Orioles face winter of uncertainty on closer decision - BaltimoreBaseball.com
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Orioles face winter of uncertainty on closer decision

Photo Credit: Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

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There are no betting odds on who will be the Orioles’ closer in 2024. There are only educated guesses.

Félix Bautista had Tommy John surgery in Arlington, Texas last week and is beginning his long rehabilitation, which the Orioles hope will culminate in his returning to dominance in 2025.

Bautista, whom the Orioles signed to $1 million contracts for 2024 and 2025 before his surgery, was baseball’s best reliever this season with an 8-2 record, a 1.48 earned-run average and 33 saves. He allowed just 30 hits in 61 innings while striking out 110 of the 237 batters faced.

He injured his elbow on August 25th, was placed on the injured list the next day but still tried to get his arm in shape so that he could pitch in the postseason before that plan was abandoned in the last week of the season.

“That is a massive hole,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said at last week’s season-ending press conference. “I don’t even think we felt it totally just with the way the games went after he got hurt. It’s going to be tough to replace him, so we’re going to bring all of our brainpower towards answering that question.”

The Orioles went 21-13 with Bautista on the injured list. After Danny Coulombe threw a final strike on August 25th for a save, there were eight Oriole saves.

Yennier Cano had four, Cionel Pérez had two, and Shintaro Fujinami and Tyler Wells had one each.

When Bautista was injured, manager Brandon Hyde said that he would mix and match, but most times went with Cano, who, like Bautista, was an American League All-Star.

Cano had eight saves and a 2.11 ERA, but he wasn’t the force that Bautista was, striking out 65 of the 283 batters he faced. It’s possible he could be the primary closer next season.

So could left-hander DL Hall, if the Orioles decide to abandon the idea of him being a starter. Hall was 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA and struck out 23 batters in 19 1/3 innings. In his final seven regular-season games, Hall allowed just three hits in 7 1/3 scoreless innings. He added an impressive 3 1/3 scoreless in two games against Texas in the Division Series.

“We haven’t discussed DL’s role next year,” Hyde said last week. “I’m excited about how he threw the ball in September, and how he threw the ball on the national stage. Whatever we decide to do with him, he’s going to be a huge part of our team next year…He’s going to be a big impact for us going forward.”

Assuming Hall doesn’t start, Cano and Hall, along with Coulombe and Pérez probably will have important roles in the bullpen. Of that group, only Cano is right-handed.

The Orioles could also try Tyler Wells in the bullpen, where he was successful in 2021 before he turned to starting, but the feeling here is they need to try him to make sure he can return to the rotation, where he was excellent for the first half of the season before considering him as a bullpen piece.

Last offseason, Elias signed Mychal Givens as a free agent, a signing that didn’t work out well. He was released after six poor outings between two stints on the injured list.

It’s not clear whether Fujinami will return. The same is true with Dillon Tate, who didn’t pitch in the majors at all in 2023 after an outstanding 2022 when he went 4-4 with five saves and a 3.05 ERA.

Elias could return to the free-agent market but probably won’t spend enormous money on a closer. He could employ the same strategy he’s used in signing Jordan Lyles and Kyle Gibson to one-year contracts the past two winters and sign a veteran to a short-term contract, hoping that Bautista returns to his brilliance in 2025.

The Orioles could always try to turn one of their young minor league pitchers into a late-inning force.

The two best relievers in recent team history, Bautista and Zack Britton, were never considered as major league closers until they were needed in that role.

Next spring, we’ll see plenty of auditions, even though it’s impossible to replicate the ninth inning of a major league game in the Grapefruit League. The guess here is that we won’t know the identity of the Orioles’ closer until Hyde calls for him in the ninth inning of the first regular-season game when there’s a save to be had.

Surgery for Zimmermann: On Thursday, left-hander Bruce Zimmermann had core muscle surgery, which the Orioles said was successful, at Vincera Institute in Philadelphia. The surgery was performed by Dr. Alex Poor. Zimmermann is expected to be ready for spring training.

Zimmermann was 2-0 with a 4.73 ERA in seven games with the Orioles this season. He was 4-7 with a 4.42 ERA in 21 starts for Triple-A Norfolk.

Era Committee Nominees for Hall of Fame: The Contemporary Baseball Era Committee for managers/executives/umpires nominated eight candidates for the Hall of Fame in December:

Two candidates have long Oriole ties — former second baseman Davey Johnson, who managed the Orioles to the postseason in 1996 and 1997 and won 1,372 for five teams in 17 seasons, and Hank Peters, who was the general manager when the team won its last World Series in 1983.

Also nominated were longtime managers Cito Gaston, Jim Leyland and Lou Piniella, who began his playing career in 1964, umpires Joe West and Ed Montague and former National League president Bill White.

West umpired 5,460 games, the most in baseball history.

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