The Orioles are coming off their fourth consecutive season posting one of the five worst records in MLB. It is very slowly becoming easier to see the potential for better days, with top prospects Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez soon to join breakout star Cedric Mullins and solid young players like Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle at the big league level.
Baltimore should be better in 2022 than they’ve been over the last few seasons, but they’re not on the verge of contention. The O’s front office probably views 2023 and beyond as a more realistic window to compete. If that’s the case, then GM Mike Elias figures to listen to offers on Cole Sulser, whose surprising 2021 season should make him a prime trade target for clubs this winter.
Sulser had appeared briefly in the majors before this year. He broke in with Tampa Bay in 2019, then was claimed off waivers by Baltimore over the following offseason. He was hit around in his early big league time, but his track record of posting huge strikeout numbers in the minors inspired the Baltimore front office to give him another opportunity. Sulser worked in low-leverage situations for the first couple months, but he proved to be one of the few reliable bullpen options for manager Brandon Hyde. By late June, Hyde was giving him more important innings.
Thanks to that strong first few months, he reportedly drew a bit of interest at the trade deadline. There’s no indication a deal ever got close this summer, but teams should be more motivated to land Sulser now. From July 31 onward, the right-hander tossed 25 innings of 2.52 ERA ball while holding opponents to a .207/.247/.304 slash line. Sulser’s strikeout rate actually ticked down from his early season level, but he paired that with a corresponding drop in walks.
Overall, Sulser’s coming off a 2021 campaign in which he worked 63 1/3 frames with a 2.70 ERA/3.45 SIERA. He punched out a solid 28.4% of batters faced while only walking 8.9% of his opponents. Despite middle-of-the-road velocity, Sulser racked up plenty of whiffs on a backspinning four-seam fastball which he generally featured up in the strike zone. He backed that up with a solid changeup that he located consistently down and arm side, an effective weapon that was crucial in neutralizing left-handed hitters (who hit .186/.270/.274 in 127 plate appearances).
Sulser has missed bats in both Triple-A and the big leagues. He throws strikes at a strong clip, succeeded in higher-leverage situations, and is effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. Contending clubs are always on the lookout for bullpen help, and Sulser has a strong all-around profile.
Equally appealing is Sulser’s contractual outlook. He’s not slated to reach arbitration eligibility until the conclusion of next season. Barring changes to the service structure in the next collective bargaining agreement, he’d remain under club control for three seasons thereafter. That affordability should appeal to both low-payroll clubs as well as bigger spenders intent on staying below the luxury tax threshold.
That remaining control means the Orioles don’t have to trade Sulser this offseason, but it seems likely they’d be open if made a strong enough offer. A late bloomer, he’s already 31 years old (32 in March). Baltimore probably won’t be in position to contend before Sulser turns 33 or 34.
Relief pitchers also tend to be volatile, so Elias and his staff could see this winter as the best opportunity to move Sulser for a strong prospect return. The O’s reportedly fielded interest in Tanner Scott and Paul Fry at the deadline but elected to hold both players. Each had an atrocious second half that likely sapped the bulk of their trade value. It’s fair to wonder if the front office would rather strike relatively early on a Sulser deal than risk a similar downturn in production from him next summer.
Sulser’s breakout performance could result in his changing teams in the coming months. Still buried at the bottom of the standings, the O’s front office figures to continue to jump at opportunities to stockpile young talent as they progress through their massive rebuilding project. Turning a fairly recent waiver claim into a solid prospect or two makes plenty of sense for Baltimore, while Sulser might have pitched his way into more immediate contention.