Baumann ready to embrace new reliever role

March 17th, 2023

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The conversation was “short and sweet,” as  put it.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde informed the 27-year-old right-hander the club wanted to test him out in short relief. Baumann obliged and began preparing for a move to the bullpen.

“I took a step back and said, ‘If I want to help this team, it’s probably in this sort of role,’” Baumann said.

Entering camp, Baumann was among a crowded mix of starting pitchers, with 12 competing for five spots. He was likely behind at least six or seven of them in the hierarchy, so it was clear he had only an outside chance of earning a spot in Baltimore’s Opening Day rotation.

Baumann doesn’t have much relief experience. A third-round pick of the O’s in the 2017 MLB Draft out of Jacksonville University, he’s made 114 appearances between the Minors and Majors over five professional seasons, with 87 of them being starts.

Baltimore is hoping Baumann -- who was the organization’s Co-Pitcher of the Year Award winner in 2019 -- can be more effective when used in short bursts. He has a 5.89 ERA in 17 big league games over the past two seasons, and he had a 10.29 ERA through his first three Grapefruit League outings this spring.

On Thursday night, Baumann entered a Spring Training contest much later than usual. He took the mound for the eighth inning vs. the Blue Jays at Ed Smith Stadium and tossed an impressive frame in the O’s 7-4 victory.

Baumann struck out Alex De Jesus swinging, then got Gabriel Martinez and John Aiello to both ground out for a 1-2-3 showing.

“I just kind of went out there, didn’t give myself time to think and just kind of let it eat,” Baumann said. “It felt good.”

In his limited MLB experience, Baumann has mostly leaned on his four-seam fastball and slider. His heater has averaged 95.8 mph (per Statcast), and his velocity has the potential to increase in a short-relief role, where he won’t need to leave as much in the tank to get through an entire outing.

Baumann’s slider is cutter-like, because even that pitch has averaged 91.5 mph in the big leagues. Catcher Anthony Bemboom, who was behind the plate for Baumann’s Thursday appearance, said the offering is tough on hitters “because it looks like his fastball the whole time.”

Bemboom caught Baumann numerous times with Triple-A Norfolk last season, and the 33-year-old backstop is confident the 6-foot-4 righty can be converted into a successful full-time reliever. Because not only does Baumann have two plus pitches in his fastball and slider, but he also has a curveball and a changeup he can turn to in lengthier battles with hitters.

“As long as he goes in there and throws strikes and gets ahead, he’s a really tough at-bat, for both righties and lefties,” Bemboom said. “His stuff is electric. Every time I’ve been catching him, it’s been lights out. It’s been strike one, strike two, guys are on their heels. And you can tell, just really uncomfortable swings.”

It won’t be easy for Baumann to crack the Orioles’ Opening Day roster as a reliever, either. Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, Mychal Givens and Bryan Baker are locks for four of the eight spots. Austin Voth (who is out of Minor League options) and Keegan Akin should also be in the ‘pen.

That leaves two openings with Baltimore needing to decide whether Tyler Wells and/or DL Hall should pitch in relief or go down to Triple-A to remain starters. Andrew Politi, the O’s 2022 Rule 5 Draft pick, also has a case to make the team, because if he doesn’t, he’ll need to be offered back to the Red Sox.

But Hyde now views Baumann as a viable candidate alongside those other arms.

“He is in the mix, absolutely,” Hyde said. “We want to give him enough time to kind of adjust to that role a little bit, but he’s definitely in the mix with a lot of guys for the last few spots there in that ‘pen. I think he responded really well [Thursday night] to the conversation we had with him about it a few days ago.”

The most beneficial aspect of the switch for Baumann could be the clarity regarding his immediate future. He knows he doesn’t need to be stretched out and can focus solely on being the best reliever he can be -- which, based on his stuff, could end up being an impressive one.

“I think it will be good knowing what to expect out of me moving forward,” Baumann said. “I’m ready to embrace the role.”