The 2023 MLB season came to a close on November 1, and players whose contracts expired became free agents the following day. Those players were allowed to sign new contracts with their teams for five days. On November 6 at 5:00PM EST, free agency opened up and those players were free to sign with any team. This year's free agent class is pitcher heavy with several big name pitchers expected to sign with new teams.
The Baltimore Orioles were very successful this season and a big part of that success came from a reliable bullpen. Yennier Cano had a breakout rookie season, stabilizing a struggling O's bullpen early in the season and earning his first all-star election. Mike Baumann set the franchise record out of the bullpen for the most consecutive wins to start a season, and Felix Bautista was arguably the best reliever in baseball, also earning his first all-star election and could have been in the running for Cy Young had his season not been cut short by injury.
In baseball things can change season to season. Keegan Akin, who was great in 2022, was not able to duplicate his success in 2023. Dillon Tate, who was also a huge part of the bullpen in 2022, couldn't come back from injury this season and who knows how he will be after missing so much time.
As we all know, Bautista will miss the entire 2024 season after having Tommy John surgery and Shintaro Fujinami has entered free agency. With Tyler Wells and DL Hall still trying their hands at being a major league starter, there is definitely room in the bullpen for new arms that could make this strength even stronger.
Who could the Orioles pursue for bullpen help?
The Orioles elected not to go after Jordan Hicks at the trade deadline when the St. Louis Cardinals put him on the market. Things are different now that Bautista is injured, and the O's closer role isn't locked in. Hicks is a flame throwing right hander with a fastball that goes well over 100 MPH.
He was used regularly in high leverage situations this season for the Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays and has experience as a closer. Hicks is coming off his best season in the majors that saw him post double digit K/9 and an improved walk rate. He would be a very nice addition to the O's bullpen as either a high leverage arm in the mid to late innings or as a closer.
Coming off of his ninth all-star season, Craig Kimbrel is a highly decorated reliever that has done it all. He has been awarded as the National League and American League reliever of the year as well as the Rolaids Reliever of the year.
Kimbrel will be entering his 15th season in the majors and will turn 36 years old during the season, but he is still a very good closer as evidenced by his 3.26 ERA and 12.3 K/9 in 2023. He also has plenty of postseason experience including a World Series Championship. Kimbrel's pitching and leadership could play a big role in the Birds bullpen.
Mike Elias has expanded the Orioles participation in international free agents, and Yuki Matsui is an opportunity to expand even further. After playing the last 10 seasons for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, Matsui enters this year's free agent class as a full international free agent. That means that any team that signs him will not have to pay a posting fee, nor will they lose a draft pick.
Even though he has 10 years of experience, Matsui just turned 28 about two weeks ago. Matsui primarily uses a three pitch mix with a fastball, splitter and slider. The left hander is a strikeout artist that has averaged double digit strikeouts in each season he played professionally. The ability to enter a tough situation and get strikeouts appeals to every major league team.
Reynaldo Lopez just completed his eighth major league season, but only his second as a full time reliever and he appears to have settled in nicely. He spent the majority of the season in a setup role with the Chicago White Sox and was briefly put into the closer's role near the trade deadline until he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.
Lopez pitched well for the Angels as they attempted a playoff run but was waived when they attempted to dump salary. He was claimed by the Cleveland Guardians, where he was lights out. Lopez was 1-0 in 12 appearances with Cleveland allowing five hits and 0 runs in 11.0 innings to finish the season. Lopez is a high quality arm that could be affordable for the Orioles.
After coming over from the Oakland Athletics in a trade, Shintaro Fujinami showed Birdland that he possesses one of the best arms in all of baseball. Similar to Bautista, Fujinami throws a fastball that regularly hits triple digits and has a splitter, that when working, makes his pitch combination almost unhittable.
Unfortunately, when his slider is not on, batters hit the splitter very hard. Fujinami has control issues that need to be worked out, but the Orioles have very good pitching coaches that have had success with many other pitchers.
Fujinami has stated that he wants to be a starting pitcher in the majors but if he's willing to accept a bullpen role, a full off-season with the Orioles coaching staff to turn him into one of the game's elite bullpen arms.
Orioles fans have gotten used to being disappointed in recent off-seasons with the O's making less than thrilling moves, but this year could be different. Not only is the rebuild finally over, but the Birds are now a winning team that top players will want to play for.
Everyone wants to get their shot at a World Series Championship and Baltimore is a team that can give them that. The only question remaining is whether or not John Angelos will spend the money.