Baltimore Orioles may have a thin bullpen to start the season
With Spring Training upon us, all thirty teams are preparing for the start of the season in just over a month. Across the majors, teams are already dealing with injuries that will impact their regular season performance. On Tuesday, the Dodgers learned that they will be without their starting shortstop, Gavin Lux, for the entire season as he tore his ACL and the Padres also learned they will likely start the season without their ace, Joe Musgrove, due to a fractured left foot. Similar to the Padres and Dodgers, the Orioles have also dealt with several Spring Training injuries that could impact the team to start the regular season. Notably, the Orioles could be without four relief pitchers on Opening Day in Felix Bautista, DL Hall, Dillon Tate, and Nick Vespi. These four played a notable role in the much-improved bullpen in 2022. As of right now, Tate is the only player guaranteed to miss the start of the season as the other three are progressing down in Sarasota. Of course, 2023 can be seen as a make-or-break season for the Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias regimes, and starting the season with an inexperienced bullpen could prove costly. However, if all four relievers have to miss time during the regular season, there are internal options that can help hold down the fort.
Felix Bautista emerged as one of the most dominant closers in the American League during his rookie season as he habitually threw fastballs that hit triple digit velocity and had enough control and a good use of secondary pitches to make hitters look foolish. Bautista particularly emerged after the trade of Jorge Lopez at the deadline when he became the full-time closer and finished the season with 15 saves and a 2.19 ERA. He also dominated opposing hitters to the tune of 88 strikeouts in 65.2 innings pitched. His overwhelming presence is enough to make Orioles fans comfortable that they will likely win a game when they enter the ninth inning with the lead. O's fans understand the importance of a strong closer as a historic season from Zack Britton led them to their most recent playoff appearance in 2016 and the team struggled to find a reliable closer between 2017 and 2021.
Without Bautista, there are several candidates that could take over the closers' role. Tate would have a strong argument if he were not also injured as he is coming off a strong season where he pitched to a 3.05 ERA in 67 appearances. He was also third on the team in saves behind Lopez and Bautista. The most intriguing internal options are Bryan Baker and Cionel Perez. Baker finished the season strong last year as he had a 1.10 ERA in 16.1 innings in September and October. This strong month likely solidified a spot in the 2023 bullpen and will likely give him the opportunity to pitch in high leverage situations in 2023. Perez had a career year in 2022 with a 1.40 ERA in 57.2 innings. This gave him an extremely impressive 287 ERA+ for the season and made him one of the best relievers in the league. However, Perez only has one career save and that came last season. His platoon splits suggest that he is not solely used a lefty specialist as he was equally impressive against righties and lefties and that could bode well for him in 2023.
Without four relief pitchers, young pitchers will have an opportunity to earn a spot in the bullpen with a strong Spring Training. One notable player looking for a strong spring is rule-5 pick Andrew Politi. Mike Elias has had an interesting track record with rule-5 picks as general manager of the Orioles. The biggest rule-5 success story in his tenure has been Tyler Wells who was seen as a high-risk high-reward prospect as he made his Major League debut before pitching a game above Single-A. Politi is less risky as he pitched well in Triple-A Worcester last season. He only started 2 of the 50 games that he pitched in last year but had a 2.34 ERA in 69.1 innings last year between Worcester and Portland. He also spent three seasons at Seton Hall University in New Jersey before being drafted by the Red Sox in 2018. Despite having yet to make his big league debut, Politi is 26 years old and will turn 27 in June so he is not seen as much of a prospect for the Orioles and instead will hopefully provide bullpen depth for this season.
Without Hall and Vespi, the O's bullpen will lack left-handed pitching depth. Perez is an asset in that regard but the bullpen lacks a true lefty specialist. Keegan Akin spent most of 2022 in the O's bullpen and had an inconsistent season with some flashes of brilliance. He finished the season with a solid 3.20 ERA in 81.2 innings pitched. However, he finished the season poorly with a 5.02 ERA over the final 2 months in 25.1 innings pitched and allowed many inherited runners to score.
Other than Akin, other lefty options to start the season in the bullpen are Darwinzon Hernandez, Drew Rom, and Bruce Zimmermann if Hall and Vespi are not available. Rom and Zimmermann are members of the 40-man roster but have been used primarily as starters over the past few seasons and Zimmermann notably struggled in 2022 between Triple-A and the majors. Rom is yet to make his big league debut and has very little experience in Triple-A as he started 7 games for the Norfolk Tides to finish the 2022 season. Hernandez has the most MLB relief experience of the bunch as he pitched in 91 games over four seasons with the Red Sox. He has a lackluster career ERA of 5.06 and struggled mightily in 2022 to a 21.60 ERA in 7 appearances.
Ultimately, injuries have made the bullpen situation interesting to start the 2023 season as some young pitchers will have the opportunity to make the Opening Day roster and provide depth for a bullpen that had a strong 2022 season and will be pivotal for an Orioles playoff push in 2023.