(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)
BALTIMORE — It’s only getting worse for Orioles relief pitcher Pedro Strop.
Fresh off a stint on the 15-day disabled list with what was labeled a lower back strain — many have drawn their owns conclusions on the injury — Strop displayed the same form seen over the first two months of the season Wednesday as he allowed four earned runs and saw his ERA balloon to 7.58 while retiring just one batter in the seventh inning. The implosion turned what was a 4-2 Orioles lead into an eventual 9-5 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
Despite a fastball that reaches the upper 90s and a slider with good movement that enabled him to serve as an elite member of the Baltimore bullpen through the first 4 1/2 months of the 2012 season, Strop is looking more and more like a pitcher whose time with the Orioles is running out.
“Not good,” Strop said in an interview with MASN before leaving the clubhouse as the rest of the media talked to manager Buck Showalter. “Only thing I can say. I couldn’t do the job.”
The Orioles aren’t hiding from Strop’s problems, evident by their decision to place him on the DL and circumvent the reality of the right-hander being out of options. Manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair used the 15-day period as a way for Strop to work on his mechanics in hopes of improving his command after he walked 14 batters in 17 2/3 innings through his first 22 appearances.
However, the organization decided not to send Strop on a minor-league rehab assignment that could have lasted up to 30 days and would have allowed him to continue working on adjustments to his mechanics while rebuilding his confidence against minor-league hitters. There was some thought of that possibility before last week’s oblique injury to Steve Johnson, which prompted the club to activate Strop instead of looking to Triple-A Norfolk for another option.
Even before Wednesday’s implosion, it was perplexing to see the Orioles forgo that strategy with nearly everyone concluding his DL stint was more about ineffectiveness than any legitimate health concern.
It’s understandable to not want to give up on a talented 28-year-old who only became a pitcher in 2006 after beginning his professional career as a shortstop. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette knows at least a few clubs would take a chance on Strop should he be placed on waivers in hopes of getting him to the minor leagues, but the Orioles are also a contending club in the American League East that needs production from every player on the 25-man roster.
“He’s just not getting results,” Showalter said. “He understands it. Nobody cares more about pitching well for this team than Pete.”
It’s easy to criticize Showalter for turning to the volatile Strop after starter Jason Hammel allowed a single to Alberto Callaspo and walked Brad Hawpe on four pitches to begin the seventh inning, but a quick inventory of the bullpen made it easy to see Showalter’s options were limited at best as he acknowledged “two or three” relievers were unavailable without revealing names. Closer Jim Johnson had pitched in three straight games and Tommy Hunter had thrown a total of 51 pitches on Sunday and Monday.
Showalter wouldn’t reveal his late-inning plans when asked, but that presumably left Darren O’Day available for the ninth inning and lefty Brian Matusz to pitch the eighth. As a result, Showalter faced the prospects of sending a tiring Hammel out for the seventh with 94 pitches under his belt and having Strop and lefty Troy Patton — who’s also struggled this season — as his options if the starter ran into trouble. Showalter was rolling the dice for a quick inning by Hammel, but the right-hander was obviously gassed before being replaced by Strop.
Perhaps the Orioles manager could have resisted the urge to use Hammel — who wasn’t exactly dominating hitters despite a statistically-effective outing through six innings — with the thought of a fresh inning with the bases empty being more conducive to Strop having success, but that’s looking with 20-20 hindsight. The reality is Showalter didn’t have great choices at his disposal in the seventh.
“I was hoping [Hammel] could get us through seven, but it wasn’t there,” Showalter said. “That’s kind of where we were. We keep a pretty good log on innings pitched and [pitchers warming up in the bullpen], and I’m not going to put anybody in harm’s way.”
The real issue with the Orioles bullpen is more concerning than the individual struggles of Strop. Beyond the reliable quartet of Johnson, O’Day, Matusz, and Hunter, the Orioles have three other pitchers in the bullpen — Strop, Patton, and Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland — that they can’t really trust in important situations. All have long-term potential to varying degrees, but none can be moved off the 25-man roster without significant risk of losing them.
In fairness, McFarland has pitched respectably as a long reliever in blowout situations, but that’s a role typically held by a pitcher who can easily be moved on and off the roster to address a club’s needs at a given point in the season. It’s a major reason why we saw the one-and-done approach applied with several ineffective starting pitchers earlier in the season and it has further hamstrung the roster flexibility that Showalter and Duquette enjoy having.
The Orioles’ problems in middle relief have led to a heavier dependence on their best relievers, which jeopardizes the club’s long-term viability for the second half of the season. It’s not uncommon for even the best teams in baseball to have shaky options beyond the top three or four pitchers in the bullpen, but the keystone of the Orioles’ 2012 success included the effectiveness of middle relievers like Luis Ayala and Patton in the sixth and seventh innings that spared other late-inning options on occasion.
Baltimore needs improvement from its middle relievers or starting pitching — preferably both — to improve its chances in a tight division in which fourth-place Tampa Bay trailed first-place Boston by only four games entering play on Wednesday.
“We can’t pitch the same guys every night,” he said. “It just doesn’t work, and [Strop] was one of those guys for us last year and has been at times this year, and we hope that he will again. He pitched well and got physically fine and had a couple really good outings, as you saw. It just wasn’t there for him today.”
Bullpens are typically quite fluid over the course of a season, but the Orioles currently have just two pitchers (Matusz and O’Day) with remaining minor-league options and they obviously aren’t going anywhere. That means time is running out for Strop — you can say the same for Patton — to right himself after roughly four months of struggles going back to last year’s regular season.
The talent is there, but the Orioles need last year’s effectiveness to resurface.
They don’t have the flexibility to wait much longer.