O's hope to get it right with deeper group of lefties
When the Orioles summoned left-handed reliever Donnie Hart from Double-A Bowie at the All-Star break last year, he was the latest solution to a problem that frustrated the team all season.
The offseason departure of left-handed starter Wei-Yin Chen meant the rotation was full of right-handers. Injuries and ineffectiveness meant the likes of Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland weren't counted on for long, and at times, Zach Britton was the only left-hander in the clubhouse — and he specialized in saves, not seventh-inning situational work.
The Orioles cycled through minor leaguers and trolled the waiver wire for left-handed depth, but it was a problem that didn't really go away.
New options: This year, however, the club believes its yearlong plan to rebuild its depleted stock of southpaws will bear fruit, with Richard Bleier and Vidal Nuno providing length after being acquired early this spring, starting pitching prospects Jayson Aquino and Chris Lee having another year of development behind them, plus a full year of Hart in the big league bullpen ahead.
"You can see some of these left-handers look like they're going to be able to help the team this year," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "We seem to have more of them, but they're more skilled. They have the pitches to get the hitters out, it looks like, and they're all at the age where they should be able to contribute to the club, not just for this year, but for the next couple of years."
Hart, who became a relied-upon member of the bullpen as a rookie, said it has been impressive to see how the organization has amassed left-handed talent. Though it wasn't always so bare. Trades had sapped the system of left-handed prospects like Steven Brault and Josh Hader in previous years, leaving a dearth in the high minors.
Hart wasn't on the 40-man roster last spring, but of the nine left-handers that pitched last year for the Orioles, five of them — McFarland, Matusz, Ariel Miranda, Ashur Tolliver and Brian Duensing — are no longer in the organization. Wade Miley remains in the rotation after a strong stretch run, but only Duensing, who signed a $2 million deal with the Chicago Cubs, moved up once they moved out.
In their place is a group of pitchers that deserve far more optimism than their predecessors.
"I think we're in pretty good shape now," manager Buck Showalter said.
Assembled in typical O's fashion: The cast of lefties was assembled in typical Orioles fashion. Nuno was acquired for minor league righty Ryan Moseley, while Bleier was designated for assignment despite a 1.96 ERA in 23 appearances for the New York Yankees last year. The Orioles brought him in a week into camp, for a player to be named.
Lee was acquired in 2015 from the Houston Astros for international signing slot money and likely would have made the majors last year if not for a shoulder injury. Aquino, acquired last April from the St. Louis Cardinals for cash, honed his breaking pitches a year ago and has increased his standing in the organization plenty since.
Lefties can defend themselves vs. right-handed hitters: Most important to the organization is that all of them can not only get lefties out, but can defend themselves against right-handed hitters and thus provide long-relief help that the team covets in a division with so many left-handed-hitting stars.
"Lee, Richard, and Nuno, they're all guys that can go long, too," Hart said. "That's hard to come by nowadays, because people hang onto lefties that can do that, throw multiple innings and also be good at getting those middle-of-the-order left-handers out. That's always a plus to have those guys around, because if you're in a pinch, those guys can eat up innings, too.
"You watch Chris Lee start, Chris Lee gets more ground balls than probably anybody. I've watched Richard pitch a couple times, too. Richard can cut the ball in on righties and sink it as well. Nuno has established himself for really four or five years' time now. It's good. It's hard to get those guys because organizations hold on to them, especially left-handers who can go the distance for you like that."
Both Lee and Bleier use a cutter to defend themselves against right-handed hitters, with Bleier's a late-season addition last year that entirely transformed his arsenal. Aquino's breaking ball gives him a pitch that breaks away from their bats.
Effective thus far: Everyone in that group is having a good spring, too. Aquino has nine strikeouts in nine innings, with one run allowed on six hits over four outings. Bleier struggled in his first outing, allowing a run on three hits and a walk in two innings, but has struck out three in two, one-inning appearances since. Nuno left to pitch in relief for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic after a pair of two-inning scoreless outings during which he struck out one and allowed one hit in each. And Lee has allowed two runs on five hits with eight strikeouts in eight innings.
"The pitchers we brought in, we didn't bring them in to be left-handed specialists," Duquette said. "They've been able to effectively neutralize left-handed hitters over the course of their careers, but they also have pitches to get out right-handers. We're not sitting there holding our breath when we bring him if the manager pinch-hits and brings in a right-handed hitter. … There seems to be better pitchers, and more of the better pitchers, from the left-hand side this time around."
Lee looks around the clubhouse and sees just that. From Miley and Hart — who has allowed a run on two hits in five innings over five appearances this spring — on down the depth chart, there's no room for any of them to falter.
"We've got a lot of talented lefties here," Lee said. "Everyone's working hard. We've got Wade, who's a good guy who's always teaching us something. I'd say we have really stepped up at getting lefties. It's nice to be a part of it. Everyone is throwing well this spring, so we want to keep it going. We're trying to be better than each other."