In perhaps the most crucial moment of the Orioles’ season, there was Jacob Webb, a 30-year-old journeyman, having been plucked off waivers a mere two months earlier, pitching to Mitch Garver with the bases loaded.
In Game 2 of the American League Division Series, there was Webb, appearing in his second consecutive playoff game, surrendering a grand slam to the Rangers’ designated hitter.
Webb had performed well for Baltimore in August and September, registering a 3.27 ERA and earning the trust of manager Brandon Hyde. But the fact that the right-hander was being called upon in high-leverage situations in multiple postseason games spoke to the haggardness of the Orioles’ bullpen by that time.
Webb’s innings were supposed to go to Dillon Tate or Mychal Givens, the veterans who suffered injuries and tossed a combined four innings during the regular season. Or Shintaro Fujinami, the trade-deadline acquisition who couldn’t prove consistent enough to earn a spot on the ALDS roster. Or, if All-Star closer Félix Bautista were healthy, maybe Tyler Wells or Yennier Cano could have been used in those spots.
But the bullpen was beaten down and the Rangers took advantage.
It wasn’t just the Orioles’ beleaguered ’pen that ended the team’s October run before it began. But it did little to pick up a struggling rotation and inconsistent offense when it mattered most, and it developed into a major offseason need for Mike Elias & Co.
Baltimore’s executive vice president and general manager has made a habit of turning other teams’ discarded arms into late-inning weapons, such as Cionel Pérez and Danny Coulombe. But it was clear Elias’ alchemical experiments wouldn’t be enough this winter – he needed to add a proven reliever.
In comes nine-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel, whom Elias anointed as the O’s closer for 2024 after signing him to a one-year, $12 million deal that contains a $13 million team option for 2025 and a $1 million buyout. Kimbrel certainly has the experience. His 417 career saves rank eighth in baseball history. With Bautista expected to miss the entire season, the ninth inning will belong to Kimbrel.
As for the eighth, Cano is the most logical fit. The righty posted a 1.83 ERA in that inning in 2023 as Bautista’s outstanding setup man.
Coulombe became Hyde’s most trusted lefty, putting up a 2.81 ERA and appearing in two of the Orioles’ three postseason games. Another southpaw, Pérez, regressed after a breakout 2022 campaign, but the 27-year-old is likely still entrenched on the roster.
Some of Pérez’s opportunities could go to prospect DL Hall, who, after regaining his velocity in Sarasota, Florida, returned to the big leagues in August and flourished as a reliever, owning a 2.76 ERA in 17 games in the second half. The O’s may be tempted to give him one more shot at the rotation, but his live arm has shown to be a weapon late in games.
Wells will be another candidate for the rotation. But the righty ran out of gas in July and, when he came back to Baltimore in September, he tossed five hitless, scoreless innings out of the bullpen, showing his versatility. If the Orioles acquire another starter in the next two months, Wells could get bumped back to the ’pen.
That leaves two open spots. Should he arrive at spring training healthy, Tate can be penciled in for one of those. As for the other, Webb, Mike Baumann, Bryan Baker, Keegan Akin and Nick Vespi are in-house options with varying degrees of experience.
On paper, a bullpen of Kimbrel, Cano, Coulombe, Pérez, Hall, Wells, Tate and Webb would figure to be a solid group, featuring an all-time great closer, a 2023 All-Star, a pair of reliable lefties, a flashy young prospect and three proven big leaguers. But injuries will take their toll, and at least one from that list will fail to live up to expectations in 2024. Elias will have another chance to improve the bullpen at the trade deadline, and he’d be wise to aim higher than he did with the addition of Fujinami in 2023.
Although the signing of Kimbrel takes the O’s out of the market for closer Josh Hader, it doesn’t preclude another addition, and several intriguing veterans — Hector Neris, Robert Stephenson, Wandy Peralta — would make sense in Baltimore. A trade could also materialize, and Elias has the prospects to get a deal done for almost any player in baseball.
The Orioles’ 2024 bullpen is beginning to take shape. But the work isn’t finished.