Is Chris Davis the most important offseason need to address or is Darren O’Day? Is that really how the Baltimore Orioles should line up their offseason priorities? Perhaps a starting pitcher or a corner outfielder should be higher on the list than a setup man. Most teams think that way. The Orioles should not. O’Day is an extremely valuable component when it comes to seeing the Orioles return to the playoffs in 2016.
Over the past four years, winning baseball has returned to Baltimore with a vengeance. The bullpen has been the rock through the entirety of the successful run. Enduring the arduous task of putting out the fires left by a starting rotation that often fails to make it through the sixth inning, the Baltimore relief pitchers have been among the most consistent in the league, with two top-five finishes in ERA. Only the 2013 season saw the Orioles fall out of the top 10 when it comes to bullpen ERA.
Over the past four years, O’Day has logged 263.0 innings with an ERA below 2.00. He is the best relief pitcher in a very thin market. The bidding is going to drive the price up, possibly approaching $27 million over three years. Andrew Miller was the hot item on last year’s free agent market, and he signed for four years and $36 million. Only the fact that O’Day turned 33 on October 22 could possibly keep him from getting that fourth year. Who knows, though, another team could covet him so much as to be willing to fork over one more season and the extra dough.
O’Day really makes the bullpen click for the Orioles. The eighth inning is his whenever it’s late and close. His assortment of sidearm fastballs, sliders, and changeups is death to right-handed and left-handed hitters. In 2015, righties hit .192 against O’Day and lefties hit .210. He has a very high strikeout rate (11.3 K/9 in ’15). It’s a near lock that when O’Day gets the ball with a lead. At the end of the year, O’Day showed an ability to close. This display could give Buck Showalter even more flexibility next year should the Orioles retain O’Day. In a tight situation in the eighth inning, with runners aboard, Showalter can just as easily turn to Zach Britton and his groundball machine two-seamer to chase a double play, knowing that O’Day can handle the ninth. Closer by committee rarely works, but that’s because most teams who go down that route don’t actually have two All-Star caliber relief pitchers. In O’Day and Britton, that’s exactly what the Orioles would have again. Re-signing O’Day for a few more years could also give the Orioles flexibility to trade Britton before his value peaks. Two years down the road, if things start to go south and the Orioles are floundering, O’Day could be trade bait as well.
Without O’Day, Mychal Givens likely becomes the eighth inning guy. Givens, a rookie in 2015, was impressive. Like O’Day, he features a funky delivery, but is a converted middle infielder. Givens threw 87.1 innings combined between the minor leagues and the bigs last season. It was his first year throwing more than 60 innings in a single season. With the Orioles, Givens allowed only 20 hits in 30.0 innings and struck out 38. Whether that dominance was due to small sample size or Givens’s talent remains to be seen. It’s likely a combination of the two contributed to Givens’s ability to thrive in his first stint in the Major Leagues.
With O’Day back, the Orioles could go Givens-O’Day-Britton out of the ‘pen. Do you think many teams are scoring off that trio? Nope, didn’t think so. Losing O’Day would force Givens into a more crucial role. He may one day be ready for it, but in his first full year in the big leagues, the Orioles should try to avoid asking him to do too much. A combination of Givens, Brad Brach, and Brian Matusz will make the sixth and seventh innings another tough nut to crack for opponents. Brach and Matusz are much more effective when allowed to specialize. Again, losing O’Day would force the pair of cross-body throwers into more situations they may not be suited for. The entire bullpen structure changes without O’Day, and not for the better.
The Orioles need to look at the Kansas City Royals when deciding what to do with Darren O’Day. Yes, the starting rotation lacks a true ace, but so did that of the World Series champions. The Orioles won’t find one on the open market. The best the team can hope for is a Brett Anderson, Yovani Gallardo, or Marco Estrada. Even those three might not be affordable given the explosion of money spent on quality starting pitchers. Internal options like Tyler Wilson and Miguel Gonzalez will provide similar performance at a fraction of the cost. Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman will be better in 2015 after inconsistent seasons. Without much upgrade to the starting rotation, O’Day becomes that much more important. The bullpen is going to be taxed again in 2016, but having three shutdown arms who can slam the door on innings seven through nine will negate a lot of the damage done by a mediocre pitching staff. A good starting pitcher may cost the Orioles $15 million per season. At $9 million per season, O’Day is just as valuable. Don’t forget, even if the Orioles upgrade one spot in the rotation, there are still four more pitchers who are going to struggle to make it to the seventh inning on a frequent basis.
The Orioles have done a good job of finding value in the free-agent market during the Dan Duquette-Showalter era. Those free agents who have performed well are all hitting the open market at the same time. The Orioles can try to catch lightning in a bottle again with an under-the-radar signing, or they can pay Darren O’Day what he’s earned. For many reasons, O’Day must be the second priority on the offseason checklist for the Orioles.