From the moment All-Star closer Felix Bautista walked off the mound with an elbow injury on Aug. 25, questions about the Orioles bullpen weren’t going away.
Zack Britton, Andrew Miller, and Darren O’Day weren’t suddenly walking through that door.
Many had clamored for general manager Mike Elias to add another high-leverage bullpen arm at the trade deadline a few weeks prior to that, so losing the best reliever in baseball certainly wasn’t going to help matters. That the Orioles have gone 15-9 and haven’t even had many save situations with Bautista on the 15-day injured list is a credit to just how well they’ve performed across the board.
Despite the anxiety observed on social media on a nightly basis, the Orioles still rank a respectable ninth in the majors in bullpen ERA (3.76) since Aug. 26. But according to FanGraphs, the bullpen is only 19th in wins above replacement (0.3) over that same period, making it apparent that other phases of the game have been doing the heaviest lifting for Baltimore in recent weeks. From the start of the 2023 season through the night of Bautista’s injury, the Orioles led the majors in bullpen WAR (6.7) with Bautista leading all major league relievers in WAR and AL relievers in win probability added, reflecting just how vital he was.
Having completed another bullpen session Wednesday, Bautista is apparently still hoping to pitch in the postseason despite a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. But no one has any idea what to expect even if Bautista were to somehow make his way back to the mound in October. That would still qualify as more of a baseball miracle than a viable plan at this point.
So, who can manager Brandon Hyde really trust in the bullpen at this stage?
Since a rocky July, right-hander Yennier Cano has pitched to a 1.96 ERA over 18 1/3 innings and registered three saves in Bautista’s absence. The All-Star reliever doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d prefer from your closer and hasn’t been as dominant as he was in the first half, but he’s easily the best reliever the Orioles have among those with their UCL intact.
Despite some hiccups in Houston this week, left-hander Danny Coulombe has been Baltimore’s third-best reliever behind Bautista and Cano over the course of the season with a 2.64 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. The 33-year-old has also been effective against right-handed hitters, making him one of Elias’ best acquisitions as he was purchased from Minnesota days before the opener.
After a rough first half that had some wondering if he might be designated for assignment, lefty Cionel Perez hasn’t allowed an earned run since July 29, looking more like the 2022 Perez capable of shutting down lefty hitters. We saw that Tuesday night when he struck out Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez on three pitches for the save.
Right-hander Jacob Webb’s September hasn’t been as good as his August, but he has still pitched to a 3.26 ERA and struck out 20 over 19 1/3 innings since being claimed, making one wonder why the Los Angeles Angels placed him on waivers shortly after the trade deadline. Considering the shortage of trustworthy right-handed relief in the wake of Bautista’s injury, Webb has been a godsend for Hyde and the Orioles.
Though the Orioles love lefty DL Hall’s potential, the results have been merely OK since he was recalled to take Bautista’s spot on the active roster, pitching to a 4.22 ERA in 10 2/3 innings. To the 25-year-old’s credit, walks haven’t been a big concern like they’ve often been for him in the minors, but Hall probably hasn’t gotten quite as much swing and miss as hoped with 10 strikeouts. Still, he’s pitched well enough for a spot in the postseason bullpen.
Even if you have some degree of confidence in that top five, we’re not exactly talking about the 2014 postseason bullpen — headlined by Britton, Miller, O’Day, Kevin Gausman, and Brad Brach — here either.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
The volatile Shintaro Fujinami had seemingly turned a corner with a nine-appearance stretch in which he allowed just two runs, struck out 13, and walked none over 10 2/3 innings. However, his control problems have resurfaced over the last 10 days, and he was a disaster in two appearances against the Astros, renewing questions as to whether you can trust him in any kind of a key moment. His stuff is as good as anyone’s, but Fujinami continues to be a coin-flip proposition at best, which isn’t going to cut it in the postseason.
Hyde has attempted to use right-hander Jorge Lopez as though it’s 2022 again, but the results have been poor and the former All-Star closer isn’t eligible to pitch in the postseason anyway, making the approach curious at best. Reacquiring Lopez with designs primarily for 2024 — especially with Bautista’s status murky at best — was fine, but he’s not helping the Orioles win games in September and there’s no October upside to trying to get him back on track, making it increasingly difficult to carry him on even an expanded 28-man roster.
As for the rest, there’s little differentiating the likes of Mike Baumann, Bryan Baker, and Joey Krehbiel despite Baltimore’s desire to find another dependable right-handed reliever. They’ve all had stretches of success at different points over the last two seasons, but none appear to have the club’s trust at the moment. Baumann certainly didn’t inspire confidence in his two outings against Houston this week.
The Orioles still haven’t recalled right-hander Tyler Wells, who dealt with some arm fatigue a few weeks ago and has struggled transitioning to a relief role at Triple-A Norfolk. Time is running out for that idea, which began with him being sent to the minors in late July.
That brings us to right-hander Jack Flaherty, the disappointing trade deadline acquisition who was just sent to the bullpen with the Orioles moving back to a five-man starting rotation this week. In two scoreless innings against the Astros on Tuesday night, the right-hander struck out two and allowed three hits. He needed 45 pitches to do it, but he was pitching on short rest after his last start and making only the fifth relief appearance of his career.
A pending free agent, Flaherty can look no further than the pitcher he opposed last Friday — Tampa Bay’s Zach Eflin — for inspiration to make the best of what’s been a tough situation for all parties. Returning from an injury last September, Eflin moved to the Philadelphia bullpen and ended up playing a pivotal part in helping the Phillies reach the World Series with a 3.38 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 10 2/3 postseason innings, even registering a save in the NL wild-card round. And he still received a three-year, $40 million contract with the Rays last winter before going on to become one of the AL’s better starters this season.
How Flaherty — and his injury history in recent seasons — will take to a relief role remains unclear, but appealing alternatives are few and far between to fill out a postseason bullpen with much confidence. The Orioles are desperate to find more relief upside somewhere.
That’s why it’s impossible to turn away from the sight of Bautista continuing to throw — even if that remains a long shot at best.