Back in May, Orioles bench coach Fredi González briefly filled in for Brandon Hyde, expressing gratitude Baltimore’s manager left him with top bullpen arms Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano available for his one day in change.
But reflecting on his days managing an Atlanta Braves bullpen with backend relievers Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel — “O’Vembrel,” as he recalled — and their ability to effectively shorten a game by three innings, González noted Baltimore was operating a bit short.
“I think we need one more guy,” González said.
The Orioles never got one, and three months later, they’re down two. Bautista, Baltimore’s hulking All-Star closer fittingly known as “The Mountain,” will miss the foreseeable future with an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament, tears of which typically result in Tommy John elbow reconstruction. If that procedure proves necessary, Bautista likely won’t throw another triple-digit fastball or dastardly splitter for the Orioles until 2025.
Regardless, it’s improbable he pitches again in 2023, costing Baltimore a pitcher who, by FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement, is the most valuable reliever in baseball. There’s no blaming the Orioles for Bautista’s injury; only the awe-inspiring yet limited capabilities of the human elbow are at fault. Yet it’s worth wondering whether the organization could have done more to brace for the possibility it might need to replace an irreplaceable player.
The Orioles’ trade deadline efforts to fortify a pitching staff with near-universal workload concerns already appeared lackluster, and that case has been only strengthened this week. Baltimore traded three top 20 prospects to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jack Flaherty in hopes of supplying another veteran to an inexperienced rotation, but he himself has pitched more innings this year than the previous two combined and was unable to start earlier this week with what manager Brandon Hyde described as “general soreness.”
Shintaro Fujinami, the Orioles’ lone bullpen reinforcement acquired in the lead-up to the deadline, has been inconsistent, to this point far from reliable enough to routinely slide into a high-leverage role even with Bautista’s absence.
The lack of supplements dates to the offseason, when the only major league addition the Orioles made to their bullpen was bringing back veteran right-hander Mychal Givens, who pitched four innings in his second stint with Baltimore before being released. That signing came as the team knew it would open the year without right-hander Dillon Tate, its most-used reliever of Hyde’s five-season tenure. Tate still has yet to pitch for Baltimore this year with his own elbow injury.
The Orioles have found success in unexpected places, with left-hander Danny Coulombe thriving after being traded from Minnesota for cash on the cusp of the season and right-hander Jacob Webb emerging as a late-inning option after a post-deadline waiver claim. Cano’s breakout has prompted Hyde to often pair him with Bautista for the final six — and sometimes more — outs.
Hyde has shown some restraint in their usage, never asking either All-Star to pitch more than three days in a row and being cautious about the circumstances in which he uses them for more than one inning. Bautista has been largely automatic in the ninth inning, as well as in the times he has been tasked with an additional out or three on the front and back ends of that frame. Despite a hefty workload, he had shown no signs of pain or fatigue, general manager Mike Elias said, before a 102.3 mph fastball one strike from a victory Friday night left him flexing his right hand on the Camden Yards mound.
Elias said Bautista’s injury was “something you try not to imagine during the season,” but he also acknowledged that such ailments are part of the profession of pitching. With the trade deadline past, the Orioles’ primary sources of potential bullpen help are already within the organization. Tyler Wells and John Means, who have each enjoyed stretches as Baltimore’s best starting pitcher in recent years, could join DL Hall, the top pitching prospect recalled when Bautista went on the injured list, as late-season reinforcements.
“You’re always looking for more,” Elias said. “But if this is the group that we have, we’re ready to go to battle with this group for the rest of September and hopefully beyond.”
Losing Bautista hurts the Orioles’ capabilities of the latter. They remain well positioned to reach October, but the challenge of getting deep into it without Hyde’s go-to reliever feels like a hurdle as large as Bautista. When asked what’s different between this edition of the Orioles and the rebuilding versions that preceded it, Hyde’s responses generally refer at some point to a reliever who has been so dominant in that he’s become a fringe Cy Young Award candidate. Of MLB’s four American League Reliever of the Month honors so far, three have gone to Bautista.
“He’s invaluable,” Coulombe said. “But we’ve got to keep going.”
As he did Saturday, Cano figures to serve as Bautista’s primary replacement, saying after his perfect frame he was simply trying to do an impression of his friend. But much like last summer’s trade of All-Star reliever Jorge López that pushed Bautista into the closer’s role and brought Cano to Baltimore, the injury alters not only who pitches the ninth but who takes the ball in the preceding innings. Although Bautista excelled in his new role last year, other relievers struggled once thrust into higher leverage.
It’s unknown how this year’s crop will respond, though Coulombe, Webb and Hall managed to get the ball to Cano with the lead intact Saturday. Perhaps it’s a sign they will rebound in the same way Baltimore’s six-man rotation handled bumped-up start days amid Flaherty’s inability, as he put it, to physically “bounce back” in the week between his previous start in San Diego and Wednesday’s scheduled outing. In four games since, the Orioles’ starters put up a 3.12 ERA, lasting at least six innings in each game. Flaherty is expected to start Sunday’s series finale with the Colorado Rockies, with Elias saying “the hope and expectation” is the Orioles’ big trade deadline addition has put that problem behind him.
“This has been a long season, not just for the Orioles, for everyone,” Elias said. “This the time of year where people have bumps and bruises. And similar to our young Orioles starters, Jack has a good bit of innings himself, and then his innings platforms the last couple of years were much below that because of the injuries that he had, so he’s a guy that needs some TLC this time of year, too.”
The Orioles couldn’t have known Bautista would suffer an elbow injury, but they knew fatigue would set in for their pitching staff. To address it, they brought in a starter who also needed his workload managed and a reliever who, despite success of late, has struggled to harness his dynamic stuff. But they also added them to a roster that has routinely proved its resilience. Last year, the club lost Means, its top starter, in April to a torn UCL and went on to unexpectedly finish as the top AL team to miss the postseason.
“We’re a bunch of grinders in this clubhouse,” starting pitcher Kyle Bradish said.
Baltimore lost The Mountain. For the Orioles to get where they want to go, they’ll have to climb one. They believe they have the proper equipment.
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