Orioles GM Mike Elias addressed reporters this afternoon regarding the status of right-hander Felix Bautista, who exited yesterday’s game against the Rockies with what was termed at the time as “arm discomfort.” It now appears that discomfort was something far more severe than initially indicated, as Elias told reporters (including MASN’s Roch Kubatko) that Bautista is dealing with “some degree of injury” to his ulnal collateral ligament. Naturally, Bautista is headed to the injured list, with Andy Kostka of of the Baltimore Banner reporting that left-hander DL Hall will take Bautista’s place on the Orioles’ roster. Baltimore has since made that move official, placing Bautista on the 15-day IL with a “right UCL injury” while recalling Hall.
While a prognosis is not yet known and no timetable regarding Bautista’s injury has been announced, it seems at least possible that the news brings an end to a season that has been nothing short of sensational for the 28-year-old righty. Bautista made his debut in the major leagues for the Orioles last year and produced an excellent season, with a 2.19 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 15 saves and a 34.8% strikeout rate across 65 appearances. Those numbers from his rookie season were impressive enough to convince Elias and his front office to ship then-closer Jorge Lopez to Minnesota at the trade deadline last year, with Bautista looking to be the club’s closer of the future.
The 2023 campaign has seen Bautista not only make good on that promise, but make a case for himself as the best reliever in the entire sport this year. In 61 innings of work this year, Bautista has racked up 33 saves (just one less than league leaders Alexis Diaz and Emmanuel Clase) while posting an unbelievable 46.4% strikeout rate with ERA (1.48) and FIP (1.89) marks below 2.00. His 2.8 fWAR this season puts him 20th in baseball among all pitchers, a figure that puts him in the same conversation as front-end arms like Luis Castillo and Kodai Senga despite offering less than half the volume of those starters.
Bautista’s heroics this season have catapulted Baltimore’s bullpen to or near the top of plenty of leaderboards this season. They collectively sport the sixth-best ERA (3.55), the best FIP (3.51) and fWAR total (6.8), and the third-highest strikeout rate (26.5%) in the majors this year, even in spite of middling performances from the likes of Shintaro Fujinami, Austin Voth, and Cionel Perez. The loss of Bautista naturally complicates the future for the club’s relief corps, though the addition of Hall, a former first-round pick who has posted gaudy strikeout totals in both the majors and minors despite limited big league experience, could provide a boost down the stretch.
Fellow right-hander Yennier Cano, who was acquired as part of the return in the aforementioned Lopez deal last year, seems primed to step into the closer’s role in Bautista’s stead. Cano is in the midst of what has been an excellent season of his own, with a phenomenal 1.62 ERA and 2.68 FIP. He’s managed to post those numbers in spite of a far less impressive strikeout rate of 24.2% thanks to a combination of a sensational groundball rate of 58.5% and a minuscule 4.2% walk rate.
Still, even in spite of the potential upside of Hall and the excellent performance of Cano, the loss of Bautista is a potentially catastrophic blow for the Orioles, who currently lead the AL East with an 80-48 record that trails only the Braves in all of MLB. Baltimore opted against any impact additions to a relatively weak starting staff that ranks just 19th in the majors in terms of fWAR and 15th by measure of ERA, instead only adding right-hander Jack Flaherty (91 ERA+ in 23 starts this season) to the mix. The club’s dominant bullpen, led by Bautista, surely played a role in the club’s decision not to more aggressively pursue an impactful arm like Eduardo Rodriguez or Jordan Montgomery.
With Bautista’s season now seemingly in peril, the club will have to lean more heavily on its rotation group going forward. Flaherty has struggled in three starts with the Orioles to this point, with a 7.07 ERA in 14 innings of work, but has a history as an excellent mid-rotation arm in the not-to-distant past. Kyle Bradish (3.03 ERA in 23 starts) has emerged as a clear playoff-caliber rotation arm this season, while rookie Grayson Rodriguez has posted a 3.24 ERA in seven starts since rejoining the team last month. Veteran righty Kyle Gibson has managed to keep the team in games despite a middling 4.89 ERA thanks to fourteen quality starts, a figure that places him in the top 10 among all AL pitchers this season.