Orioles position reviews: All week, The Baltimore Banner’s sports staff will review how each position group performed in the 2023 season.
The complexion of Baltimore’s bullpen changed drastically in August, when closer Félix Bautista suffered a season-ending injury to his elbow that required Tommy John reconstruction surgery. The lingering effects of that injury were clearly felt in October, with other relievers forced into different roles — and others included on the roster despite appearing sparingly all year.
In the biggest moments, the pitching staff as a whole stumbled to an early postseason exit. But over the course of 2023, the bullpen in particular proved to be one of the best in baseball.
The Orioles’ 3.55 relief ERA was the fifth best in the regular season, and the group’s 7.5 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, was the second best in the majors.
Much of that is a credit to Bautista and right-hander Yennier Cano, who both impressed and earned All-Star selections. Cano, especially, broke onto the scene unexpectedly to become one of the best setup pitchers in the league. And Bautista managed 33 saves before he was injured.
Some members stepped up. Others wavered down the stretch. In the end, it was a strong relief corps that lost its best member and couldn’t quite make up for the difference.
An analysis of the 2023 Orioles bullpen could include dozens of pitchers, so for the sake of brevity, this story will focus on any reliever who threw at least 10 innings for Baltimore.
2023 stat lines
Yennier Cano: 72 appearances, 72 2/3 innings, 2.11 ERA, eight saves.
Mike Baumann: 60 appearances, 64 2/3 innings, 3.76 ERA.
Félix Bautista: 56 appearances, 61 innings, 1.48 ERA, 33 saves.
Cionel Pérez: 65 appearances, 53 1/3 innings, 3.54 ERA, three saves.
Danny Coulombe: 61 appearances, 51 1/3 innings, 2.81 ERA, two saves.
Bryan Baker: 46 appearances, 45 innings, 3.60 ERA.
Austin Voth: 25 appearances, 34 2/3 innings, 5.19 ERA.
Cole Irvin: 12 starts (24 appearances), 77 1/3 IP, 4.42 ERA.
Jack Flaherty (with Baltimore): 7 starts (9 appearances), 34 2/3 IP, 6.75 ERA.
Shintaro Fujinami (with Baltimore): 30 appearances, 29 2/3 innings, 4.85 ERA, two saves.
Keegan Akin: 24 appearances, 23 2/3 innings, 6.85 ERA.
Tyler Wells: 20 starts (25 appearances), 118.2 IP, 3.64 ERA.
Jacob Webb: (with Baltimore): 25 appearances, 22 innings, 3.27 ERA.
DL Hall: 18 appearances, 19 1/3 innings, 3.26 ERA.
Nick Vespi: 9 appearances, 14 2/3 innings, 4.30 ERA.
Bruce Zimmermann: 7 appearances, 13 1/3 innings, 4.73 ERA.
Jorge López (with Baltimore): 12 appearances, 12 innings, 5.25 ERA.
Right-hander Joey Krehbiel pitched five innings this season and is still in the organization. Meanwhile, some other contributors departed midway through the year, including right-hander Mychal Givens (a free agent signing over the winter who pitched just four innings), right-hander Logan Gillaspie, right-hander Reed Garrett and right-hander Eduard Bazardo.
In addition, the Orioles claimed left-hander Tucker Davidson off waivers from the Royals on Wednesday, bringing Baltimore’s 40-man roster to 40 players. Davidson, 27, has pitched for the Angels, Braves and Royals in his career, with a 5.98 ERA combined. These sorts of depth pickups will likely continue through the offseason.
Bautista won’t return from elbow surgery until 2025, leaving a hole in Baltimore’s bullpen that might need to be remedied through the free agent or trade market this offseason. The Orioles opted to fill in for Bautista by committee, although Cano took the majority of ninth-inning save opportunities during the final month.
He performed well enough in the role, but there was a trickle-down effect in losing Bautista. It forced every reliever into different roles, and while Coulombe looked the part in high-leverage situations, Webb tapered off as the year went on.
Fujinami, a trade acquisition to bolster the bullpen, was hit-and-miss throughout his time in Baltimore. At his best, he was nearly unhittable. He earned two saves but also blew three. He did get better as the season went on. The Orioles, however, left him off the American League Division Series roster, a choice that might have been imprudent, particularly after Baker walked three hitters and Webb conceded a grand slam in the second game of the three-game sweep to the Texas Rangers.
Fujinami is a free agent, and his return is questionable. The fact Baltimore didn’t trust him in October limits the likelihood the Japanese star will be brought back.
Elsewhere, most of the other relievers will return. Webb, right-hander Dillon Tate (who didn’t pitch due to injury), Coulombe, Pérez, Irvin and Akin are all arbitration eligible. There’s a chance Baltimore decides to cut one or more of that group.
With the way Hall performed late in the year, he could be a more permanent fixture in late-inning situations. The same could go for Wells. He was Baltimore’s best starter in the first half of the 2023 season, but the feel for his pitches regressed after the All-Star break. Once he returned to the majors, it was as a reliever, and should Baltimore fill out its rotation in other ways, Wells’ repertoire plays out of the bullpen.
Prospects to watch
Most pitching prospects come through as starters before converting into relievers, and there are few high-level pitching prospects in the Orioles’ farm system as it is. Right-hander Chayce McDermott and left-hander Cade Povich could both break through as relievers rather than starters, though. The same applies to right-hander Seth Johnson.