Orioles already feeling dangerous effects of Craig Kimbrel, Yennier Cano overuse

Yennier Cano and Craig Kimbrel cannot keep up this blistering pace.
Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles
Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

Several questions surrounded the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen heading into the last offseason, mainly regarding how they would try to fill the closer role vacated by the injury of Felix Bautista. Bautista left some very big shoes to fill, figuratively and literally, and the Orioles responded by signing veteran All-Star Craig Kimbrel to act as the teams primary closer. Yennier Cano also figured to factor into the decision, while players like Danny Coulombe, Cionel Perez and Dillon Tate have also recorded saves in an Orioles uniform.

The Orioles currently sport an 18-10 record, but the team could have very easily been 20-8. Instead, two blown saves against the lowly Oakland A's turned what could have been a series sweep into a series loss. Kimbrel had been lights out for most of the month. After a tough first outing, the veteran went nine straight without giving up a run, converting all six of his save opportunities while striking out 14 of 27 batters faced. Kimbrel did give up an unearned run against the Los Angeles Angels on April 24, but still looked solid.

Unfortunately, the wheels fell off against the A's. Kimbrel's first appearance in the series was a disaster, as he just could not find the strike zone. He walked three batters and surrendered two hits in just 0.1 innings, leaving the bases loaded. Keegan Akin was able to come in and work out of that jam without allowing any further damage, but the Orioles ended up losing that game in extra innings.  Kimbrel's second appearance against the A's was more of the same. He walked the first batter he faced before surrendering a two-run homer to Kyle McCann, the second hitter he faced, which gave the A's the lead in the ninth inning. To make matters worse, Kimbrel left the game after that with an apparent back injury.

Cano has been reliable as the Orioles' set-up man ever since taking over that role in 2023. This season has been no different, as he continues to thrive in his role. Cano has already accrued a 2-1 record with a 2.45 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 14.2 innings. The thing these two pitchers have in common right now is the high amount of usage they're getting. Cano has appeared in 14 games and Kimbrel has appeared in 13. That puts them on pace to appear in 84 and 78 games, respectively.

The Orioles should be careful with Yennier Cano and Craig Kimbrel

We all saw how Kimbrel faultered in the 2023 playoffs; it looked similar to what happened against Oakland in two consecutive appearances. That season, he pitched 69.0 innings and made 71 appearances. Both totals were his highest since his rookie season in 2011. Cano is five years younger than Kimbrel, and has not thrown nearly as many innings, but pitchers these days are rarely asked to make 84 appearances in a season. No Orioles pitcher has appeared in more than 81 games in a season, and that was done by Jamie Walker in 2007. The last pitcher in MLB to appear in 84 or more games in a season was Johnny Venters in 2011, when he made 85 appearances for the Atlanta Braves. Venters threw 88.0 innings that year; the only time Cano has thrown anything close to that was in the 2014-15 Cuban National Series as a 20-year-old, when he pitched 86.2 innings.

Kimbrel and Cano are both very good pitchers that are capable of anchoring the Orioles bullpen as they make what we all hope will be a run to the World Series, but they need some help. If Kimbrel misses time with his back injury, the O's could turn to Cano as a closer, though he struggled in that role last season, converting just six of his 12 save opportunities in 2023. So where does the help at the back end of the bullpen come from?

Orioles potential closer after Craig Kimbrel injury

As mentioned before, Coulombe, Perez and Tate have closed games for the Orioles. Perez is still working his way back from an injury he sustained in his first appearance this season with the Birds, but he's now made two appearances in Norfolk and looks close to returning. Tate and Coulombe could be used in a joint closer role, since Brandon Hyde likes to play the matchups, but saving two guys for the ninth inning makes the bullpen even shorter. Hyde also likes to turn to Coulombe in high-leverage situations earlier in the games. Tate has also been (temporarily?) demoted, cursed by his own minor-league options while the Birds figure things out.

The O's could recall Nick Vespi or Wandisson Charles from Norfolk, both of whom have experience closing in Triple-A and could be used as closers in the majors or, more likely, as a place filler in the bullpen should Kimbrel land on the IL. Norfolk has spread save situations out almost as much as they can this season, but Vespi does have 30 career minor league saves in 37 opportunities and one major league save, while Charles is 20-for-29 in save chances. Vespi may be more likely to appear in the bigs because he's already on the 40-man roster, whereas as spot would need to be opened for Charles.

The long-term answer could be Tyler Wells when he's able to return from his current arm injury, as a career in the bullpen could be more successful and healthier for him, but he is currently without a timetable for his return. Until everyone is healthy, the best option to add to the late-inning rotation is Keegan Akin. Akin just showed that he's capable of handling the pressure when he temporarily saved the Orioles in the first game of that series. He entered the game with a tie score in the ninth inning with one out and the bases loaded. Akin struck out the first batter he faced and induced a pop up to the second to get the O's out of the inning, still with a chance to win. On the season, Akin, who has also pitched in 13 games already, has a 3.46 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 18 strikeouts against three walks in 13.0 innings, while holding hitters to a .188 batting average.

The Orioles are a very good team that will have plenty of late-game, high-leverage innings for pitchers as the season goes on. When healthy, they have more than enough talent to fill those innings, but the injury bug has bitten this pitching staff early and often this season. Hyde has a tough task in front of him deciding how to use the personnel he has most efficiently, and Mike Elias will have to make some tough decisions about trying to wait until the staff is healthy or going out and getting another pitcher.