Baltimore Orioles: The key piece in making the six-man bullpen work

Apr 30, 2017; Bronx, NY, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Donnie Hart (58) pitches against the New York Yankees during the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2017; Bronx, NY, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Donnie Hart (58) pitches against the New York Yankees during the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

The Baltimore Orioles finish April with a 15-8 record, tied for the best in the American League, and are primed to get their closer and a top starter back.

How about that April from the Baltimore Orioles, cruising through most of the month, before hitting a road block in the form of the New York Yankees in a wild, entertaining series to wrap up the month.

Now, the calendar turns to May, which is notable for a few reasons for the Baltimore Orioles.

One, the Orioles would be a playoff team after the first month. Not many people gave them a chance in the AL East.

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Two, in a way some players can hit the reset button. The end of a month allows a player to kind of reset where they are if they are struggling. However, several of the struggling Orioles (Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo) turned things around the last few days).

For pitchers Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez, a fresh start is a very good thing.

Of course, this works the same way for those who are doing well, such as Welington Castillo, Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones and Wade Miley. For Castillo, it is continuing to prove himself as an Oriole. For Jones, it is continuing to work the count and be patient, something he usually does to start the year, but lessens as the season goes.

For Miley, and also Dylan Bundy, it is proving the numbers from the first month are what Oriole fans and teammates should expect.

Three, and the biggest of all is the return of two key pieces. Zach Britton will be back either May 1 or May 2. Chris Tillman will be back around May 7, after what is expected to be his final rehab start on May 2 in Charlotte with AAA Norfolk.

If the weekend’s events showed anything, it is how much the Orioles need Britton back.

Buck Showalter would love to go with a five-man bench even after Tillman and Britton returns. This admittedly is going to be tough, but let’s look at what the roster may look like.

Catcher: Welington Castillo, Caleb Joseph

Infield:  Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Ryan Flaherty

Outfield (in no particular order): Adam Jones, Joey Rickard, Mark Trumbo, Trey Mancini, Seth Smith, Hyun Soo Kim, Craig Gentry

Rotation: Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, Chris Tillman

Bullpen: Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart, Long reliever

At this point, I’m not going to put a long reliever in this spot. I think this is going to be the Norfolk shuttle. I think first up will probably be Logan Verrett, then Alec Asher. Part of this is based on performance, part of major league experience, part of wanting to keep certain guys starting in the minor leagues.

The problem with this is that the Orioles pitchers are going to need to go deeper in games.

Any start less than five innings is going to be devastating for the bullpen.

The other item is that the setup guys are going to have to go more than one inning, when available. If the Orioles are winning after five, but need to go to the bullpen, Buck can’t just use Givens, O’Day, Brach and Britton every game. Because then a few of those guys are going to eventually be unavailable, leaving only the long man and Hart in the bullpen.

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Going to a six-man bullpen is not impossible, but I can’t see how the Orioles do it easily.

Let’s look at an example, from Sunday’s game.

Wade Miley went five innings. Mychal Givens then went two, Brad Brach one, and Darren O’Day two-thirds of an inning, before Donnie Hart came in.

Now, if the Orioles would have had Britton, and he would have saved the game, that would have left O’Day, Hart and the long reliever for the next game having had the day off.

Brach and Britton would probably also be available, depending on how many pitches Britton threw, as Brach through 15.

But, you can see where the pitfalls lie here.

Extra-inning games. Short starts, needing to give Britton more rest as he first comes back. Using Hart as a situational pitcher.

And therein lies what in my mind is one of the biggest issues. Donnie Hart is going to have to be able to hold his own against everyone.

So far, Hart has reverse splits. He has 20 plate appearances against right-handed hitters, who are batting .222/.300/.222 with four hits, one walk, one HBP and five strikeouts.

Versus left-handers (Hart’s specialty), .273/.429/.364 in 14 plate appearances, with three hits, two walks, one HBP and six strikeouts.

So, Hart is striking out almost a third of the batters he has faced. That is good.

At this point, it may be time for the Orioles and Buck Showalter to use Hart as a reliever in the same manner as Mychal Givens or Darren O’Day, as a competent reliever and not just a specialist.

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And if it doesn’t work out, Hart still has options. He could be included in the optionable pieces to go down and work on his ability to get out hitters from both sides.

However, I think Donnie Hart is a capable pitcher against all hitters.