The biggest surprise for the Orioles in 2022 was the improvement in their bullpen, and if the team is going to improve further in 2023, the relievers are going to have to contribute just as much if not more.
In 2021, the bullpen had a 5.70 earned-run average in 666 2/3 innings. In 2022, the ERA dropped to 3.49 despite throwing nearly as many innings (631).
The bullpen personnel was different this past season. When the Orioles traded Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser, two of its most experienced pitchers, and decided to make Tyler Wells a starter, the bullpen had a brand new look for 2022.
Scott and Sulser were traded just five days before the season opener, and Paul Fry, the only remaining reliever who had been with the team since before the arrival of general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, was let go in mid-May.
The bullpen became younger, and much better.
Jorge López, who faltered as a starter, was terrific in the first half and earned an All-Star invitation but was traded to Minnesota on August 2nd. Félix Bautista became the closer.
Before a meltdown against Houston in an 11-10 loss on September 24th, Bautista had a 1.71 ERA and 12 consecutive successful save chances after López was traded. He pitched only once after that and was shut down in the final days of the season because of left knee discomfort.
Bautista, 27, who began 2021 with High-A Aberdeen and was surprisingly added to the 40-man roster last November, seemed unlikely to make the team let alone become such a vital player.
The trade of Scott and Sulser and a temporary roster expansion to 28 allowed him to make the Orioles, a development that was not foreseen when the shortened spring training began on March 14th.
Bautista, who finished with a 4-4 record with a 2.19 ERA and 15 saves in 17 chances, struck out nearly four times as many batters as he walked (88/23), a far better ration than he had in the minor leagues. He’ll enter 2023 as the Orioles’ closer.
Dillon Tate, 28, the most senior remaining reliever from 2021, had a solid season. Tate was 4-4 with a 3.05 ERA with five saves in six chances. He led the bullpen with 73 2/3 innings, and walked just 16 with 60 strikeouts.
Tate is eligible for arbitration for the first time, and MLBTradeRumors estimates he’ll receive $1.5 million next season. The year before, Tate was 0-6 with a 4.39 ERA and walked 23 and struck out just 49 in 67 2/3 innings.
His improvement wasn’t a shock, but the performance of Cionel Pérez was.
Pérez, 26, who had been picked up on waivers last November after walking 20 batters in 24 innings for Cincinnati, reduced his ERA from 6.38 to 1.40. The left-hander allowed just two home runs in 57 2/3 innings and compiled a 7-1 record.
Bryan Baker also surprised. Before 2022, Baker had thrown just one major league inning, and also wasn’t expected to make the roster to begin the season.
Baker, 27, who started two games when the team ran short of starters, had just a 5.66 ERA through May and reduced it during June and July. While it rose again in August, he was strong in the last five weeks of the season, allowing just two runs on eight hits in 16 1/3 innings after September 1st.
The 6-6 right-hander ended 2022 with a 4-3 record and a 3.79 ERA. Baker gave up just three home runs in 69 2/3 innings and will enter spring training as one of Hyde’s most trusted relievers.
Baker, Bautista, Pérez and Tate have secured spots in the ’23 bullpen if they return.
There are four other spots and, come spring training, there will be many candidates. Austin Voth, Spenser Watkins and Bruce Zimmermann, who will challenge for starting spots, could challenge for long relief, as well.
So could Keegan Akin, who had a seamless transition to the bullpen in the early months of 2022 before doubling his first-half ERA (2.36) in the second half (4.76).
Joey Krehbiel, who enlivened the clubhouse with his mastery at the pool and ping-pong tables, was another older pitcher with a thin major league resume entering 2022. Krehbiel, who had been claimed from Tampa Bay near the end of the 2021 season, had just eight major league appearances at age 29.
Joining Baker and Bautista as a long shot to make the team, Krehbiel was 4-3 with a 2.18 ERA in the first half of the season before struggling in the second half. Krehbiel’s second-half ERA was 6.20 and, with just over a week left in the season, he was sent to Triple-A Norfolk. His place on the 40-man roster could be tenuous.
Between compiling a 5-0 record with a 4.10 ERA and a save in 25 games, left-hander Nick Vespi, 27, managed to avoid allowing an earned run in 28 appearances for Norfolk. The Orioles were reluctant to add him to the roster in September, choosing others instead, but he finished the season with the team as the 29th man for the doubleheader on the final day of the year.
Logan Gillaspie, 25, another surprise inclusion on the 40-man roster at the end of 2021, began the season with Double-A Bowie, but he managed to appear in 17 games with a 3.12 ERA. Gillaspie also remains on the 40-man roster.
The Orioles have already removed right-handers Louis Head, Jake Reed and Beau Sulser from the 40-man roster. Reed was claimed off waivers from Boston, and Sulser returned to Pittsburgh, who waived him in May. Head went unclaimed and has been outrighted to Norfolk.
There probably will be some free-agent signings, promotions from Norfolk and perhaps a Rule 5 selection for more competition as the Orioles attempt to duplicate their 2022 bullpen success in 2023.
Note: Many thanks to Chuck Gitomer, of Portland, Oregon, who pointed out an error in my answer to Craig Russell in Wednesday’s mailbag.
Craig wanted to know what the Orioles would forfeit if they decided to sign a free agent who had been given a qualifying offer.
The correct answer is teams that receive revenue-sharing money would lose their third-highest pick in next year’s draft. The Orioles are one of 13 teams that receive revenue-sharing money. If they signed two players who refused qualifying offers, they’d also lose their fourth-highest pick in the draft.
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB