, most baseball cognoscenti agree that trades for relievers don’t end well; peraps, for this reason, the Orioles should stay pat, or at least spend their resources elsewhere.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.