Even after the free-agent departure of imposing left-hander Andrew Miller, the Orioles should feel good about their back end of the bullpen.
The trio of closer Zach Britton, submariner Darren O’Day, and right-hander Tommy Hunter is better than many late-inning combinations you’ll find in the majors. The 28-year-old Brad Brach — who is now out of options — was a pleasant surprise in his first year in Baltimore as his peers have complimented him for having some of the best stuff of anyone in the bullpen.
The free-agent addition of southpaw Wesley Wright was savvy for only $1.7 million as he held left-handed bats to a .594 on-base plus slugging percentage last season and pitched adequately against right-handed hitters (.719 OPS). Wright doesn’t have options, but the Orioles signed the 30-year-old with every intention of him being a part of their 25-man roster anyway.
The bullpen picture becomes blurry after that due to a lack of roster flexibility.
Right-hander Ryan Webb pitched solidly last year (3.83 ERA), but Miller’s late-July arrival squeezed him out of the bullpen down the stretch and in the postseason. However, unlike last season, Webb is out of minor-league options.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette made two Rule 5 acquisitions in the offseason in right-handers Logan Verrett and Jason Garcia. Verrett, the former New York Mets prospect, is more polished and experienced after making 28 starts at Triple-A Las Vegas last year. Meanwhile, a shift to the bullpen last season saw the 22-year-old Garcia’s stock rise due to a high-90s fastball despite him not having an inning above Single A under his belt while pitching in the Boston Red Sox system.
Both would need to be on the 25-man roster all season to remain with the organization, which is, of course, unlikely to occur.
We haven’t even discussed the logjam that currently exists in the starting rotation due to the albatross of a contract held by Ubaldo Jimenez. Even if Jimenez is able to right himself in 2015, you’d hate to waste the talent of Kevin Gausman or Miguel Gonzalez in the minors simply because they both own an option. And if Jimenez’s struggles continue, the Orioles would likely need to stash him in the bullpen because they’re not eating the $38.75 million he’s owed in the final three years of his contract.
The starter situation alone is likely to squeeze out left-handed long reliever T.J. McFarland, who pitched well in 2014 but has two minor-league options remaining.
And that brings us to left-handed reliever Brian Matusz, who many thought wouldn’t be tendered a contract in the offseason before he agreed to a $3.2 million deal for the 2015 season. The 2008 first-round pick has been a good situational lefty over the last few years, but his inability to defend himself against right-handed hitters — who posted an .876 OPS against him in 2014 — makes him an expensive and limited option in the bullpen.
The winter signing of Wright should be viewed more as a potential replacement for Matusz than Miller, who is a unique talent and received lucrative compensation for it in free agency. And a trade of Matusz would provide some breathing room as the Orioles try to figure out how to accommodate so many arms while still competing for the American League East title.
It’s no secret that Matusz has been the subject of trade rumors all winter as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported Wednesday that the Orioles are actively shopping him. The Mets are viewed as a potential suitor, especially in light of lefty reliever Josh Edgin needing Tommy John surgery.
Matusz has pitched well this spring as the Orioles have stretched him out as a starter like they did in the last couple springs, which could create a little more appeal to potential trade partners. In 6 1/3 Grapefruit League innings, Matusz has allowed one earned run and five hits while striking out eight and walking none. Improvement in his changeup has also been noted in several reports.
Would the Orioles be willing to send Matusz and some cash to the Mets in exchange for a low-level prospect and the permanent rights to Verrett in order to option the right-hander to Triple-A Norfolk and keep him in the organization?
Such a move would not only eliminate Verrett from the roster crunch, but it would create a clear opening in the bullpen for Webb or Garcia while keeping a slot open for a true long reliever. It wouldn’t solve all of the Orioles’ roster woes, but the current climate of the bullpen includes plenty of talent with nowhere to go.
Even if the Mets pass, Duquette should do everything he can to find a trade partner for the situational lefty. The Orioles aren’t going to fetch a ransom for Matusz — who never lived up to expectations as a former first-round pick — but they shouldn’t be afraid to pull the trigger on any deal that provides even a modest return.
It’s the best move for both short-term roster flexibility and potential long-term gain.