All-Star of the Orioles waiver request (and trade candidate)

The Orioles have earned their fair share of once well-regarded prospects during a lengthy rebuild, as one would expect of a team in their situation. However, for the most part, there isn’t much to show for their frequent waiver requests and minor dealings in this area. names like Maikel Franco, Kelvin Gutierrez, Carson Fulmer, Chris Shaw, Dilson Herrera, Rio Ruiz and Jahmai Jones have had brief spells in recent years, with none producing much value. Longtime Best Hope Jorge Mateo is currently on the roster and leads the AL with 19 interceptions … but he was also one of the worst hitters in MLB, as evidenced by a .199/.247/.335 slugline.

For much of his tenure with the Orioles, it seemed like the right-hander Jorge Lopez was destined to join that list of once-promising names who got another shot in Baltimore but never quite made it. Lopez was a Brewers second-round pick in 2011 and ranked as a top arm in the system for years. He was eventually traded to the Royals alongside Brett Phillips in the agreement that brought mike mustakas in Milwaukee, and Lopez went on to have a rather indescribable run in Kansas City. Appearing in 47 games — including 25 starts — he was rocked for a 6.42 ERA over 158 1/3 innings. The Royals eventually felt he had had enough chances and cut the bait. The Orioles claimed Lopez on waivers.

Lopez’s first two years in Baltimore were an almost mirror image of his poor run with the Royals. From August 2020 to 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, 9.4% walk rate and 1.58 HR/9 in 160 innings pitched.

Heading into the offseason, Lopez looked to be spending time with the team. Due to his first trip through the arbitration process, Lopez was a nearly 29-year-old man who had posted an ERA north of 6.00 in three straight seasons. The O’s had acquired and then dismissed many former prospects of this nature, and few fans or pundits would have been surprised to see Lopez suffer the same fate. Many — myself included — felt that a non-soft Lopez was anything but obvious.

Instead, the Orioles signed Lopez to a one-year, $1.5 million contract on the day of the no-bid deadline. It could prove to be the best use of salary resources so far during Mike Elias’ time as the team’s general manager, as Lopez looks all but assured of earning his first-ever All-Star nod.

In the first three months of the season, the 29-year-old Lopez has established himself as not only Baltimore’s closest but one of the best relievers in Major League Baseball. Throwing exclusively in relief for the first time in his big league career, Lopez saw his average sinker speed soar to a career-best 98.0 mph. Never one to miss many bats in previous seasons, he recorded a strike rate of 11.6% which, although not elite, is three percentage points above his mark of pre-2022 career and is slightly north of the MLB average of 11.1%. Unsurprisingly, he’s stoking opponents with a career-best 27.1% so far in 2022. Again, that’s not elite level — Lopez is tied for 64th among 178 qualified relievers to the overall strikeout rate — but he’s comfortably above the league average of 23.4% for relievers.

However, Lopez has at least one elite skill. Opposing hitters can barely raise the ball against him. The right-handed 64% rushed ball rate is the third-best in baseball among skilled relievers, and while no one is catching Clay Holmes in that regard (82.4%), Lopez’s power lead helped turn him into a true bullpen force.

The success isn’t just in the fact that Lopez forces hitters to dig the ball into the ground — it’s in the fact that contact against him, both in the air and on the ground, is usually unfortunate. Hitters average 84.5 mph exit speed against Lopez on ground players — well below league average — but even when they do manage to lift the ball, it’s been extremely inefficient. Lopez is yet to give up a home run this season, and his opponents’ 89.7 mph average outing bike on liners/flying balls is tied for the 19th-lowest rating among 368 qualified pitchers in the league. big league.

Given the lead’s dominance, it’s no surprise to see Lopez going for it more than ever. He has all but scrapped his four seams, throwing it at just a 3% clip so far in 2022, while his sinker is used at a career-high 51.3% clip. He’s also throwing his slider at a career-high 12% rate and his change at a career-high 15.9% rate, with that change in secondary deals coming at the expense of his previous curve ball. Lopez is still throwing that curveball 17.8% of the time, but that’s significantly down from 2018-21’s 27.8% usage rate. The increase in speed is widespread – even Lopez’s change is averaging just under 91 mph – and it has effectively made his top four offerings as above average pitches. FanGraphs’ running values ​​associate each of Lopez’s sinkers, curveballs, switches and sliders with positive value pitches this season.

If that sounds like an unexpected breakout, it’s largely true, though it’s possible that Lopez’s August/September 2021 performance served as both a harbinger for this turnaround and a way to salvage her spot on the list. Lopez lost his rotation spot after a beating Aug. 19 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 on, Lopez would throw 8 1/3 relief innings while allowing just two runs. on six hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts.

It’s a small sample, sure, but the seeds for this breakout were most likely planted then. From Opening Day 2021 to this latest start on Aug. 19, Lopez pitched his four-seam fastball at a 24.2% clip and his sinker at a 33.3% clip. Lead was still preferred, but its inefficient four-seam heating was an important part of its repertoire. In his last eight relief appearances, Lopez has shifted gears and turned to his lead at a rate of 48.4% while reducing the use of his four-seam to just 15.3%. The lead, which had been sitting 95 mph out of rotation, surged to 96.5 mph on average, and Lopez’s overall ground ball rate went from 49.4 percent to 66.7 percent.

Small-sample plot sources like these don’t always pan out, but the O’s deserve credit for watching Lopez’s strong bullpen showing the stretch in 2021 and believing he could get away with it. press this formula on a larger sample. The risk was minimal — $1.5 million and a 40-player berth all winter — but few would have eyed the O’s unbidden Lopez and looked to use that roster spot in a different way.

Instead, the Orioles now have a pitcher who has truly been one of MLB’s best relievers in 2022. Lopez has a tiny .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 speed out, hard hit rate, barrel rate, expected wOBA, expected batting average, and expected slugging percentage. Lopez is one of five relievers in MLB (min. 30 innings) with a strikeout rate above 25 percent, a walk rate below 10 percent, and a rushed ball rate north of 50 percent. The others – Holmes, Taylor Rogers, Emmanuel Class and breakout rookie Jhoan Duran – are considered among the elite of baseball.

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 getting calls and texts about Lopez’s availability — he surely has already — and Elias generally takes a “nobody’s off the table” approach when it comes to his veteran players. Lopez will surely be “available” to some extent, but there may not be a trade candidate in baseball who has raised his stock so dramatically in 2022.

Beyond Lopez’s sheer dominance, he would be a multi-year fix for any team willing to make a hefty bid. The right-hander still has two more years in control of the club beyond the current season, and given this year’s eminently affordable $1.5 million salary, his future raises will start from a relatively low base. In other words, he should remain extremely affordable – especially compared to his new production – during the rest of this club’s control.

Orioles definitely don’t have to trade Lopez. By the time his club’s control comes to an end, in 2024, they may well be back to a state of competitiveness at last. At the same time, the performance of relievers is volatile from year to year. Just as there’s a risk in selling a high-end contributor like Lopez for young, unproven talent, there’s a risk that Lopez will suffer an injury or simply a drop in performance – although that seems unlikely given his current skills.

The O’s, for example, were very interested in lefties Paul Fray before last year’s deadline, but retained it (and his last three years in control of the club). Fry melted with 19 runs in seven innings after the deadline and ended up being designated for assignment earlier this year (at which point he was returned to the D-backs for a 19-year-old in Rookie ball ). Fry’s business value wasn’t as high as Lopez’s now, and his future prospects weren’t as bright. That said, the way his tenure in Baltimore has played out is illustrative of the risk associated with rebuilding clubs that cling to the arms of relievers in hopes of later contributions.

The connection between Lopez’s dominance, his remaining control over the club, and the Orioles’ schedule to compete will make him one of the most fascinating edge cases to watch as the Aug. 2 trade deadline approaches this year. year. In the meantime, he’ll give O fans a good reason to tune in to the All-Star Game — well, if he’s still wearing an Orioles uniform at the time.

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