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Starters or relievers? Orioles pitchers Tyler Wells, DL Hall enter offseason with questions about future roles

After overcoming midseason adversity, Orioles pitchers Tyler Wells and DL Hall both said they believed the odysseys they trekked in 2023 would be good for them in the long run.

They both started the year as starting pitchers, took steps back to lower levels because of fatigue and ended the season as reliable relievers in Baltimore’s bullpen.

Despite the growth from their respective journeys in 2023, Wells and Hall will likely begin the 2024 campaign in the same murky roles they were in last spring training: as starting rotation candidates who are also attractive options to be moved to the bullpen.

The two pitchers might have overcome similar challenges in 2023, but their approaches to the rotation competition during spring training couldn’t have been more different. Wells didn’t want to talk about it, while Hall said he fed off the “doubt” from those who didn’t believe he could be a starter. They could be in the same position when they report to spring training in four months.

Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said during his end-of-season news conference that he wouldn’t comment about specific players’ roles in 2024.

“I’m going to plead the fifth again,” he said when asked about Wells’ and Hall’s future.

However, Elias then acknowledged and praised them both for how they cleared their hurdles — Wells his second-half fatigue, Hall his early season velocity dip — to help the Orioles down the stretch.

As the Orioles spent most of the second half as the American League’s best team, it might have been easy to forget that Wells was an integral part of how they won so many games. In the first half, the 6-foot-8 right-hander was the club’s best starting pitcher and a legitimate candidate to make the All-Star team with a 3.18 ERA and MLB-best 0.927 WHIP, allowing two or fewer runs in 12 of his 17 first-half starts.

But the 104 2/3 innings he pitched before the All-Star break in early July were more than he’d recorded in a year since 2018 — the season before he underwent the Tommy John elbow reconstruction that altered the path of his career. He struggled once the second half began, as Elias later said he “hit a wall.” The Orioles demoted him to Double-A and he pitched only 14 2/3 innings over the next eight weeks, later transitioning to a relief role in Triple-A.

When he returned in late September, he was thrust into one of the highest-leverage moments of the Orioles’ season, saving their AL East-clinching win over the Boston Red Sox. He didn’t allow a run in seven appearances, the final three coming in the AL Division Series against the Texas Rangers.

“To get through that and then come up and then pitch like nails in a playoff race at a time when he was badly needed was inspiring to watch,” Elias said. “I wasn’t surprised. I mean, I know what he’s wired like, and I wasn’t surprised. We were counting on him, and he came through.”

Hall’s first half wasn’t as excellent as Wells’, as the left-hander pitched through diminished velocity that stemmed from his inability to weight train in the offseason because of lower back discomfort. That injury delayed his spring training, and Hall opened the year in Triple-A. In June, he took a step back to regain his velocity, going down to the team’s facility in Sarasota, Florida, to focus on building strength.

That strategy worked, and when he returned to the mound as a reliever, he had his old heater back. He was called up to aid the Orioles’ bullpen after closer Félix Bautista injured his elbow and went 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, including pitching in both of Baltimore’s clinch victories and two scoreless outings in the playoffs.

“DL … going to Florida and just being off the grid and just getting it all together at the exact perfect moment when we needed him most, is one of the many things that I’m very proud of with this group of guys,” Elias said.

“We haven’t even discussed, honestly, DL’s role next year,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I’m just so excited about how he threw the ball in September and how he threw the ball on the national stage. Whatever we decide to do with him, he’s going to be a huge part of our team next year.”

With Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means, Dean Kremer and potentially an offseason acquisition ahead of Wells and Hall on the pecking order, it could make sense to keep them both in the bullpen. At the same time, though, Wells’ success as a big league starter and Hall’s excellent pitch arsenal and top prospect status could make it difficult to relegate them to lesser roles.

One factor that will be different next spring is Bautista’s absence and the potential need of a closer. With Bautista out for all of 2024 after undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this month, the Orioles will need to fill what Elias called a “massive hole.” If Baltimore doesn’t address the need in free agency or via trade, Wells and Hall could be options to step into Bautista’s large shoes.

Wells, a Rule 5 draft pick, was a reliever as a rookie in 2021 and served as the team’s closer in September. Hall saved one game last season and finished three others this year, but his high-90s mph fastball and wicked offspeed stuff could make him a viable candidate.

Either way, the roles the two pitchers serve and who closes games will likely be some of the biggest questions facing the Orioles next spring.

“It’s going to be tough to replace him,” Elias said of Bautista, “so we’re going to bring all of our brain power towards answering that question.”

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