Orioles’ fatal flaw that will derail hot start to 2024 season

Could the 2024 season go off the rails for the Orioles?

Craig Kimbrel and Felix Bautista in image looking stern, Baltimore Orioles logo in middle, baseball field in background

After a half-decade of absolute misery, the Baltimore Orioles are close to achieving baseball nirvana. They’ve got exciting young talent galore, a sold-out gorgeous ballpark every night and new ownership that seems hell-bent on putting together a contender. The entire world seems like it’s at the O’s fingertips.

But there’s one significant problem for the 2024 Orioles, one that was both exposed and magnified by the team’s 7-6 loss in their series finale Sunday against the Oakland Athletics. The team no longer has a permanent solution at the back end of the bullpen, which will hinder their ability to compete for a title as long as it remains unresolved.

The Orioles have a closer problem, plain and simple. They were spoiled in 2023 with Félix Baustista having a historic season and now, they’re just like any other playoff hopeful, praying the ninth inning doesn’t lead to a collapse.

Craig Kimbrel blows save, suffers injury

On Sunday afternoon, 35-year-old Craig Kimbrel took the mound with his Orioles nursing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth. He walked Darrell Hernaiz, the first batter he faced, then served up a meatball to Kyle McCann in a 3-2 count, which McCann deposited into the seats in right center to put the A’s ahead. Shortly thereafter, Kimbrel was clutching at his back after delivering a pitch, and left the game, leaving his status uncertain moving forward.

On the stat sheet, Kimbrel had actually been pretty solid in 2024 thus far, saving seven in a row before suffering a blown save in his previous outing, also against Oakland. But all it takes sometimes is one bad outing for the tides to turn and clearly, they did in this series.

Kimbrel has also lost a significant amount of fastball velocity, averaging 93.8 mph on his four-seamer this season compared to 95.8 in 2023. It’s too early to say if his injury was something that had already been lingering or will continue to do so, but relying on Kimbrel to get through this season was always a shaky proposition. Though he’s moving up the all-time save list as the season progresses, Kimbrel is bound to succumb to the aging curve at some point in the near future and that has the potential to derail the Orioles’ season.

The Orioles desperately miss Félix Bautista

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Felix Bautista (74) looks on from the dugout in game one of the ALDS for the 2023 MLB playoffs against the Texas Rangers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
With all the excitement around the 2024 version of the O’s, from the addition of Corbin Burnes to the burgeoning superstardom of Gunnar Henderson, it’s easy to forget that they also left something crucial behind in 2023. Félix Bautista is not expected to throw a pitch for the Orioles in 2024 and that is bound to cost them wins simply because there’s rarely been anyone like 2023 Bautista in baseball history.

Bautista was unanimously named the 2023 American League Reliever of the Year, striking out 110 batters in 61 innings with a measly 1.48 ERA. He was worth 3.0 bWAR, making him the fourth most valuable player on the team. Even though relief pitchers typically have the least impact on a roster, Bautista was one of the most impactful on his because of his sheer dominance.

So it isn’t that the Orioles are in trouble because Kimbrel is no longer an effective pitcher, or because others in the bullpen (we’ll get into them in a moment) are incapable of getting big outs? A key piece of the Orioles’ 101-win season was having an all-time great closer and without one, it’s uncertain they’ll be able to repeat that same level of success this time around.

Who will step up if Kimbrel is out?

Regardless of Kimbrel’s immediate health status, the entire Orioles bullpen has their work very much cut out for them to fill Bautista’s shoes in 2024. It starts, clearly, with Yennier Cano, another 2023 breakout sensation who has been good so far again this year. Though he is unlikely to make an All-Star appearance again, Cano can give manager Brandon Hyde piece of mind if he once again proves to be a stabilizing force at the back end of the pen.

But there are plenty of others behind Cano that need to step up. Dillon Tate and Jacob Webb are throwing more big innings than they ever have before, while Keegan Akin is stepping into the role of lefty stopper. Danny Coulombe is another lefty who looks to see increased action, while Mike Baumann has been the bullpen arm who’s encountered the most struggles.

None of those guys had pressure on them to be great last season, because all the high-leverage innings were getting devoured by Cano and Bautista. And when your high-leverage guys aren’t as dominant as the season before, even low-leverage situations get a lot more stressful.

All in all, the O’s have been about a league-average bullpen in 2024. And when you’re trying to win a championship, league average isn’t good enough. We’ve seen teams with mediocre bullpens (or even bad ones, in the case of last year’s Rangers) pull it together come playoff time, so the Orioles’ bullpen doesn’t disqualify them from contender status. But early alarm bells are sounding that the bullpen could also easily be their undoing.

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