As Orioles build left-handed relief depth, how will it affect major league bullpen?


November 19, 2013|By Eduardo A. Encina | The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles’ signing of pitcher Kelvin De La Cruz on Monday was the latest addition to the club’s growing group of left-handed relievers who could compete for bullpen spots in 2014.

Last season, the Orioles carried three lefty relievers -- Brian Matusz, Troy Patton and T.J. McFarland -- all season long, which to some could already seem excessive.

Earlier this month, the Orioles added Chris Jones -- the left-handed reliever who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the trade for Luis Ayala and pitched well at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk this past year -- to their 40-man roster.

While he’s still a few steps from the major leagues, left-hander Tim Berry -- who shined at Class-A Frederick and in the Arizona Fall League -- will likely also be added to the 40-man roster this week so he is protected from being selected in next month’s Rule 5 draft.

And Monday, the Orioles added the 25-year-old De La Rosa, a 6-foot-5 left-hander who held left-handed batters to .217 average and recorded 37 strikeouts in 106 plate appearances. De La Cruz also recorded 11.26 strikeouts per nine innings, the third-highest ratio in the Pacific Coast League.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said he believes De La Cruz can compete for a bullpen spot this spring. Duquette likes De La Cruz's downward angle and his fastball-breaking ball-changeup mix that can draw a lot of swings and misses.

One thing is for sure, you can never have too much left-handed pitching. But you only have so many left-handed spots in the major league bullpen.

Matusz has reinvented himself as a reliever because of his ability to get lefties out. Last season, he held left-handed hitters to a .168 batting average and recorded 33 strikeouts in 112 plate appearances. Over his career, he’s been equally as successful, holding lefties to a .208 clip.

In 2012, Patton held lefties to a .212 batting average, but as a whole, he hasn’t been a good situational left-handed reliever. Last season, lefties hit .289 and righties .254 against Patton.

McFarland’s situation is different. He was mostly used in a long relief role after the Orioles made him their Rule 5 pick last December. But McFarland’s future is likely as a starter, and now that his Rule 5 season is over, he’ll probably go back to starting role this season, even if he begins at Triple-A Norfolk.

As for Matusz and Patton, they’re both heading into their second year of arbitration eligibility. Projections show that Matusz could make in the $2-2.2 million range and Patton in the $1-1.2 million range. While it is a certainty that Matusz will be tendered a contract, Patton might not be.

While the Orioles still hope left-hander Zach Britton can flourish as a starter, he also could be used in relief at the major league level.

Keep in mind that Orioles must pay other arbitration-eligible players like Chris Davis, Jim Johnson and Matt Wieters some hefty raises in 2014. So, if cheaper players like Jones – who held lefties to a .196 batting average last season -- or De La Cruz can come in this spring and show they can fill that situational left-handed role, then maybe it allows the club to move Matusz or Patton by trade.

Building this sort of depth is a good problem to have. It leaves your options open. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter has talked repeatedly that you don’t necessarily need a left-hander in the bullpen if he can’t get left-handed hitters out. It seems as though the Orioles have assembled a good group of pitchers who can do that.

Now they just need to sort them out.

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