One area that the Orioles showed substantial improvement in 2020 was relief pitching. In 2019, their bullpen had a 5.79 earned-run average. This year, relievers compiled a 3.90 ERA.
The three most experienced Oriole relievers — Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens — were traded. Bleier, dealt after two scoreless outings, went to the Miami Marlins on July 31st and posted a 2.63 ERA for them. He’ll be in the postseason.
Castro, who had a 4.00 ERA for the New York Mets, and Givens, who had a 6.75 ERA for the Colorado Rockies, were both dealt in late August and are going home for the offseason.
The Orioles were left with less experience in the bullpen, but they still had some strong arms.
Left-handed power pitcher Tanner Scott had a 1.31 ERA with three earned runs in a staff-leading 25 games. Scott allowed 12 hits in 20 2/3 innings. His emergence allowed the Orioles to trade the left-handed Bleier.
Paul Fry, another lefty, had his best season in three years with the Orioles. His 2.45 ERA was a bounce back from 2019 when he was 0-6 with a 7.06 ERA in the second half. Fry had seven multi-run outings in 2019, and none this year.
Right-hander Dillon Tate, who was obtained from the New York Yankees in the Zack Britton trade in July 2018, cut his ERA nearly in half. In 2019, it was 6.43, and this year, it was 3.24.
Tate gave up nine hits in 16 2/3 innings, but missed the last week of 2020 after tripping in his apartment and injuring his right pinky finger. When he went on the 10-day injured list, he was replaced by Shawn Armstrong, who gave up only nine hits and three walks in 15 innings.
Armstrong missed a month because of lower back soreness. His 5.13 ERA in 2019 fell to 1.80 in 2020.
Another solid addition was long reliever Travis Lakins, who had a 2.81 ERA and tied for the team lead with three wins.
In the strange-but-true category, 35-year-old César Valdez was a delightful story. Before coming to the Orioles, Valdez had pitched in just 20 big leagues games in 2010 and 2017 with Arizona, Oakland and Toronto, never distinguishing himself.
Valdez compiled a 1.26 ERA in nine games. He pitched in so few games that he won’t be eligible to be a free agent until after the 2025 season, when he’ll be 40. Valdez gave up just seven hits in 14 1/3 innings, baffling hitters consistently with changeups.
Not everyone pitched well. There is concern about Hunter Harvey, another power arm who was dominant when he was called up late last season. Harvey, who has pitched only 15 big league innings. allowed four earned runs in 8 2/3 innings for a 4.15 ERA and started the season late because of an elbow injury.
Manager Brandon Hyde would love to have Harvey and Scott as his late-inning guys, with Tate setting them up. If the Orioles are able to keep Armstrong, Fry and Lakins, they could have six effective relievers.
The Orioles were able to take advantage of the 2020 roster rule that permitted 30 players to begin the season and 28 after the first two weeks. The extra bullpen arms came in handy in the 60-game season.
One of those pitchers was 30-year-old Cole Sulser, who had appeared in just seven major league games before the Orioles claimed him on waivers from Tampa Bay after the 2019 season. Sulser was put in the closer’s role to start the season and earned his first save with two scoreless innings at Boston on July 26th. Four days later, though, he allowed a ninth-inning, three-run home run to Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.
For the next month, Sulser’s effort was uneven and after two walk-off losses to the Toronto Blue Jays in late August, Hyde took him out of the closer’s role. Sulser ended with a 5.56 ERA and an uncertain place in the Orioles’ bullpen.
Decisions on the 40-man roster must be made, and room will be needed for several players who need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. Sulser’s spot could be in jeopardy.
David Hess (6.43 ERA in three appearances) and Branden Kline (1.80 in three outings) also could be on the 40-man bubble.
Evan Phillips, who had a 5.02 ERA in 11 appearances and ended the year on the 10-day injured list because of a right elbow injury, intrigues the Orioles because of his potential and he could get another chance in 2020.
Valdez will require another decision. He was outstanding, but do the Orioles keep him as a possible trade chip? It’s uncertain how much value he has or if he is simply a pitcher with a changeup that hitters just aren’t familiar with.
Valdez turns 36 next March and could be an addition for a contender, but probably wouldn’t bring much on the trade market.
Initially, Valdez didn’t seem to be a fit in the speed-obsessed game of 2020, but his appearances were against postseason teams — the Blue Jays, Yankees, Braves and Rays.
Valdez gives the Orioles another effective arm because his changeup is so good. He also gives them another tough decision, something that’s welcomed.
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