With the American League East still unsecured, the Orioles can’t quite turn their attention to the playoffs just yet. But with one week left in the regular season, decisions loom for Baltimore.
Regardless of whether the Orioles win the division for the first time since 2014 or collapse to disappointingly settle for a wild-card spot, their roster will reduce from 28 players back to 26 come the postseason, though they can make changes between each round. Those two reductions could come in any number of ways, with Baltimore’s final six games and the momentum various players take into the playoffs likely to factor into those choices.
As the final week of the regular season begins, here are three questions the Orioles face when it comes to their initial playoff roster.
1. Who makes the playoff rotation?
The outcome here somewhat depends on whether the Orioles hold off the Tampa Bay Rays to win the AL East and bypass the wild-card round, given they would need three starters maximum in the best-of-three wild-card series compared to four in the best-of-five AL Division Series.
Either way, right-handers Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, in their second and first major league seasons, respectively, have seemingly already locked up playoff rotation spots before starting in Baltimore’s two-game series with the Washington Nationals. Who joins them among right-hander Dean Kremer, left-hander John Means and veteran Kyle Gibson could be determined by how they pitch in their starts against the Boston Red Sox in the final series of the year.
Kremer appeared to be a guarantee not long ago, but in four September starts, he has finished the fifth inning only once and has allowed 31 base runners in 17 1/3 innings. Means, meanwhile, has matched that workload with one fewer start since returning from Tommy John elbow reconstruction, including taking a no-hitter into the seventh on Saturday to possibly guarantee a starting role in October. A day after Means pitched into the eighth inning, Gibson did the same, with seven-plus innings of one-run ball giving him his third quality start in four September outings.
At most, two of those three will be lined up to start in the Orioles’ first playoff series.
2. Who fills out the bullpen?
It’s likely whichever starters fall out of the rotation wind up in the bullpen; Gibson was used that way last year as the Philadelphia Phillies reached the World Series, and both he and Means have been in the bullpen in case of an emergency in recent days. But that’s not the only decision to make here.
The days off as part of the ALDS schedule, plus the long relief capabilities of the aforementioned starters, could prompt Baltimore to carry only 12 pitchers, meaning both reductions would come from that side of the roster. One choice would be simple, with right-hander Jorge López ineligible for the postseason after being claimed on waivers after Aug. 31. This week could be significant in determining the possible other.
Jack Flaherty, acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline for three prospects Baseball America ranked among Baltimore’s top 20, was pulled from the Orioles’ six-man rotation last week after struggling mightily. He pitched well in his first relief appearance, and manager Brandon Hyde had him warming for a potential save opportunity Saturday, but the team might need to see more before formally including him. Shintaro Fujinami, Baltimore’s only other reinforcement ahead of the deadline, has been mercurial, showcasing a tough-to-hit repertoire but having trouble consistently throwing it in the strike zone. The Orioles’ top starter in the first half, Tyler Wells retired all six batters he faced upon his return to the majors after dealing with fatigue, but he has yet to pitch back-to-back days since moving to relief, though that wouldn’t be as necessary in the postseason.
The Orioles have several other eligible pitchers who they have optioned in recent weeks, with Mike Baumann the only one who wouldn’t be available for the wild-card round based on when he was sent down. There’s also the possibility that All-Star closer Félix Bautista, who suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last month, returns. He’s been throwing bullpen sessions but has yet to face live hitters, though the gap between the end of the regular season and the ALDS could allow opportunity for that.
3. Which hitter gets left out?
Even if the Orioles elect to operate with an imbalanced roster and carry 14 position players, there are still decisions to be made.
They largely depend on the health of first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who has dealt with left shoulder inflammation since Sept. 13 and is on the injured list. Mountcastle, who was hitting .324 with a .900 OPS in 50 second-half games, stood in the box tracking pitches during bullpen sessions with Bautista and Bradish over the weekend and has done some fielding work. Although Mountcastle has yet to swing a bat since going on the injured list, Hyde is hopeful he’ll be activated once eligible Wednesday.
A corresponding move for Mountcastle’s hypothetical return could forecast the Orioles’ thinking when it comes to their playoff roster. No. 5 prospect Heston Kjerstad’s call-up came in response to Mountcastle’s injury. Outfielder Ryan McKenna was optioned for Kjerstad then recalled when Mountcastle officially landed on the IL, so if Mountcastle returns or if the Orioles feature a balanced playoff roster, one of those two figures to be the odd man out.
Which player stays could come down to who the Orioles are playing and how they want to use that roster spot. A left-handed slugger, Kjerstad has performed well, swatting two home runs with nine of his 14 balls in play hit at least 95 mph, but Hyde has hesitated to use him in the field, against left-handed pitchers and occasionally on the base paths. McKenna has the opposite usage, with his value coming as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
The choice is whether the Orioles want a powerful bench bat when trailing in Kjerstad or improved outfield defense when ahead in McKenna.
In all of these cases, there’s a lot to be sorted out in the final week of the regular season.
What’s to come?
First, a much-needed day off, then a chance to clinch the AL East with games against two teams out of the playoff race.
The Orioles enter Monday, their first day without a game since Sept. 7, with a magic number of three, meaning any combination of their wins and Tampa Bay losses of at least that value would result in them claiming the division for the first time since 2014. The Rays are also off on Monday, so the earliest Baltimore could clinch is Wednesday.
Picking up three victories themselves among their two games with the Nationals — who Hyde said feature “a lot of good, young, hungry players” — and their four games with the Red Sox would give the Orioles their first 100-win season since 1980.
What was good?
Over his two starts last week, Means allowed two runs over 12 1/3 innings. Adding to that performance was that it came as he continued to search for his two breaking balls.
After Monday’s start against Houston, he said his changeup was the only offspeed pitch he had working. He then used his curveball and slider infrequently in Saturday’s no-hit bid at Cleveland, with that pair accounting for 17 of his 96 offerings. But he feels those pitches are improving, boding well for the possibility of continued strong performances.
“I think it starts with throwing strikes [with them] and then working off that,” Means said. “I like what my fastball-changeup’s doing, and that’s kind of my MO anyway, so just to add in the breaking balls just helps that much more.”’
The Orioles’ now-completed stretch of 17 games across 17 straight days understandably thrashed their bullpen, with the effects most evident on this road trip.
Baltimore relievers, one of whom was given the loss in each of last week’s three defeats, collectively posted a 6.04 ERA. The Orioles ranked in the middle of the league in relief innings, but Hyde’s 30 pitching changes were the most of any manager, with workload concerns often prompting him to shorten appearances.
Notably, the bullpen struck out 13.5% of opposing batters, ranking near the bottom of the league, and across the 17-game stretch, it was 14.5%, comfortably the lowest of any team’s relief unit. Through Aug. 25 — when Bautista suffered his UCL tear — the Orioles’ bullpen ranked third in the majors with a 26.5% strikeout rate, largely thanks to Bautista’s league-best 46.4%. With a rate nearly 10% lower since, Baltimore entered Sunday ranked last in that measure during its month without Bautista.
It’s fair to wonder whether Hyde has a go-to strikeout option available in his bullpen if Bautista’s not available. Yennier Cano, a fellow All-Star who has been Bautista’s primary replacement, has struck out two of 33 batters faced over his past 10 appearances, with a 7.04 ERA in that time. Overall, Cano has a 7.5% strikeout rate since the Orioles lost Bautista, and López is Baltimore’s only reliever in that time with a rate even half of the All-Star closer’s.
In discussing the lack of reliever strikeouts, Hyde pointed to the offenses they have played of late, facing a “pesky” Cleveland team after matchups with playoff contenders in Tampa and Houston. He acknowledged, “We just haven’t executed with two strikes very well,” while also criticizing the fact his team was tasked with 17 straight games at this time of year.
“This stretch that we’ve been in, the schedule-maker needs to take a look at it because it’s really, really unfair and unhealthy, honestly, to do this to a team in September,” Hyde said. “I’m really, really proud of our guys for hanging in there.”
On the farm
Triple-A Norfolk wrapped up its regular season Sunday, finishing with the best record in the International League.
The Tides begin postseason play Tuesday against Durham, the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate. Despite the number of well-regarded minor leaguers the Orioles have brought to the majors this season, Norfolk’s roster still features nine of Baltimore’s top 15 prospects, according to Baseball America. That, of course, includes middle infielder Jackson Holliday, the sport’s top overall prospect.
Nationals at Orioles
Tuesday, 6:35 p.m.
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