3 spring standouts who could be bullpen X-factors for O's

March 8th, 2024

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Eight pitchers will be in the Orioles’ bullpen for Opening Day on March 28 vs. the Angels. Half of that group should already be locked in: closer Craig Kimbrel, All-Star setup man Yennier Cano and left-handers Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez.

The other half? It will likely be four of the following candidates (barring injury or potential additions): Keegan Akin, Bryan Baker, Mike Baumann, Wandisson Charles, Tucker Davidson, Jonathan Heasley, Matt Krook, Kaleb Ort, Andrew Suárez, Albert Suárez, Dillon Tate, Julio Teheran, Nick Vespi, Jacob Webb and Bruce Zimmermann.

“We’ve got a lot of really good arms,” said the 28-year-old Akin. “It’s probably one of the best camps I’ve seen on the pitching side as a whole, really.”

Of the 15 pitchers in that aforementioned group, eight had pitched multiple Grapefruit League innings without allowing a run entering Friday.

Here’s a closer look at three of those spring standouts, each of whom could be a bullpen X-factor and end up in a high-leverage role for Baltimore in 2024.

Spring stats: Three perfect innings with three strikeouts
Chances of making team: Highly likely

Baumann is out of Minor League options, but that isn’t the only reason the 28-year-old should break camp with the O’s. After going 10-1 with a 3.76 ERA over 60 appearances last year -- his first in a full-time relief role -- the righty has looked stellar while retiring all nine batters he’s faced in Grapefruit action.

Manager Brandon Hyde has been impressed with the improved rhythm in Baumann’s delivery, which allows him to better locate a mix of pitches that includes a high-octane fastball (average velocity of 96.4 mph in 2023, per Statcast) and three breaking offerings (curveball, slider, changeup).

“The unpredictable offspeed stuff in fastball counts is what is going to be a separator for him,” Hyde said. “Last year, he really threw a lot of fastballs and cutters. But so far this camp, he’s thrown some good changeups, he’s throwing good curveballs, along with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball. Love the confidence he’s showing right now and how aggressive he is in the strike zone.”

Spring stats: Three perfect innings with three strikeouts
Chances of making team: Likely

Tate is the biggest bullpen X-factor of them all after missing the entire 2023 season due to forearm/elbow injuries. If the 29-year-old righty returns to his ‘22 form (a 3.05 ERA in 67 appearances), he could be a top setup arm in ‘24.

So far, Tate (who still has two Minor League options remaining) has shown that could happen, having retired all nine batters he’s faced this spring. Every offering in his three-pitch arsenal has looked tremendous in the process.

“The heavy sinker is back, and he’s throwing sliders for strikes. Good to see him throw some changeups,” Hyde said. “You can definitely see from the dugout the sinker is sinking and is going to get a ton of ground balls. He’s feeling healthy after every outing. Nice to see him back out there and throwing just really good stuff.”

Spring stats: Four scoreless innings with no hits allowed, one walk and four strikeouts
Chances of making team: 50/50, but increasing

This isn’t the first time Akin has had a dominant spring. In 2023, the southpaw allowed one run in eight Grapefruit innings and then broke camp with the Orioles. The rest of the year didn’t go as well for him, as he recorded a 6.85 ERA in 24 outings (one start) and didn’t pitch in the Majors after June 28 because of a back injury.

Now healthy, Akin looks more like he did around this time a year ago. His three-pitch mix (four-seam fastball, slider and changeup) has been sharp while making quick work of the opposition.

“Last year, I tried to do the same thing really -- just throw strikes, mix my pitches, attack hitters,” Akin said. “Kind of the mindset I’ve really taken on the last couple of years. I feel like I got away from that a little bit last year when the season started. Obviously, battled some other things that were going on. But I feel good and [am] just trying to pound the zone.”

The Orioles might want to carry Akin as a third left-hander for the ‘pen. However, doing so could prevent them from having a true long reliever (such as Teheran, Heasley or either Suárez). Akin has a Minor League option remaining, but even if he’s sent down, he’ll show up in the big leagues at some point this year.