Sunday, September 24 2023

Every Thursday, Jordan Shusterman takes a look at one thing from each MLB division that we’ve learned from the past week of action. 

AL East: Meet the best bullpen in baseball, the Baltimore Orioles?

A common feature among the worst teams in baseball in any given year is an especially ill-equipped relief corps. This was very much the case during the depths of Baltimore’s rebuild. In 2018, the Orioles ranked 27th in bullpen ERA and lost 115 games. In 2019, they ranked 30th in bullpen ERA and lost 108 games. In 2021, Baltimore relievers combined for a 5.70 ERA, which again ranked 30th and contributed heavily to a 110-loss campaign. It wasn’t pretty.

Suddenly, though, the Orioles’ pen has flipped a switch. We started to see it last year when guys like Jorge López, Dillon Tate, and eventually Félix Bautista headlined a unit that posted a 3.49 ERA that was ninth-lowest in baseball. That turnaround was impressive enough, but Bautista & Co. — and some new friends — have taken it to a totally new level of excellence in 2023. 

Just two years removed from being as unreliable as bullpens come, Orioles relievers lead all MLB relief units in fWAR and boast a 2.98 combined ERA that is second-lowest in MLB behind only the Yankees. The behemoth Bautista has continued to thrive at the back end, striking out a preposterous 50 batters in just 25 innings of work. Yennier Cano, acquired from Minnesota as part of last summer’s Lpez trade, has somehow been even better, yielding just one run and zero walks in 20 appearances with 28 strikeouts. 

It’s not just a two-man show, however, as journeymen waiver claims like Bryan Baker (2.78 ERA), Cionel Perez (1.89 ERA since becoming an Oriole last year) and Danny Coulombe (2.41 ERA) have also proved trustworthy through the first two months. And, hey, Mychal Givens is back, too! It’s nice to have a familiar face among a sea of relievers whose names we are all still trying to learn, even as they continue to post collectively microscopic ERAs. 

If bad bullpens are an easy mark of a bad team, then building great bullpens out of thin air might be an even stronger sign of a good team. The Orioles are a good team now — at 32-17, they own the second-best record in baseball — so it’s no surprise that they’ve improved drastically in terms of run prevention in the later innings. It’s just surprising how quickly it’s happened. 


AL Central: Luis Robert Jr. is looking like a superstar again

While the White Sox continue to struggle to string wins together, one undeniable positive recently has been Robert looking like the best version of himself. The 25-year-old center fielder wasn’t exactly helping during the team’s abysmal first month: among 129 players with at least 100 plate appearances in March/April, Robert Jr.’s .662 OPS ranked 109th. It certainly didn’t appear to be the start of a re-emergence into superstardom; his slow start looked like another footnote in a White Sox season gone horribly sideways.

But “La Pantera” has picked it up to a shocking degree in May, hitting .360/.429/.773 with eight homers and leading all of MLB in fWAR. There are only a handful of guys capable of looking like the best player on earth for even a short stretch, and Robert’s ability to impact the game significantly on both sides of the ball has him on that list. He’s been dealing with minor quad issues that have him day-to-day, but hopefully it’s nothing serious and he can remain a rare bright spot among a dark season on the South Side. As long as the team continues to struggle, the White Sox appear likely to be prominent sellers at the trade deadline. Robert won’t be going anywhere, though, and should remain a foundational piece for the franchise moving forward regardless of how many games they lose this year.

AL West: Mickey Moniak looks fantastic … but where is Jo Adell?

One of the stranger developments of last summer’s trade deadline was when the Phillies and Angels swung two separate trades on deadline day rather than just lumping them into one bigger deal. One of those deals — center fielder Brandon Marsh heading to Philly in exchange for top catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe — has remained a focal point for each organization into 2023, with Marsh emerging as a potential star and O’Hoppe looking like a franchise catcher prior to needing season-ending labrum surgery. 

The other trade — former No. 1 overall pick Moniak to Anaheim for a rental starter in Noah Syndergaard — was intriguing because of the high-profile names involved. But it felt less likely to dramatically impact either organization in the long haul considering Syndergaard’s limited ability to deliver high-end innings rather than just useful depth, and how Moniak had looked at the MLB level.

Until now, anyway. Entering the year with a career .157.218/.268 slash line in 167 MLB plate appearances, the 25-year-old Moniak has burst onto the scene over the past couple weeks with a ridiculous 1.373 OPS and four homers in his first 10 games since being recalled from Triple-A Salt Lake. With Taylor Ward (.636 OPS) struggling as the primary left fielder after a breakout 2022 season, the Angels saw an opportunity to seek more production from that spot, particularly against right-handed pitching. Moniak has delivered exactly that since getting the call, and may be here to stay, if even in a platoon role. 

Angels’ Mickey Moniak hits a leadoff home run against the Red Sox

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