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Will Wednesday mark turning point for Orioles’ 2024 season?

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Wednesday may go down as a turning point for the 2024 Orioles. 

A dramatic 7-6 win over New York in 10 innings reinforced the resilience of Brandon Hyde’s 48-25 club and kept the heat on the first-place Yankees, but the news delivered by general manager Mike Elias earlier in the day in the Bronx was still difficult to take. 

Though the long-term loss of Kyle Bradish felt inevitable by last Friday night’s post-game, the 27-year-old right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery Wednesday morning, which sidelines him for the remainder of the season and at least a large portion of 2025. Of course, the possibility of this outcome had lingered since the ulnar collateral ligament sprain in Bradish’s right elbow was discovered in January, but this all but squashes any debate about the Orioles needing to add an impact starting pitcher if they have designs on making a deep October run. 

Considering Bradish’s late 2025 return timeline and Baltimore ace Corbin Burnes’ pending free agency, one could argue that Elias needs to trade for a starter with not only top-half-of-the-rotation ability but club control that extends into 2025 or beyond. That certainly won’t come cheap in terms of prospects, money, or both. 

Will Elias be willing to part with the prospects to make such an acquisition, and will ownership be prepared to spend to help offset losses to the farm system moving forward? We’re not talking about a $300 million payroll and trading your entire top 15 prospect list, mind you, but the margin for error remains small if the Orioles are going to continue relying on one-year contracts in free agency. The recent run of starting pitching injuries only magnifies that. 

The bad news didn’t end with Bradish as lefty reliever Danny Coulombe had bone chips removed from his pitching elbow, a procedure expected to sideline him until September. Elias expressed optimism about the 34-year-old Coulombe pitching again this season, but such a timeline leaves little wiggle room for his 2024 return and the Orioles will be without a valuable reliever who’s posted a 2.68 ERA over the last two seasons. 

Word about Coulombe’s absence extending through the summer came hours before the Orioles bullpen blew a 5-1 lead in the late innings at Yankee Stadium. With Yennier Cano entering in the seventh to allow a three-run homer to Giancarlo Stanton and closer Craig Kimbrel blowing his fourth save chance of the season, calls for late-inning relief help only grow louder. 

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Make no mistake, this bullpen has been markedly better than its loudest critics would have you believe with the Orioles entering Thursday ranked fourth in the majors in relief ERA, fourth in relief FIP (fielding independent pitching) and seventh in wins above replacement, per FanGraphs. The Baltimore bullpen has continued to do admirable work since the loss of All-Star closer Felix Bautista last August, but that doesn’t mean an upgrade or two isn’t warranted. 

How much better would you feel about this club’s long-term chances if you could bump incumbent bullpen arms down a spot or two in the pecking order? 

A large portion of the debate centers around Kimbrel, a 36-year-old and nine-time All-Star selection making $13 million this season. Aside from a two-week stretch from late April through early May, Kimbrel has been good and sometimes very good, pitching to a 2.63 ERA and averaging 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings over 27 1/3 innings this season. 

But seeing the complete picture is important. 

All but one of Kimbrel’s 16 saves have come by more than one run, and his only one-run save of 2024 came in Anaheim on April 24 after he entered with a two-run lead and surrendered an unearned run. In other words, the variables have been favorable when Kimbrel has taken the ball in the ninth inning, which reflects the overall quality of this club. No closer is going to be perfect in one-run save chances, of course, but the best ones still need to slam the door with the narrowest of leads when the situation calls for it. 

Wednesday marked Kimbrel’s fourth save opportunity in which he’s entered with a one-run lead, and he’s now been unsuccessful closing all four. The Orioles have played just 17 one-run games (7-10) all year with only Boston, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Washington playing fewer, but more one-run games are inevitable over a long season and in October.

None of this is to suggest Kimbrel shouldn’t pitch in the tightest games since he’s entered with the score being tied on some other occasions and fared perfectly fine. But given his age and some of the inconsistency over the last several seasons of his tremendous career, it’s fair to wonder how Kimbrel and the Orioles will fare if they find themselves in more one-run spots down the stretch. 

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Baltimore would surely benefit from adding at least one high-leverage arm with the ability to close games to help ease that burden on Kimbrel and the rest of the Orioles bullpen. And with Coulombe not returning until September at best, a strong argument can be made for adding a second bullpen arm ahead of next month’s trade deadline. 

Wednesday’s dramatic win reinforced that the Orioles are a heck of a team that isn’t going anywhere in the fight for the AL East. But this brutal run of pitching injuries is making it more difficult envisioning them getting over the division hump and being in optimal position for October without adding some serious help in the coming weeks. 

The good news is that Elias should have more than enough resources to do that, especially with the proper backing from a new ownership group. 

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