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In what was the first full season of a commitment to the long-term tank and rebuild, the Baltimore Orioles were predictably a poor pitching team. However, lost in the staff that set records for allowing the most gopherballs of all time is a bullpen that quietly was not completely awful. Sure, it wasn’t very good, but the Orioles’ 2.9 cumulative team bullpen WAR in 2019 ranked 19th among the 30 teams per FanGraphs. In this pitching landscape, a combined 4.60 ERA and 4.66 FIP from the Orioles’ relievers was not only not the team’s largest concern, but it was also passable.
The Orioles didn’t have a locked-in closer, despite attempts early in the year to push Mychal Givens to claim that job. Givens struggled mightily before eventually being removed from the closer’s role, as a number of other arms had opportunities to contribute in high-leverage situations. The team seems likely to consider available free agents, but there is a lot of intrigue with the pitchers who will return in the spring. A combination of veterans Shawn Armstrong and Richard Bleier are joined by young arms who made the leap to the big leagues as bullpen options, such as Tanner Scott and Hunter Harvey. Suffice to say, much of the bullpen is not set in stone. As the dust settles, things may change, but the relief roles seem likely to start similarly to how they ended in 2019.
Orioles’ Projected Bullpen
Closer Setup Setup Middle Middle Middle
Mychal Givens Richard Bleier Shawn Armstrong Miguel Castro Paul Fry Tanner Scott
Closer – Mychal Givens
Meet the new (sort of) closer, same as the old (sort of) closer! It isn’t a sure thing that Givens will end up as the most trusted arm in the bullpen, but going into the winter, he certainly profiles as the top option. Givens’ 2019 season was easily his most tumultuous, as he bounced in and out of the closer’s role. He was erratic at times, especially in the first half of the season, and finished the year with a mediocre 4.57 ERA and 4.50 FIP after having never finished with an ERA over 4.00 or a FIP over 3.72 (both in 2018). Givens still boasts a career 3.40 ERA, though, and despite his struggles in 2019, he did set a career high in K/9 at 12.3, showing he still can be overpowering when he is at his best.
Givens’ previous seasons as well as the first half of 2019 showed a pitcher with the flexibility to pitch more than just a single inning, a valuable attribute for a fireman reliever. However, in the final two months of the season, Givens began to be used differently, as he did not complete more than 1.1 innings in a single outing in August or September and did not go deeper than one inning or less in any game after August 11. Only a couple of years ago, he was thought of as one of Baltimore’s most untouchable players in trade talks, but he fits the bill of somebody who could be on the move near the deadline if he is performing well in the closer’s role or as the team’s relief ace. As disappointing as he was in 2019, he was still worth 0.6 WAR and won’t be a free agent until 2022.
If Givens does indeed bounce back, it likely would be on the strength of his fastball. It has a spin rate above the league average, and the heater had a FanGraphs pitch value of 15.5 in 2017 and 11.4 in 2018 before plummeting down to 4.9 in 2019. The velocity on his fastball has been constant over that span, though, so better execution and sequencing should help Givens in 2020.
Setup – Richard Bleier
Bleier has been extremely intriguing over his short time in the big leagues, for a couple of reasons. From 2016 to 2018, he pitched 119 innings of relief between the New York Yankees in his rookie year and then in his next two with the Orioles. Over those three seasons, his ERAs were 1.96, 1.99 and 1.93, respectively. Purely from his surface numbers, you could mistake him for a dominant reliever! Unfortunately, though, a little digging into his profile quickly changes the perception. Pitchers with ERAs under 2.00 typically don’t do so with K/9 numbers that start with a 4. Ridiculously, over his first four seasons, from 2016 to 2019, Bleier has thrown 174.1 innings and only struck out 84 TOTAL batters. Unsurprisingly, some of his good luck in suppressing all of those hits on non-strikeouts that led to those dominant ERAs in his first three years regressed to the norm in 2019, and he was saddled with an ugly 5.37 figure.
Still, Bleier is signed through 2023, and while 2019 would appear to be a huge step back for him when looking at ERAs in each of his seasons, it actually was right around his baseline performance in FIP. Even if Bleier continues to struggle to strike batters out, he does well with avoiding walks and has a cumulative career FIP of 3.78—with year-by-year FIPs of 2.67, 4.37, 2.70 and 4.19. Continued growth to become a pitcher capable of generating swings and misses would be huge for him, but even if he continues to rely on below-average raw stuff, he can be one of the better relievers in this bullpen just by executing well and continuing to limit free passes. Bleier is also one of the few potential southpaws the Orioles can turn to, giving him a fairly clear role if he can succeed against left-handed hitters. So far in his career he has handled them well, allowing lefties to put up an OPS of .591 against him, compared to a more robust .791 from righties.
Setup – Shawn Armstrong
The Orioles added Armstrong off waivers from the Seattle Mariners late in April 2019, and he was a solid, if unspectacular option for them the rest of the way. His 5.74 ERA and 1.64 WHIP between the two teams doesn’t instill much confidence, but Armstrong was similar to Givens and Bleier in that he got poor luck on his results when compared with his predictive stats, such as a 4.54 FIP. Armstrong also was saddled with six earned runs over 3.2 innings with Seattle before pitching to a 5.13 ERA and 4.28 FIP with the Orioles.
One key to a potential continued turnaround for Armstrong in 2020 will be generating a higher percentage of pitches chased outside of the strike zone. His 2019 O-swing rate of 23.0% was the lowest of his career, and for a pitcher with middling raw stuff, he needs hitters to expand the zone to avoid becoming too hittable.
Middle – Miguel Castro
Miguel Castro has been an enigma in his young career with the Orioles, and 2019 was no different, as he flashed potential but was inconsistent in his results. Unlike the trio of Givens, Bleier, and Armstrong, Castro actually had his ERA and FIP line up almost to a T, as his 4.66 ERA over 73.1 innings was supported by his 4.71 FIP. The most exciting part of Castro’s 2019 was that he added significant velocity to all of his pitches. His fastball jumped from 95.9 mph to 97.8 mph, and his average changeup and slider each added about two mph of velocity as well.
Additionally, his sinker’s spin rate was excellent, and averaged 2285 RPM. The league only averaged 2136 RPM and was also only averaging between 92 mph and 93 mph, while he got his sinker out at an average speed of 97.1 mph. Organizationally, Castro has always been talked about highly, and if he does begin to perform well in 2020, it would not be surprising for him to see save chances eventually.
Middle – Paul Fry
A 5.34 ERA and abysmal 1-9 record won’t have anybody confusing Paul Fry‘s 2019 for that of a dominant reliever, but like the majority of his bullpenmates in Baltimore, he did pitch to a stronger FIP, at a 4.71 mark. That said, he features four pitches that are all graded out as mediocre or below average, and he simply is not very exciting outside of being another left-handed arm. A lot would need to fall favorably for Fry to evolve into anything more than a matchups guy deployed in the middle innings. That said, he did do a decent job of suppressing exit velocity, as his average allowed was 88.0 (league average was 87.7), and if he can provide consistent middle relief, then that would likely be viewed as a win for the Orioles.
Middle – Tanner Scott
While Fry seems destined to be an average-at-best mid-innings option, the range of outcomes seems much more drastic for Scott. Scott met his Orioles team requirement of an uninspiring 4.78 ERA to accompany a 4.77 FIP over his 26.1 innings in 2019. One of Scott’s main bugaboos was the free pass, as he walked 19 guys in that span. On a more positive note, he struck out 12.65 guys per nine innings and has some tools that make it easy to get excited. His average spin rate on his fastball only helps him further, as he averaged 2410 RPM versus the league average of under 2300 RPM.
Scott’s got exceptional heat on his fastball for a lefty, averaging 96.3 mph with it. Curiously, it graded out as a negative-value pitch with FanGraphs, as did his sinker in 2019, but Scott is only 25, and if his development progresses as the Orioles hope, he could be somebody down the line who works in one of the highest-leverage roles in this bullpen.
Hunter Harvey, Branden Kline, Dillon Tate, Ryan Eades
Harvey is a former first-round pick, and one who at times in the minors appeared to have a real shot as difference-maker for the Orioles as a starter. Injuries accumulated for him in recent years and stalled his development until he finally broke through as a reliever in 2019. He only pitched 6.1 innings, but struck out an impressive 11 batters in that span, showcasing a dominant fastball that averaged a blistering 98.2 mph. It’s not hard to envision him developing as an eventual lights-out closer if he remains in the bullpen and has better luck avoiding injury. Dillon Tate is another former first-round pick who came over in a deadline trade during the 2018 season. He’s likely to be a contributor, but was a mixed bag over his 2018 appearances, as his 6.43 ERA shows.
Branden Kline pitched 41 innings in his first season with the Orioles in 2018, and he was unspectacular in doing so. His fastball velocity is decent at over 96 mph on average, but he had some issues with walks and seems unlikely to be much more than a middle-innings or mop-up guy, barring a skills change. Ryan Eades pitched limited innings, throwing only 11.1 frames in 2019, and while he does figure to be in the Orioles’ plans for 2020, he does not have even league-average velocity or spin rate on his primary fastball and lacks upside. It would be a significant surprise if the Orioles don’t add at least one or two additional relievers before spring training.