Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Arming Up Part 2: The Bullpen

Last season’s Baltimore Orioles were a team full of cast-offs, afterthoughts, and “who the hell is that guy?” No group on the team embodied the team's make up better than the bullpen.  Luis Ayala came to spring training on a minor-league deal, Darren O’Day hadn’t been effective since he was a junior at the University of Florida, and Jim Johnson had never been a closer for a full season.  Down the stretch, one of our most effective relievers was a top draft pick who failed miserably as a starting pitcher. 

The bullpen was the Old Bay that held this crab feast of a season together a year ago.
Any baseball player, coach, or fan worth their salt knows that it doesn’t matter how good your lineup or your starting rotation is, you cannot win unless your bullpen can get you the final nine outs of the game.  The final three innings are known as the “back third” or the “back end” of the ballgame, and the Orioles bullpen was lockdown in the back third of ball games last season.

The numbers speak for themselves:
32-11 overall
29-9 in one run games
16-2 in extra innings games.
2.12 ERA in One run games
3.00 ERA (5th in the MLB)
55 Saves
470 Strikeouts in 545.1
Held opponents to a 2.38 Batting Average

Dan Duquette has done a terrific job this offseason of keeping the core of that bullpen together, and bringing back the key arms. Buck Showalter managed the bullpen perfectly a year ago, and he was so in sync with his relievers that even people with ESP were impressed. 

Here’s what we know about the bullpen, Jim Johnson is back as the closer. Johnson will enter the season with a full year of slamming doors under his belt. JJ led the league with 51 saves, and was able to close out so many games thanks to his 2.49 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.  Hopefully he can shake those gut wrenching appearances in the ALDS and build off of last season’s impressive successes.  

Jim Johnson post door slamming.
Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop will more than likely see time as set up guys in the 7th and 8th innings.  Luis Ayala will also provide late inning relief that even though it was never pretty, he thrived in that role a year ago.  Troy Patton will be relied upon to get the David Ortiz, Josh Hamilton, and other big time Lefty Sluggers out.

Darren O'Day getting nasty.

 So if you’re doing the math, (5 starters plus the 5 relievers mentioned) there are two spots up for grabs to round out the pitching staff. Another left-handed pitcher would be nice, and perhaps a long reliever for those days when our starters struggle. 

I think Brian Matusz is all but a shoe-in to be the other left-handed arm in the pen. When Brian Matusz was drafted 4th overall in the 2008 MLB Draft, he was expected to be the future Ace of the franchise.  As Matusz’s velocity went up and down so did his effectiveness.  While Matusz will get every opportunity to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation, I think everyone knows he can carve out a brilliant career as a reliever.

Buck moved Matusz to the pen late last August and in 18 games (13.1 IP), Matusz gave up 2 earned runs, only 5 hits, and struck out a whopping 19 batters (that’s 12.83 K’s per 9 innings pitched, folks!).  Left-handers batted a measly .175 against Matusz last season, and .114 against him as a reliever. HELLO! Brian Matusz has found his role as a pivotal and dominant reliever, and the sooner we all just accept that, the better we will all be!

The final spot is probably a four-man competition between right handers Steve Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta, and T.J. McFarland.  This is probably not Arrieta’s spot to win, and there is not much known about T.J. McFarland other than he was a Rule V pickup from the Cubs.  In my humble opinion this really comes down to Steve Johnson and Tommy Hunter.

Local-boy-done-good, Johnson really shined in his role as long reliever a year ago.  He was 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA and compiled 46 K’s in 38.1 innings pitched. While his stuff is not over powering, Johnson controls the tempo and uses pinpoint control to shut down opposing batters.  Johnson is the lightning, while Tommy Hunter is the thunder.

Hunter was atrocious a year ago as a starting pitcher, giving up a then league leading 32 home runs.  Buck mercifully sent him down to the minors to get straightened out, and then was back up as a reliever.  In this new role Hunter could stretch himself out for a few innings as a long reliever or come in for an inning or two just and throw extreme queso.  Hunter was being clocked at 98-99 MPH on his fastball which was a good 3-4 MPH's more than when he was starter.  While the role of long reliever/extra right-hander is not glamorous, it will certainly be a competition to watch for this spring training.  I think ultimately Hunter will get the first crack at it, with Johnson and Arrieta nipping at his heels.

Spring Training games crank up this week, and all of the competitions on the pitching staff will be full bore.  They should be very tightly contested and extremely fun to watch.  At the end of the day, whoever earns a spot on the 25 Man roster may not be in these roles for the entire season.  This in turn is the great element of the 2013 Baltimore Orioles pitching staff.  The staff is deeper than a landfill, and we as a fan base can definitely get behind that!

Check back soon for a look at the Position Players!

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