Orioles' bullpen was a bright spot in 2020 - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Rich Dubroff

Orioles’ bullpen was a bright spot in 2020

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.

Question time: Later this week, I’ll be answering your Orioles questions. Please leave them in the comments or email them to: [email protected].

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB




  1. Orioles20

    September 29, 2020 at 7:59 am

    Sulser shouldn’t have been closer to begin with. He cost us about five games. Hyde’s management of the bullpen and situational baseball has to improve. He leaves starters in too long then expects relievers to come in a lose lose situation and get out of it. I don’t understand why he won’t give the relievers roles. Scott or Harvey should be closer.

    • CalsPals

      September 29, 2020 at 10:22 am

      Agree, think I’d go w/Scott as closer until Harvey actually shows something substantial…go O’s…

  2. NormOs

    September 29, 2020 at 8:37 am

    Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of Hess, Phillips, and Sulser.

  3. BunkerFan

    September 29, 2020 at 9:29 am

    While the O’s coaching staffs in the Show and at Bowie should be given lots of praise, their failure to bring up Cesar Valdez until the last days of August and then only put him into a position to close games out of desperation some days later cost probably 5 wins or more. Sulser’s blown saves…it feels like there were others who failed in that role…. Castro blew 2 saves in August. That’s the difference between being 10 games under .500 and a possible berth in the Postseason, however unlikely that would have been (though check out Miami). Management can’t be so focused on the future that it misses players already there who could help the team win now.

  4. Bhoffman1

    September 29, 2020 at 9:35 am

    Cmon the two walk offs to Toronto were season deflating. Sulser is gone I hope. Valdez should be no difficult decision. I’m sure they are paying him hardly nothing and he performed much better then Givens and Castro for a fraction of the cost. Phillips is a head case . Great stuff if he can learn how to throw strikes more consistently. Maybe Hess will have a career somewhere else but he’s failed enough here

    • CalsPals

      September 29, 2020 at 10:25 am

      Agree all the way around here, adios to Sulser, there is a reason he’s as old as he is…the youngens really did a much better job, jury is still out on Harvey, no real evidence if he can do it or not yet…go O’s…

    • Orial

      September 29, 2020 at 10:58 am

      Along with Mountcastle,Hays,Kremer the refurbished bullpen definitely was an O’s bright spot. Replacing Givens,Castro,Bleier with the “new” blood worked out just fine. I don’t blame Hyde for failed late inning moves as much as others. A lot of it is second guessing and the “right” move gone “wrong”. I do slap his wrist for going to Sulser one too many times. This surreal events of with or without pitching to Grinchuk are head scratchers. As good as Fry,Scott looked they seemed to struggle against of all things–lefties. Seemed Severino didn’t help those kind of pitchers with sweeping sliders–too many got away. Loved Tate,concerned about Harvey. Valdez is a keeper until they catch up to him. Armstrong and an Elias FA addition this winter and we’ll take it from there.

  5. Balt mp

    September 29, 2020 at 10:23 am

    There is something to be said for having specific roles in the bullpen . I believe both Dave’s Johnson and Buck were great at that . I think you’d be hard pressed to find a successful manager and by extension team without having defined roles in the pen . Harvey should be given the opportunity to be the closer they groomed him for that and then failed to use him in that role . Scott could do it but I fear the game still speeds up on him in pressure situations .

    • Rich Dubroff

      September 29, 2020 at 9:34 pm

      Clyde, both Davey Johnson and Buck Showalter had fine teams, and it’s easier to develop roles on good teams. There weren’t that many games for the Orioles to close this season. Look at the season’s last week, after an off day, they had four lopsided games, where Hyde didn’t use Scott or Harvey. If there aren’t many opportunities to close, the closers don’t get a lot of relevant work.

  6. Bancells Moustache

    September 29, 2020 at 11:22 am

    We’ll see how it goes. A lot of pieces need to assembled and vetted. Harvey and Scott’s upside is a fun topic of conversation, but there is no one out behind the fence I really feel comfortable handing a one run lead to at this time. Say what you will about the many failings of Dan Duquette, the man could assemble a bullpen. Let’s see what Elias can do.

  7. Boog Robinson Robinson

    September 29, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    Let’s start with a few hair cuts in the bullpen. And no more cock-eyed hats either!

    • Bancells Moustache

      September 29, 2020 at 2:49 pm

      I like the hair. Reminds me of the 70s and 80s, when men were men, and any ballplayer without a moustache not named Ripken was considered suspect at best.

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        September 30, 2020 at 6:26 pm

        There were no mullets in the 70s … and they weren’t just moustaches, they were Fu Man Chus.

    • CalsPals

      September 29, 2020 at 3:29 pm

      Here, here, DQ the gaudy gold chains as well… go O’s…

  8. garyintheloo

    September 29, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    Personally they can look like Samson before Delilah if they can get hitters out. One thing obvious this century is that other than the Manny Riveras of the world relievers are all just year to year. The Orioles need to focus on starters who can challenge for six or seven innings with some regularity.
    My question for the mailbag is can someone explain to me the logic of virtually guaranteeing Chris Davis makes it through spring training next year? You are certainly getting zip for the money regardless.

    • dlgruber1

      September 29, 2020 at 3:38 pm

      What’s to explain? He’s got 2 years remaining on his contract and the O’s are gonna make him “earn” his money wearing an Orioles uniform, results be damned.

  9. cedar

    September 29, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    Is there any word on the Arizona Fall League? If so who do you think the Orioles would send?

    • Rich Dubroff

      September 29, 2020 at 9:31 pm

      It was officially cancelled today.

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