The Orioles have acquired their fair share of formerly well-regarded prospects over the course of a drawn-out rebuild, as one would expect of a team in their situation. For the most part, there’s little to show for their frequent waiver claims and minor trades in this arena, however. Names like Maikel Franco, Kelvin Gutierrez, Carson Fulmer, Chris Shaw, Dilson Herrera, Rio Ruiz and Jahmai Jones have had brief spells in recent years, none producing much in the way of value. Longtime top prospect Jorge Mateo is currently on the roster and leading the AL with 19 steals … but he’s also been one of MLB’s worst hitters, evidenced by a .199/.247/.335 batting line.
For much of his tenure with the Orioles, it looked as though right-hander Jorge Lopez was destined to join that list of once-promising names who got another shot in Baltimore but never really panned out. Lopez was a second-round pick of the Brewers back in 2011 and ranked as one of the system’s better arms for years. He was eventually traded to the Royals alongside Brett Phillips in the deal that brought Mike Moustakas to Milwaukee, and Lopez went on to have a rather nondescript run in Kansas City. Appearing in 47 games — 25 of them starts — he was rocked for a 6.42 ERA over the life of 158 1/3 innings. The Royals eventually felt he’d had enough opportunities and cut bait. The Orioles claimed Lopez off waivers.
Lopez’s first two years in Baltimore were a near-mirror image of his ugly run with the Royals. From Aug. 2020 through the end of the 2021 season, Lopez started 31 games and made 11 relief appearances with the O’s; he posted a 6.13 ERA (5.22 FIP) with a 19.3% strikeout rate, a 9.4% walk rate and 1.58 HR/9 through 160 innings pitched.
Heading into the offseason, Lopez looked as though his time with the team could be up. Due for his first trip through the arbitration process, Lopez was a soon-to-be-29-year-old who’d posted an ERA north of 6.00 in three consecutive seasons. The O’s had acquired and subsequently discarded plenty of former top prospects of this nature, and few fans or pundits would’ve been surprised to see Lopez meet the same fate. Many — myself included — felt a Lopez non-tender was all but a given.
Instead, the Orioles signed Lopez to a one-year, $1.5MM deal on the day of the non-tender deadline. It might prove to be the best use of payroll resources so far during Mike Elias’ time as the team’s general manager, as Lopez appears all but assured of earning his first ever All-Star nod.
Through the first three months of the season, the 29-year-old Lopez has stepped up not only as Baltimore’s closer but as one of the best relievers in Major League Baseball. Pitching exclusively in relief for the first time in his big league career, Lopez has seen the average velocity on his sinker jump to a career-best 98.0 mph. Never one to miss many bats in prior seasons, he’s logged an 11.6% swinging-strike rate that, while not elite, is three percentage points higher than his pre-2022 career mark and is slightly north of the 11.1% MLB average. Unsurprisingly, he’s fanning opponents at a career-best 27.1% clip so far in 2022. Again, it’s not an elite level — Lopez is tied for 64th among 178 qualified relievers in overall strikeout rate — but it’s comfortably above the 23.4% league average for relievers.
Lopez does possess at least one elite skill, however. Opposing hitters can barely elevate the ball against him. The right-hander’s 64% ground-ball rate is the third-best in baseball among qualified relievers, and while no one’s catching Clay Holmes in that regard (82.4%), Lopez’s power sinker has helped to turn him into a bona fide bullpen force.
The success lies not solely in the fact that Lopez is getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground — it’s in the fact that the contact against him, both in the air and on the ground, is generally hapless. Hitters are averaging an 84.5 mph exit velocity against Lopez on grounders — well below the league average — but even when they manage to lift the ball, it’s been wildly ineffectual. Lopez has yet to surrender a home run this season, and his opponents’ average 89.7 mph exit velo on liners/fly-balls is tied for the 19th-lowest mark among 368 qualified big league pitchers.
Given the sinker’s dominance, it’s not a surprise to see Lopez going to it more than ever before. He’s all but scrapped his four-seamer, throwing it at just a three percent clip so far in 2022, while his sinker is being used at a career-high 51.3% clip. He’s also throwing his slider at a career-high 12% pace and his changeup at a career-high 15.9% rate — with that change in secondary offerings coming at the expense of his previous go-to curveball. Lopez is still tossing that curve 17.8% of the time, but that’s down considerably from 2018-21’s 27.8% usage rate. The velocity uptick is across the board — even Lopez’s changeup is average just under 91 mph — and it’s effectively rendered all four of his main offerings as above-average pitches. FanGraphs’ run values peg each of Lopez’s sinker, curveball, changeup and slider as positive-value pitches this season.
If it seems like an out-of-the-blue breakout, that’s mostly true, although it’s possible that Lopez’s August/September performance in 2021 served both as a portent for this turnaround and as a means of saving his roster spot. Lopez lost his rotation spot after an Aug. 19 drubbing at the hands of the Rays (four runs in two innings). His next outing came out of the bullpen and featured a scoreless inning with a pair of strikeouts — and from that point forth, Lopez would pitch 8 1/3 innings of relief while allowing just two runs on six hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts.
That’s a tiny sample, of course, but the seeds of this breakout were quite likely planted at that point. From Opening Day 2021 through that final start on Aug. 19, Lopez threw his four-seam fastball at a 24.2% clip and his sinker at a 33.3% clip. The sinker was still favored, but his ineffective four-seam heater was a prominent part of his repertoire. Over his final eight relief appearances, Lopez shifted gear and turned to his sinker at a 48.4% rate while cutting back the use of his four-seamer to just 15.3%. The sinker, which had sat at 95 mph out of the rotation, jumped to 96.5 mph on average, and Lopez’s overall ground-ball rate soared from 49.4% to 66.7%.
Small-sample sources of intrigue like these don’t always pan out, but the O’s deserve credit for looking at Lopez’s strong bullpen showing down the stretch in 2021 and believing that he could build on that formula over a larger sample. The risk was minimal — $1.5MM and a 40-man roster spot all winter — but few would’ve batted an eye had the O’s non-tendered Lopez and looked to utilize that roster spot in a different manner.
Instead, the Orioles now have a pitcher who has genuinely been one of MLB’s best relievers in 2022. Lopez has a minuscule 0.73 ERA on the year, and he ranks in the 93rd percentile or better in each of the following (according to Statcast): expected ERA, average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, expected wOBA, expected batting average and expected slugging percentage. Lopez is one of just five relievers in MLB (min. 30 innings) with a strikeout rate greater than 25%, a walk rate under 10% and a ground-ball rate north of 50%. The others — Holmes, Taylor Rogers, Emmanuel Clase and breakout rookie Jhoan Duran — are considered among baseball’s elite.
Of course, given the Orioles’ place in the standings and the protracted nature of their rebuild, trade speculation regarding Lopez is inevitable. General manager Mike Elias will absolutely be receiving calls and texts about Lopez’s availability — he surely already has — and Elias generally takes a “no one is off the table” approach regarding his veteran players. Lopez will surely be “available” to an extent, but there might not be a trade candidate in baseball who has elevated his stock quite this dramatically in 2022.
Beyond Lopez’s pure dominance, he’d be a multi-year fix for any team willing to pony up with a hefty offer. The right-hander has two years of club control remaining beyond the current season, and given this year’s eminently affordable $1.5MM salary, his future raises will be starting from a relatively low baseline. In other words, he ought to remain overwhelmingly affordable — especially relative to his newfound production — over the remainder of that club control.
The Orioles certainly don’t have to trade Lopez. By the time his club control is drawing to a close, in 2024, they may well finally be back to a state of competitiveness. At the same time, reliever performance is volatile on a year-to-year basis. Just as there’s risk in selling a high-end contributor like Lopez for unproven young talent, there’s risk that Lopez will sustain an injury or simply a downturn in performance — even if that appears unlikely based on his current skill set.
The O’s, for instance, had plenty of interest in lefty Paul Fry prior to last year’s deadline but held onto him (and his remaining three-plus years of club control). Fry melted down with 19 runs over seven post-deadline innings and wound up being designated for assignment earlier this year (at which point he was flipped to the D-backs for a 19-year-old in Rookie ball). Fry’s trade value wasn’t nearly as high as Lopez’s is now, nor was his future outlook quite so promising. That said, the manner in which his Baltimore tenure panned out is illustrative of the risk associated with rebuilding clubs holding onto bullpen arms in hopes of down-the-road contributions.
The nexus of Lopez’s dominance, his remaining club control and the Orioles’ timeline to compete will make him one of the most fascinating borderline cases to monitor as this year’s Aug. 2 trade deadline draws nearer. In the meantime, he’ll give O’s fans good reason to tune into the All-Star Game — well, if he’s still wearing an Orioles uniform by that point.
Well, Lopez is very stylish and has found himself in the bullpen
So I hope he either stays and helps the Orioles work towards a wildcard or is traded to some exciting team, who can knock off the Yankees or Astros and help towards a World Series
The Red Sox are on line two. I would love a package deal for him and Mancini to plug up some holes.
He WILL be a yankee
Lopez is a trade candidate. It depends how far the Orioles see themselves. It’s always a good idea to sell on relievers high. Though parting w Lopez is tough. He’s just been dominant
The Orioles developed him where other teams failed. Now they’re supposed to trade him to get more guys to develop for other teams?
If they ant your garbage to develop, they’ll get it from the waiver wire and released players.
Orioles gave up on trying Lopez as a starter, made him a short reliever, and he’s succeeding. This is what the Phillies should have done with Vince Velasquez. Good to see talent being set up to succeed…
Atlanta Braves, are you listening?
Yes, Lopez has been a great pickup. In the bullpen:
Felix Bautista – 1.50 ERA.
Dillon Tate – 1.96 ERA
Cionel Perez – 1.14 ERA
Joey Krehbiel – 2.70 ERA
Nick Vespi – 5.40 ERA (just got bombed)
Tyler Wells – 3.23 ERA (Rule 5 draft)
Dean Kremer – 1.29 ERA (Machado trade)
Others. Orioles bullpen is one of the best in MLB. They found these guys and worked with them. Exactly the sort of thing the Astros do, which is where Mike Elias – Baseball Ops head – came from (previous to that he worked with Jeff Luhnow in St. Louis).
The Orioles are right on track to field a home built team in the next few years. Mountcastle is solid at 1B; the 3 OF’s play O and D – Hays, Mullians, and Santander. Rutschman is looking like a future force at C in his limited time in the majors. Yes, Mateo is not hitting well, but he’s playing an excellent SS and is one of the fastest runners in MLB – has stolen 19 bases in 22 attempts so far this year. If they can get him to hit .240 / .290 they have a star. And the minors are loaded!
Great news for the Orioles and their fans! That division is TOUGH! I hope they see it through and don’t get discouraged too soon.
Not only do I think they’ll be competitive next year, I think they have a long-shot chance of competing for a WC in September of this year.
The Rays have real problems on D, and MLB screwed them by making players stay down 15 days when sent back to the minors – the Rays were constantly bringing up fresh bullpen arms from the minors. All the other teams above them for the WC have major questions. If they can get something out of a few more young players……
Next year the AL East could have 5 very good teams. Which is terrifying, and the more balanced schedule will make that quite the race, unless the Orioles underwhelm in the off season or the Sox or Rays blow it up.
Wells is criminally underrated. Dude went from an unheralded R5 guy to an AS caliber SP in no time.
Good take , imagine a healthy Means in this years rotation. O’s right now are a better team than the Rays ( injuries for sure but still weak lineup even healthy ) better pen, way deeper lineup.
Let’s not forget one major point. The decision to move the left field fence back at Camden Yards changed it from a launching pad to a more equitable place for pitchers. Cincinnati take note.
It’s great to see that the Orioles are producing some quality pitchers, as well as some main stays in their lineup. I’m curious how they would be doing if they were in a division like the AL Central, since every other team in the AL East would make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Samuel – the question is – and has been for a couple years – when DO the Orioles decide to move from the tear-down to the build up part of the “rebuild process?” This is their best season since 2017…but they are 20 games out of 1st and have basically no hope of winning a wild card spot.
The 2012-16 Orioles had a great bullpen, this one (if it has staying power) is certainly headed toward being above average. Bullpen arms are cheap and easy to replace, so the bullpen is the easiest part to build.
The offense? 5 guys hitting at league average or above, with Rutschman close (and likely to be well above average). That isn’t too bad. However, I give 99% chance that Mancini is not an Oriole come August, and over 50% chance someone picks up Santander. Does that mean that the team finally decides Mountcastle, Hays, Mullins, Rutschman are the players to build around and bring up Stowers? Odor obviously is expendable. Urias? Meh. They could hide Mateo if they build more offense however they had Izturis heading into the 2012-16 era and decided to replace him with JJ Hardy for more offense (neither Izturis or Mateo can hit, but Mateo is a bit better fielder and better runner).
But the problem continues to be starting pitching as it has been since the late 90s. Means done for the year, and certainly no guarantee he comes back and is competent. Tyler Wells has pitched competently but averages 4 innings per start – can’t build a rotation around that! Kremer is just getting his feet wet. Grayson Rodriguez (out for the year basically) – and DL Hall, don’t know what we have. Baumann? You hope you can get 2 quality rotation pieces….3 if you are lucky from the group. They’d still have to trade for at least 1 starter, 2 if they’re going to be serious about a team. No one is an ace. Means at his best is a #3 on a good rotation.
They COULD be competitive next year but they have to 1) decide to build around 5 guys in the offense 2) pick up an above average MLB player at one of the 3 other positions 3) pick up at least 1 if not 2 quality starting pitchers to fill out the rotation even with Hall and Rodriguez assuming up in 2023. If they don’t do that, 2023 is another loser.
For what it is worth: Mateo has a 1.5 WAR in 2022. Who is lower? Many. Including: Yelich at 1.4; Chapman & Rizzo…
Those stats just confirm the primary flaw in WAR, which is that it posits player value as an abstract quantity transferable between teams without accounting for how a player’s skill set fits in the context of a specific team. It also overweighs the value of dubious fielding metrics.
Yankee fans who’ve watched the games this year can tell you that without Rizzo, the Yankees might not be in first place. Besides his superb fielding that we see constantly, before tonight he ranked second on the team in high-leverage plate appearances, and his BA in those PA is .323. With RISP, his OPS is .936 and his wRC+ is 153. He’s been one of the most obvious difference-makers on the roster this year. His fielding at first base has improved the results for the entire infield, and improved defense has been a major factor in the Yankees’ success.
WAR should be banned lol RBI’s, batting average , indicators of skill. Era WHIP and good ole eyesight
dont forget win totals!
WAR is fine as a generalized, rough-sketch picture of a player’s talent. It shouldn’t be mistaken for a precise indicator of value. It’s convenient as a first-step analytical tool, to be followed by a more inclusive survey of a player’s stats if your goal is to clarify the picture. But enjoy your complacent, supercilious sarcasm if it makes you feel good.
“WAR is not meant to be a perfectly precise indicator of a player’s contribution, but rather an estimate of their value to date. Given the imperfections of some of the available data and the assumptions made to calculate other components, WAR works best as an approximation.”
You ever get the feeling you’re trying to explain quantum physics to a napkin?
Bunch of former rejects in the bullpen doing their thing. Love this team. Hoping they actually spend some money this winter. Let’s go Os
This is when a team going nowhere for a few years or so cashes in. Baseball has a long history of one year wonders who never reach that level again. Just not to the Yankees.
All great RP’s were failed SP’s.
Not all. Kenley Jansen is a failed catcher.
So, what I got from the story is that most current of Baltimore players came from waivers, not from developing prospects
So you didn’t read it?
Protracted Rebuild? This is Mike Elias’s MO! There is absolutely no difference in the 2011-2014 Astros and the current O’s. That includes COVID.. Elias is on track and right on time. I still pinch myself some days that the O’s got the right guy and let him do his job.
Twins all the waaay get another Puertorrican to the roster & much needed arm 2 the back bullpen!!
Reading this made me wonder what’s better the beast nobody can hit, or the beast nobody can pitch?
ill take one shohei
The AL East is going to beat each other up that’s the reason the O’s won’t make the WC. Minnesota or Cleveland is going to get that final WC spot. AL Central is not as hard, the White Sox might stay in that chase until the end but the Royals and Tigers are doormats. Oakland and Seattle are doormats in the AL West which Houston is going to win by 20 games. There are no doormats in the AL East so you got 76 games where going 500 in those games are actually accomplishing something. Baseball’s unbalanced schedule screwed the Orioles this season.
C Yards Jeff
Mad props to Mike Elias; in charge of the baseball decisions for the Orioles since late 2018. He’s knocking it out of the park! And kudos to John Angelos. Mike was his first key acquisition for the rebuild after taking over the leadership of the team from his Dad, Peter. Love his hands off approach when it comes to the baseball decision making for the franchise. Thank you, John!
Braves could use a decent pitcher if the O’s have one. Our farm is a lot weaker than it was but I can tell you they would be willing to trade Drew waters, which might be an interesting prospect for the O’s. Idk
In the article I noticed the writer said the Orioles are not competing yet. I believe they are at this very moment are a very competitive team that a lot teams don’t want to play. Every once in awhile they will get blown out but for the most part they are in every game.
The rebuild is right on schedule. Heck,you could argue that the rebuild is ahead of schedule. Wait until the infield prospects come up. This team is going to be really good for awhile.
C Yards Jeff
@Orioles Fan; agreed, remarkable progress considering only 1 year in to a full blown gutting of the team, Covid gets in the way for a good 1 plus years. Grateful to have an owner (John A) who is keeping his distance from the baseball decision making and letting his well qualified baseball staff (Elias and company) do their jobs. I love his Dad’s (Peter) passion for the Birds. The man bleeds black and orange. But, in my humble opinion, because of this, he would get too deep in to the baseball decision making too often and producing frustrating team results. I wish him the best with his health issues. I’m sure he is proud of his son’s accomplishments to date. Let’s go Os!
I’m torn on this. I kind of want to hold. I also recognize he may never duplicate this success again. Still, I’m leaning toward hold. IMO this team will be a WC contender next year if we only spend a little bit in FA. Henderson and Westburg, along with continued growth of other young hitters, is really going to elevate this lineup quickly.
This has to be the longest article ever written about Jorge Lopez.
Well worded article. In my opinion it only mentioned Fry when it could have mentioned Means and Mancini as pieces that could have been traded at a much higher value than what they’re worth today.
Good job excluding potential suitors as pretty much every team looking to make a run grabs a reliever.
But I will provide my opinion on where to ship Lopie. San Diego. I want Dinelson and they’ll part with him, I want the dres to eat the rest of his 2022 salary and I don’t know if this prospect is available or not but Eguy Rosario. No clue if I’m asking for too much or not enough.
DL Hall is our closer if we can keep him healthy, we need to stop looking at him as a potential SP 2/3 and start looking at him like Josh Hader 2.0.