In an era where starters rarely make it through seven innings, the bullpen has become an increasingly valuable component of a winning team. However, because GM’s still seem reluctant to pay top dollar for relievers, teams are usually left to reconstruct their bullpen every offseason. After a stellar season in 2012, the Orioles bullpen took a step back last season. The Orioles lost a few familiar faces this offseason, and brought in several new arms to replace them, but the question is always whether the changes have improved the bullpen or not.
The most glaring hole left in the bullpen was created when closer Jim Johnson was dealt to Oakland in January. The deal made sense economically. With arbitration, Johnson would have made over 10 million this season. That’s too much money for a closer, and with his struggles last season most Orioles fans weren’t too upset about his departure. However, Johnson made 145 appearances over the last two seasons and saved 101 games in that span. That’s a lot of high-intensity innings that need to be filled. Tommy Hunter has been tapped to take his place, but him moving to closer leaves another late-inning void in the back of the bullpen.
One of the earlier moves the Orioles made this offseason was signing the former-Marlin Ryan Webb. Webb’s had several successful seasons with Miami and San Diego, but it could take him some time to adjust to the American League. With a power-sinker, the right-hander could help fill the hole left by Hunter as the late-inning righty. The only red flag may be his strikeout numbers. With only 54 K’s in 80 innings last season, Webb didn’t show the swing-and-miss stuff managers like to see coming into late inning situations. Webb gave up two runs in his Orioles debut and looked anything but unhittable; giving up three hits in two-thirds of an innings. The consensus is that Buck will try to ease him in slowly to give him a chance to adjust to the new league before the high-pressure games that will come later in the year.
The dark-horse of the bullpen may be Evan Meek. The former Pirate has shown he can be successful at the major-league level with his 2010 all-star appearance; however, arm problems have hindered him over the past few seasons. The Orioles gave him a chance in the spring and he pitched well enough to garner a roster spot, even beating out veterans like Brad Brach and Alfredo Aceves. Like Webb, his first regular-season appearance wasn’t smooth, as he walked two in less than an inning. It may be a stretch to think Meek could regain his All-Star form, but the veteran could strengthen the bullpen by becoming a solid arm for the middle-innings.
Whether or not the bullpen will return to the success of 2012 or struggle to find stability like last season, is difficult to predict this early into the season. O’Day and Matusz have emerged as reliable arms the last two seasons and Hunter obviously has the stuff and mentality to be a successful closer. With new additions Webb and Meek, the Orioles could improve their bullpen numbers from last season; however, Duquette didn’t leave all his eggs in that basket. With arms like Brach and Yoon in Norfolk, the Orioles have the depth to find a replacement if anybody falters. However the bullpen roles play out, the stability of the bullpen will be a key to the Orioles’ postseason chances.