The Orioles are no stranger to roster churn, and this past season was no different. But although they were not able to unearth any legitimate starting rotation help for 2017, they did add a couple of arms for very little that helped them get through some rough times.
Miguel Castro received the most attention of the group of productive (and cheap) acquisitions that also includes Gabriel Ynoa and Richard Bleier, mostly because he's younger (22 years old) and will almost certainly be a candidate for the No. 5 starter role next spring. Alec Asher found some success early but quickly fell off. Ynoa received a bit more attention at the end of the year when he received a few starts, and he'll also be mentioned as a rotation option. But Bleier mostly flew under the radar despite being one of the team's most effective pitchers.
The Orioles acquired Bleier from the Yankees in February for the infamous player to be named later/cash considerations. Bleier didn't make his Orioles debut until May 3, when he was summoned from the bullpen to replace Kevin Gausman, who was foolishly ejected in the second inning against the Red Sox after hitting Xander Bogaerts with a breaking ball. Remember, that occurred during the Orioles/Red Sox feud that stemmed from Manny Machado's hard slide into Dustin Pedroia, a silly beef that seemed like it would never end.
Anyway, without Gausman for the rest of that day, the Orioles needed innings from someone. Bleier ended up tossing four innings and giving up one earned run (three overall), and then Ubaldo Jimenez was able to come in and throw three scoreless innings to finish the game. The O's lost, 4-2, but Bleier and Jimenez helped save the bullpen. I promise, it seemed like a bigger deal at the time.
Needing a fresh arm, the Orioles optioned Bleier the next day, but 10 days later he was recalled for good. He ended up throwing 63 1/3 innings in 2017 despite not appearing in April, which still placed him in the top 60 among major league relievers. And not only was he used plenty, but he was effective. His 1.99 ERA tied for 12th among all qualified relievers -- not bad for a 30-year-old who had only thrown 23 prior major league innings.
Bleier will, of course, take the results, and the Orioles desperately needed them. But now the question is: Can he do it again? If you just look at Bleier's ERA, you might think so. But he also posted a minuscule K/9 of 3.69. That was the lowest among all qualified relievers by more than a full strikeout. In fact, old friend T.J. McFarland was next with a K/9 of 4.86. (And at 5.00, Castro finished fourth lowest.) That's one reason why Bleier's FIP was 4.37 and he finished with a bWAR of 1.3 but an fWAR of only 0.2. He had the largest ERA-FIP discrepancy among relievers at -2.38.
It's hard to get past the low amount of strikeouts and feel overly confident about future success, but as you'd imagine, Bleier does a handful of positive things. He doesn't give out many free passes (1.85 BB/9 this season), generates a lot of ground balls (68.8 GB% was second-highest among all relievers), and is able to fill in in both short and long relief. Plus, after being more effective against left-handed batters in 2016, Bleier was slightly better against righties than lefties in 2017. Perhaps that's just a one-year blip, but it allowed him to not be pigeon-holed into a LOOGY role (not that the O's could have that type of luxury with such an awful rotation).
Bleier is mostly a sinker/slider pitcher, and he even traded in more changeups for sliders this past season (throwing them much more often against right-handed batters). And while the velocity on his sinker dipped slightly (91.3 mph to 89.5), he threw his slider more than 3 mph faster in 2017 (making it more of a cutter). He also got more vertical movement from the pitch and threw it a bit higher in the zone.
Bleier's sinker, though, was his bread-and-butter pitch, and many opposing batters simply bashed it into the ground. Per Baseball Savant, 10.9% of Bleier's sinkers led to ground balls, which was sixth-highest among pitchers who threw at least 100 sinkers or two-seamers (up from 7.2% (rank of t-42nd) in 2016). You'll again notice McFarland on this list, at the top, followed by sinker/ground ball specialist Zach Britton.
Buck Showalter seemed to love having both a right-handed and left-handed long reliever last year, and Bleier filled that McFarland-like role. That's mostly because, when you put together the kinds of starting rotations that the Orioles do, you really need to do your best to beef up that next level of pitching for innings four through six or seven.
The name McFarland keeps coming up for a reason, though. Like Bleier, he's tall, left-handed, doesn't get many strikeouts, and induces lots of ground balls. He's also not that good. He had a couple of decent seasons in Baltimore when his career started, but thanks to ineffectiveness and a run of poor health, he eventually pitched his way out of favor and then off the roster. The O's released McFarland in February, and he was scooped up by the Diamondbacks. Still, even after moving to the National League and continuing his low strikeout/high ground ball ways, he posted an ERA of 5.33 and a FIP of 4.10 this season.
The point is it's extremely difficult to maintain Bleier's level of success while not missing a ton of bats, but then again, maybe he's figured something out. He does walk fewer batters than McFarland, and while posting an ERA below 2 again will be extremely tough, maybe he can sit somewhere in the upper-2s or low-3s. The Orioles need as much good pitching as they can get, and for one season, at least, Bleier was a nice addition.