Hirano stepped in as the primary ninth-inning option over the final three weeks and secured three saves, while Bradley blew two leads during the final weekend. Despite the late fade from Bradley, Lovullo remains confident in the right-hander, even going so far as to say publicly in December that he's leaning toward using Bradley as his closer in 2019.
Bradley lost a tick of velocity year-over-year. While he was able to maintain similar strikeout and walk rates -- his K-BB rate fell from 20.0% to a still-good 18.6% -- Bradley's HR/9 more than doubled as his opponents' hard-hit rate exploded to 40.1%.
Hirano proved effective in his first season stateside, relying heavily on his split-finger pitch (46.3%) to induce groundballs. He's 34 and lacks the dominance of Bradley, with his fastball averaging just over 91 mph, four mph lower than Bradley's slightly-diminished heater.
Complicating this picture is the addition of Holland. Holland's tenure with St. Louis last season was an unmitigated disaster, but he was quietly decent after joining Washington. Walks remained an issue with the Nats (12.5 BB%), but Holland rediscovered his strikeout punch down the stretch (31.3%) and of course has has the "proven closer" track record the D-Backs can point to if they decide to game the arbitration system with Bradley.
Sherfy has collected 35 saves at Triple-A over the past two seasons and is a player to keep an eye on, but he needs to establish himself at the highest level first and foremost.
Right shoulder inflammation kept Vizcaino from a proper follow-up to his excellent 2017 season, but he performed well when on the field, finishing with an ERA in the 2.00s for the second straight year while converting 17 of 19 save chances (including the postseason). Vizcaino continued to throw gas, averaging over 97 mph with his fastball for the fourth straight season. He keeps hitters off balance by dropping in a curveball roughly 30 percent of the time. His 25.3 K% and 14.3% swinging-strike rate remained strong, if closer to middle-of-the-pack among closers. It should be noted that his opponents' line-drive rate rose to 26.7% after sitting right around 16% the prior two seasons. However, the stuff seems to be mostly the same as it's always been.
Minter dealt with an injury of his own (back strain) and struggled to find his release point after his return in August. Overall, the numbers represented a sizable step back from the lefty's small sample in his 2017 debut, but the peripherals were still quite good and he was throwing harder than he did the year prior. He racked up 15 saves and 12 holds while blowing just two leads during the regular season. Minter left a spring game March 1 with shoulder tightness and still had not been cleared to return to mound work as of March 9.
While Winkler was a key piece of the bullpen for most of the campaign, earning 23 holds and even a pair of saves, he imploded in September (15.43 ERA). That led to Winkler being left off the NLDS roster and likely has him behind Sobotka in the bullpen hierarchy entering 2019.
Sobotka is a 6-foot-7 right-hander who works fastball-slider. He averages over 96 mph with his four-seamer and his slider proved to be an excellent out pitch, generating a ton of empty swings (37.1 O-Swing%, 19.3 SwStr%). Opponents hit .102 against Sobotka. The 25-year-old needs to improve his control, but it's not hard to envision Sobotka working his way into some save chances if the injury issues persist with Vizcaino and Minter.
It was the opportunity many had been waiting for with Givens, who for several years had posted closer-worthy peripherals with zero saves to show for his efforts. The skills were less befitting of a closer once he actually took over the role -- Givens' K-rate over the final two months was just 23.9% -- but he was effective nonetheless, and his physical ability stands head and shoulders over the rest of the Orioles' bullpen. He averages over 95 mph with his fastball, can change speeds at 86 mph and also spins a slider. Givens gave a little back in terms of control, but the landing was a manageable 9.5 BB%.
Scott is a lefty who throws 97 mph with his fastball, and the peripherals were far more glowing than his surface numbers last season. He battled some walk issues, but Scott made up for the free passes with a healthy 31.7 K%. Scott also induced groundballs at an above-average 47.3% clip, and when it was all said and done, he had a 3.40 FIP -- exactly two runs lower than his ERA. His splits were a bit troubling (.378 wOBA to righties), but it seems like he could be the next man up behind Givens by default.
Castro has some intrigue given the raw tools. The key word there is "raw." Castro regularly touches mid-to-high 90s with his four-seamer, but that hasn't translated to many Ks whatsoever in the majors (15.6 K%). Control has also been a problem, and as a result, his K-BB marks have settled in the low single digits the past two years. He's still only 24 years old, so there's still time for the right-hander to develop into a serviceable back-end arm.
Bleier is already hurt this spring, and his is very much a middle-reliever profile. A 31-year-old journeyman lefty, Bleier owns an 11.0 K% in parts of three big-league seasons. He doesn't even crack 90 mph on the radar gun, but Bleier gets groundballs in bunches (63.3%) and is stingy with the free passes (4.3 BB%).
The wild card here is Harvey, who once again dealt with injuries last year, tossing 32.1 innings at Double-A after totaling 18.2 innings in 2017 and 12.2 innings in 2016. Baltimore really should end the starting experiment and see what Harvey can do in relief. If that move is made and Harvey finds his way up to the big leagues in 2019, he would immediately become one of the more intriguing arms in the Orioles' bullpen, as he can throw in the mid-90s with movement and spin a quality curveball.
A reunion with Kimbrel is still possible. Kimbrel was shaky in the playoffs, issuing eight walks and giving up seven runs in 10.2 postseason innings, and there are some yellow flags in the regular-season numbers as well. That said, most of the other impact relievers are off the board in free agency, and it's somewhat difficult to see the defending World Series champs entering the season with only the relievers they currently have on the roster.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said publicly in January that Barnes, Brasier, Thornburg and Wright are options to close for the team in 2019. Brasier is perhaps the most intriguing internal candidate. He doesn't get as many strikeouts as Barnes -- for the season, Brasier had a 23.4 K% (career 22.6%). He also lacks the groundballs (40.2%), but the right-hander throws hard (96.9 mph average fastball last season) and he's much stingier with the walks than Barnes.
Barnes brings the ever-enticing combination of strikeouts (36.2 K% last season) and groundballs (53.0%). The right-hander averages 96 mph with his fastball and spins a good curveball.
Thornburg struggled last year in his first season back from thoracic outlet surgery, posting a 5.63 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and 2.25 HR/9. The track record for players returning from that procedure, while limited, is pretty troubling (Tyson Ross and Matt Harvey are the most recent cautionary tales). His $1.75 million contract for 2019 is not guaranteed.
Wright had a nice 2018, but he was hit was an 80-game suspension in March for testing positive for Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide 2 and was never a realistic option anyway.
Morrow underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow Nov. 6, and as of late January he was expected to miss at least the first month of the 2019 campaign.
Strop was the primary ninth-inning option in Morrow's absence, though he too battled an injury (hamstring) down the stretch, opening the door for Jesse Chavez -- now with Texas -- and Cishek to see save chances late in the year. While Strop continued to pump his fastball in at 95 mph on average, he lost a little something from his strikeout rate last season (from 26.0% to 23.8%). That loss was offset to a large extent with a reduction in walks (8.8%). Strop's groundball rate fell dramatically -- 13 percentage points, to 46.1% -- but even so he posted an identical HR/9 to 2017 (0.60). His home-run rate has never exceeded 0.78 HR/9 in any season with at least 20 innings.
Cishek's fastball now sits right around 90 mph, but he posted the third-highest strikeout rate of his career last season (27.1%). His sidewinding delivery is headache for same-handed hitters, as evidenced by their .165/.239/.288 line against Cishek in 2018. He gave a little back against lefty batters last season, but his slider is good enough to limit the damage without the platoon edge. Cishek should once again play a critical role at the back end for manager Joe Maddon.
Edwards has long been thought of as a future closer. He could still fulfill that destiny, but the control hasn't come along (14.4 BB%) and it will need to if he's ever to be trusted in the ninth. Edwards lost a little velo and a little off his K-rate last season, and battled a forearm injury in the playoffs, so those save speculators out there will probably want to roster another option and simply keep Edwards on a watch list to begin 2019.
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