When the Orioles gathered for spring training in Sarasota, Florida last February, manager Brandon Hyde was undecided on a closer.
Mychal Givens had been ineffective as a closer in 2019 and performed much better in a set-up role. Hyde hoped that Hunter Harvey could become the Orioles’ closer, but when it finally came time to play on July 24th, he was on the injured list because of an elbow injury.
Hyde didn’t like his other choices and chose Cole Sulser. It worked out well for a short time.
Sulser, who turned 30 on March 12, the day spring training ended because of Covid-19, had scant big league experience — seven scoreless appearances in 2019 for the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays had too many other pitchers to keep Sulser, and the Orioles claimed him just after last season ended.
In his first eight appearances, Sulser had five saves, a win that was also a blown save, and a loss. In his second outing, he gave up a three-run home run to New York’s Aaron Judge in the ninth inning.
Hyde stayed with Sulser, but his fifth and final save came on August 15th. After two tough losses to the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo in late August, Sulser was moved out of the closer’s role. He finished with a 1-5 record and 5.56 ERA and his place on the 40-man roster is in question.
Harvey didn’t pitch until August 30th and didn’t have the electric stuff that made him dominant late in the season in 2019, He was 0-2 with a 4.15 ERA in eight games, none in save situations.
If Harvey comes back strong, he and hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott would give the Orioles solid options for 2021.
However, being a closer on a non-contending team is difficult. As Givens found out during the 108-loss season in 2019, there aren’t enough save chances to keep a closer in a regular rhythm.
Hyde doesn’t seem as if he’ll put a late-innings guy in a one-sided game simply to get them work.
For most of the 60-game 2020 season, Hyde had 14 or 15 pitchers. That was a good thing because starters weren’t built up. It wasn’t until the 50th game that a starter, Jorge López, went seven innings.
Hyde used six or more pitchers 14 times in those 60 games. The Orioles won nine of those games.
In the season’s final 40 games, the Orioles had just four saves, one by Scott on August 23rd, and three by César Valdez, whose changeups baffled hitters used to seeing mid-90s fastballs.
Valdez reinvented himself as a pitcher in Mexico and allowed just two earned runs in 14 1/3 innings for a 1.26 ERA and a 0.698 WHIP. Valdez gave up just seven hits and issued three walks.
At 35, Valdez is an unlikely closer but a welcome presence on a club that’s rebuilding.
Valdez emerged after Givens, Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro were traded.
Other candidates to close could be Shawn Armstrong, who had a 1.80 ERA in 14 appearances, and Dillon Tate, who came to the Orioles in July 2018 from the New York Yankees in the Zack Britton deal. Tate had a 3.24 ERA and 0.840 WHIP in 16 2/3 innings.
Another intriguing possibility is Isaac Mattson, one of four pitchers the Orioles received from the Los Angeles Angels for Dylan Bundy last December. Mattson was at the Bowie alternate site. In three minor league seasons, Mattson averaged nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft if the Orioles don’t add him to the 40-man roster.
Notes: According to a report by The Athletic, the Orioles laid off and furloughed about 50 employees in the public relations, production, sales and ticketing departments. The team had paid its full-time employees for the entire season … Hanser Alberto received the “Oriole Way” award from the Orioles Advocates for his community service work.