Baltimore Orioles Relievers: The State of the 2023 Bullpen
Several positive developments contributed to the remarkable turnaround that the Baltimore Orioles and their fans experienced during the 2022 MLB season: the arrivals of top prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, the emergence of starting pitchers Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish, tremendous defense around the diamond (including a gold-glove for third-baseman Ramon Urias), and, just as important, a team that avoided the Injured List for most of the season.
Perhaps the greatest development that contributed to a 31-game improvement from 2021 to 2022 was the Baltimore Orioles bullpen, which went from last in the league in team ERA (5.71) in 2021 to 9th (3.49) in 2022. What makes the story of the Orioles bullpen turnaround even more incredible is the fact that the ‘pen largely consisted of cast-offs from other teams who, when given a chance, shined to give the team a bullpen similar to the shutdown pens of 2012-2016 that carried the team into the playoffs in 3 of those 5 years.
And the best part: most, if not all of these relievers, should be back in 2023.
The 2023 Baltimore Orioles bullpen will likely look similar to the 2022 version.
Felix Bautista (4-4, 2.19 ERA, 15 saves, 2.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR))
Any analysis of the state of the Orioles bullpen must start with the “Mountain”, 6’5, 190-pound right-hander Felix Bautista. Bautista, 27, epitomizes the 2022 Orioles bullpen of overlooked players who emerged onto the scene when given an opportunity. After beginning his career in the Miami Marlins organization, Bautista spent five seasons in the Orioles system before making the team out of Spring Training this year. In 2021, Bautista pitched for Single-A Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie, and Triple-A Norfolk, compiling an impressive 1.54 ERA and incredible 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Bautista began the season as a middle reliever behind closer Jorge Lopez, who excelled in the role before a trade to the Minnesota Twins at the deadline. After the Lopez trade, Bautista became the full-time closer for a team with playoff aspirations, and closed out several key wins for the team in August and September. In fact, as noted by MASN’s Steve Melewski, Bautista became one of eight pitchers in the Statcast era to throw a pitch at least 103 miles per hour. Bautista was arguably the Orioles’ best relief pitcher in 2023.
Bautista enters 2023 as the strong favorite to begin the year as closer. Bautista, who is not arbitration eligible until 2025, figures to be a stalwart in the Orioles bullpen for years to come.
Prediction: Will be the Orioles’ closer in 2023. While some regression could be expected, Bautista’s strong peripherals, including terrific strike out numbers, should ensure another solid, if not All-Star season.
Dillon Tate (4-4, 3.05 ERA, 1.3 WAR)
While perhaps overshadowed by Bautista, Dillon Tate was fantastic out of the Orioles bullpen in 2022, appearing in 67 games and, among other great attributes, allowing less than one walk and/or hit per inning. The O’s used Tate in several roles this season: to get them out of jams midgame, to pitch the seventh or eighth inning as a bridge to closers Jorge Lopez and Felix Bautista, and even as a closer himself from time to time. Tate, who the Orioles acquired in 2018 for former bullpen stalwart Zack Britton, truly came into his own in 2022 and will be a contributor to the Orioles bullpen for years to come.
Tate enters 2023 as another rock-solid option at the back of the Orioles bullpen. He is entering his first year of arbitration and is not a free agent until 2026.
Prediction: Will be a key component of the 2023 Orioles’ bullpen.
Cionel Perez (7-1, 1.40 ERA, 2.8 WAR)
Cionel Perez came to the Orioles as a talented, but unheralded, left-handed reliever, who struggled with his command over parts of four seasons with the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds. In 24 innings with the Reds in 2021, Perez walked 20 batters in 24 innings and posted a rough 6.38 ERA.
Cionel Perez emerged from the unknown to become a lynchpin of the Baltimore Orioles bullpen.
The Birds signed Perez after the 2021 season, apparently believing they saw something they could fix. And Perez greatly rewarded them for their faith in him. Perez was a dominant force out of the Orioles bullpen in 2022, compiling a 1.40 ERA and striking out nearly one batter per inning. Often entering tight games with runners on base and pumping fastballs by some of the league’s best hitters, the fiery Perez was a joy to watch and root for this season. Like Tate, Perez was used as a “fireman” in the middle innings to snuff out opposing team’s threats, but also acted as a bridge to closers Jorge Lopez and Felix Bautista. He will return to this role in 2023.
More good news: Perez is under team control through 2026, and like Tate and Bautista, figures to be a fixture in a dominant Baltimore bullpen for the next handful of years.
Prediction: Will be a key component of the 2023 Orioles’ bullpen, though some regression due to returning command issues is possible.
Joey Krehbiel (5-5, 3.90 ERA, -0.2 WAR)
Another castaway claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays at the end of the 2021 season, right-hander Joey Krehbiel turned in a solid, if unspectacular, 2022 season out of the Orioles bullpen. Krehbiel got off to a hot start and began the season as the primary set up man behind closer Jorge Lopez, before injuries and struggles relegated him to more of a middle relief role.
Krehbiel is under team control through 2027 and, while not as dominant as Bautista, Tate, and Perez, has a good chance of sticking in the pen next year.
Prediction: Will start the year in the 2023 Orioles’ bullpen but may be relegated to Triple-A Norfolk if he struggles.
Bryan Baker (4-3, 3.49 ERA, 1.4 WAR)
The Orioles claimed Baker, a hard-throwing right-hander, off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays on November 8, 2021. Baker, 27, got off to a rough start for the Orioles, registering a 5.66 ERA through May. However, Baker rewarded the team’s belief in him, turning in a 1.35 ERA in September and averaging over a strikeout per inning for the whole season. At the end of the season when the Orioles were battling for a playoff spot, Baker found himself pitching in high leverage situations and obtaining high value results. It is a wonder why the Blue Jays gave up on him.
Baker’s emergence at the end of the season, plus his strong strikeout numbers, solidify his case for a bullpen spot in 2023. As with many of his fellow Baltimore relievers, Baker is under team control for a while, not becoming a free agent until after the 2027 season.
Prediction: Will be a key component of the 2023 Orioles’ bullpen.
Keegan Akin – (3-3, 3.20 ERA, 0.5 WAR)
The Orioles selected Akin in the second round of the MLB draft in 2016 expecting him to be a solid left-handed starter. Coming into 2022, Akin made the roster as a reliever, and there were concerns as to whether he would ever succeed in the majors.
Instead, Akin dominated as a multi-innings reliever, especially in the early going. Through August, Akin’s ERA sat at 2.78 and, although he had a rough September with a 6.17 ERA, Akin likely did enough to cement himself as a long man/spot starter in the 2023 Orioles bullpen. The hope is that Akin’s 2023 mimics the first 5 months of his 2022, as opposed to the final month of the year. A running theme with this group of relievers, Akin is under control through the 2026 season.
Prediction: Will start 2023 as a long reliever but may shuttle between Norfolk and Baltimore if he struggles.
The Baltimore Orioles have a collection of pitchers that could make the roster either as a starter or reliever.
D.L. Hall (1-1, 5.93 ERA, >1 strikeout/inning)
The Orioles’ first pick in the 2017 MLB draft, D.L. Hall made his long-awaited debut with the Orioles this year, coming out of the bullpen in 10 of 11 games. While the O’s likely view Hall as a starting pitcher down the road, they chose to develop him in the bullpen to start the year.
As expected, Hall flashed great stuff, striking out 19 batters in just over 13 innings and appearing dominant at times. Hall’s inflated ERA largely stems from two rough outings: his Major League debut in Tampa, where he allowed 5 runs in 3.2 innings, and his third outing against the Blue Jays, where he allowed 3 runs in one third of an inning.
Hall came through the Orioles system as a starting pitcher, and that is where many expect to see him next year. However, it is possible that the Orioles choose to start him in the 2023 bullpen, especially if they add 2 or more starting pitchers via free agency or trade this offseason. The Orioles could also use Hall as trade bait, as they look to acquire a proven starting pitcher and/or add power to the lineup to make a run in 2023.
Prediction: Hall will be a mainstay in the starting rotation by June, despite struggling with his command at times.
Nick Vespi is among several young relief pitchers who could contribute to the Orioles bullpen next season.
Nick Vespi (5-0, 4.10 ERA)
While Nick Vespi made history as a minor leaguer for the Orioles in 2022, his major league season was solid but unspectacular. Vespi, who is not a hard thrower, appeared in 25 games and struck out over one batter per inning with the Orioles. Should he make the team, he would join Akin and Perez as the lefties out of the bullpen. While Vespi pitched well in 2022, the Orioles frequently shuttled him between the MLB club and Triple-A Norfolk. While he should secure more opportunities in the majors in 2023, the Orioles often appeared reluctant to keep him on the big club for long periods of time.
Prediction: Vespi will pitch in over 50 games with the Orioles to a solid, sub 3.50 ERA.
Michael Baumann (1-3, 4.72 ERA)
Michael Baumann bounced between Triple-A Norfolk, the Orioles bullpen, and the Orioles’ starting rotation in 2023. With the Orioles, he started 4 out of 13 games, with most of his starts coming in September. Baumann, who has a minor league no hitter under his belt, pitched well enough to be in the running for a roster spot, either in the rotation or the 2023 bullpen.
Prediction: Baumann will continue shuttling between Triple A Norfolk and the Orioles, filling in as a spot starter when needed or providing innings out of the pen.
Do the Baltimore Orioles have any other young pitchers who could contribute in 2023 if the opportunity arises?
Logan Gillaspie (1-0, 3.12 ERA, 17 games)
Logan Gillaspie was often the “Oh yeah, he’s still in the bullpen” guy for the Orioles in 2022. Gillaspie wasn’t bad when he pitched, but figures to yo-yo between Triple-A and the Orioles in 2023. It is also possible that he gets designated for assignment if/when the front office makes additional moves to their 40-man roster in the offseason and during 2023.
Prediction: Gillaspie will pitch in a handful of games for the Orioles in April and May before being designated for assignment and latching on with another organization.
Yennier Cano (1-1, 11.50 ERA, >1 strikeout/inning)
The O’s acquired Cano, 28, in the trade that sent All-Star closer Jorge Lopez to Minnesota. Cano pitched poorly in his three games with the Orioles and is unlikely to play a major role in the 2023 bullpen.
There are plenty of intriguing bullpen options from which to choose if the Baltimore Orioles wish to pursue them.
For the first time in years, the Baltimore Orioles have a talented collection of relievers who they can count on in 2023. While the Birds could acquire a player from another team or sign a free agent, do not expect any major splashes from Mike Elias for the ‘pen.
The free agent market contains several elite options, including Edwin Diaz, Kenley Jansen, Rafael Montero, and Craig Kimbrel. But the Orioles appear set at the back end of their bullpen with Bautista, Tate, Perez, and Baker leading the way. We could see them add a veteran for depth, such as David Robertson or Steve Cishek. However–and this is a good thing–the Orioles bullpen appears set heading into 2023.