Oriole relief pitchers enter the final six games of the 2021 season with a 5.67 ERA—by far the worst in baseball. As planning begins for 2022, there are plenty of in-house candidates for relief jobs, but not many compelling cases.
Not a single Oriole reliever has been on the active roster all season. The one who comes closest, Cole Sulser, spent part of April at the alternate training site at Bowie.
Sulser has the best stats in the bullpen, a 2.79 ERA, seven of 10 save opportunities converted, and 11 of 35 inherited runners scoring (31.4 percent).
He and Tyler Wells, whose season is over because of right shoulder inflammation, are the most likely to return to the bullpen in 2022. Wells began the year as one of two Rule 5 draft picks, steadily earned the trust of manager Brandon Hyde, and ended his season as the unofficial closer.
Dillon Tate could also return. If there are any games to close in the final week against Boston and Toronto, Tate might get a chance. He closed Saturday’s game against Texas, recording his second save in four chances, but his 4.59 ERA and high percentage of inherited runners allowed to score — 25 of 53 for 47.2 percent — are troubling.
The Orioles are finishing the season with 11 relievers and only one, 35-year-old Fernando Abad, is a left-hander. Abad wasn’t added until mid-August and has a 5.71 ERA in 15 games.
At midseason, the lefty duo of Paul Fry and Tanner Scott was thought to be available in trades, but neither was dealt, and neither is on the 26-man roster.
Fry’s August ERA of 21.86 ERA earned him a demotion to Triple-A Norfolk. He has spent the last month with the Tides and has an 8.10 ERA in nine games, although his most recent three outings have been scoreless. With all the transactions the Orioles have made this month, it’s a bit surprising that Fry hasn’t been summoned, though he could be added for the final week.
Scott is on the 10-day injured list because of a sprained left knee. Scott has a second-half ERA of 9.82 ERA in 22 games, and Hyde thinks the knee has had a lot to do with his decline.
Both are arbitration-eligible, and it will be interesting to see if the Orioles retain them.
If they don’t, they’ll need to acquire left-handed help. Abad could be back, and they have a large number of potential left-handed starters: Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Bruce Zimmermann. One or two could be moved to the bullpen, although starting pitching is also an area of weakness.
Zimmermann is scheduled to start on Tuesday night against the Boston Red Sox, and a roster move will need to be made. It’s possible that right-hander Chris Ellis, who left Saturday night’s game because of arm fatigue could take Zimmermann’s place on the injured list.
There are a number of inexperienced relievers on the team: Marcos Diplán, Thomas Eshelman, Conner Greene, Eric Hanhold, Joey Krehbiel, Brooks Kriske, Konner Wade and Spenser Watkins.
Only Diplán and Greene have pitched as many as 20 times for the Orioles, and four — Hanhold, Krehbiel, Kriske and Wade — have combined for just 17 appearances. Krehbiel and Kriske made their first appearances within the last week.
While there are still six games that will be crucial for the Red Sox and Blue Jays’ wild-card pursuit, those games also could be vital in determining if any of these pitchers have a place on the 40-man roster.
There are three other candidates who are on the 60-day injured list.
Jorge López was erratic as a starter — a league-leading 14 losses and 6.35 ERA — but impressed in the bullpen — 2.16 ERA in eight games with the stuff to be a potential closer. López, who sprained an ankle covering first, is eligible for arbitration and would draw interest from other teams. The Orioles should sign him.
Hunter Harvey, the top pick in 2013 whose career has been defined by injury, appeared in only nine games with a 4.15 ERA before he suffered a right lat injury. His season debut had already been delayed by more than two months because of an oblique injury.
While rehabbing at Norfolk, Harvey suffered a right triceps strain. He’ll be returned to the 40-man roster and the Orioles will retain Harvey for another year. He’s not eligible for arbitration and, although they won’t be depending on him, they won’t give up on him just yet, either.
Travis Lakins, who underwent elbow surgery in July, is the third on the 60-day injured list. If the Orioles think Lakins, who had a 5.79 ERA in 24 games, can be ready for spring training, perhaps they’ll retain him. Otherwise, he could be passed through waivers and put on a minor league deal.
Two other relievers on the 40-man roster who are at Norfolk, Zack Burdi and Isaac Mattson.
Burdi was claimed by the Orioles from the Chicago White Sox on waivers on August 18th and appeared in one game, throwing a hitless inning before he was returned to the Tides. He’s on the minor league injured list.
Mattson was one of four pitchers acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the trade for Dylan Bundy in December 2019, and he had a 9.00 ERA in three games for the Orioles.
Space will have to be cleared on the 40-man roster for players who need to be added, including right-hander Kyle Bradish, who came along with Mattson, and left-hander Kevin Smith, obtained from the New York Mets in August 2020 for Miguel Castro.
The Orioles will scour the waiver wire in the coming days. They’ll have first choice when Tampa Bay removes players from their 40-man roster. The Rays have seven pitchers on the 60-day injured list, and the Orioles have claimed Ellis and Krehbiel from Tampa Bay within the last six weeks.
Room also might need to be cleared for Rule 5 draft selections. In each of executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias’ three Rule 5 drafts, he has drafted two players.
There also will be a large number of relief pitchers in the free-agent market. A dependable veteran or two could be the best investment they make all winter.