A key component to a winning team is great bullpen. Starting pitching is always very important but the asset of baseball that separates a good team from a World Series team is an impeccable bullpen. We witnessed this first hand when Boston’s pen blew the lead against the Orioles in the final game of the season, eliminating them from the playoffs.
In the past few seasons the Orioles have paid considerable amounts of money to players in an effort to revamp their bullpen. Since 2006 the O’s have lacked consistency in the pen and found themselves with new faces every opening day.
Most players the O’s hope will contribute end up being busts and do not live up to their contract.
In 2006, the Orioles signed Danys Baez to a three year, 19 million dollar deal; hoping he would sure up the 8th inning and be available to close on days when then closer, Chris Ray needed a day off. In 2007 Baez’s ERA was 6.44 and after missing the entire 2008 season with elbow surgery he returned in 2009 with a respectable 4.02 ERA. However, neither were what the Orioles had in mind when they invested 19 million dollars in his arm.
In 2010, a very disputed move was made by then President of Baseball Operations, Andy MaCphail. The Orioles were looking to purchase a closer in the offseason and they had many options to choose from. Available were Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez from Atlanta, Fernando Rodney from Detroit, and Jose Valverde from Houston.
The Orioles decided to invest in the lefty Mike Gonzalez. With Atlanta, Gonzalez was not the primary closer but did split time with Rafael Soriano and recorded 10 saves. He was a primetime reliever with Pittsburgh for a few years but the knock on Gonzo was his control problems and reoccurring injuries. However, when his control was prevalent, he was laborious to hit off of because of his peculiar delivery.
The deal was for two years and 12 million dollars. His Baltimore career got off to a rocky start in the opening series in Tampa Bay. He blew a save and gave up runs in his first few appearances. During the team introductions at the Orioles home opener, he was booed and seemed fazed by the fans reaction. That day against Toronto he blew another save and could never recover from there. To his credit, Gonzalez found his stride late in 2010 and offered hope in 2011 with his fastball reaching 95 MPH and his tweaked delivery looking fluid.
Gonzalez was not much help in 2011.Without a clear role, Buck Showalter lacked confidence in the former closer. To make matters worse, the Orioles lost a 1st round compensatory draft pick because Gonzalez was a Type-A free agent when they signed him. Mid-season Baltimore traded the lefty to Texas. Gonzalez totaled 2 saves in an Orioles uniform.
The most upsetting part about Gonzalez’s failure is every other available 2009 free agent options have had positive tenures with their current teams. In two years with Detroit, Jose Valverde has totaled 75 saves. In two years with the Angels, Fernando Rodney has successfully saved 17 games but has primarily been the setup man in Anaheim. With Tampa Bay in 2010, Rafael Soriano totaled 45 saves and a 1.73 ERA. Is this just a coincidence? Maybe. But its safe to say ANY option would have been better then Gonzalez.
Lastly comes Kevin Gregg. When the O’s signed the tall right-hander in free agency many Orioles fans applauded the deal. Gregg was coming off the best year of his career. With Toronto, Gregg racked up 37 saves while maintaining a 3.51 ERA in 59 innings. The Orioles appointed him there closer with a two year 10 million dollar deal. Gregg is one for drama, pitching into many full counts and rarely retiring the minimum number of batters.
Like Gonzalez, Gregg got into a sticky situation in his first save opportunity in Tampa Bay. With the winning run at the plate, Nick Markakis made an incredible leaping catch at the wall to secure the win. That was one of few positives of Greggs’ 2011 season. Gregg, blowing 7 saves during the season, lost his job for a period of time at the end of the season.
To most Oriole fans, Greggs golden moment came at Fenway Park in Boston on the 8th of July. With the Orioles trailing big Gregg beamed David Ortiz and the brawl began. With the Orioles in the midst of a losing streak this fight exemplified frustration but was also interpreted as passion. Gregg gained respect from Orioles haters because he took on the big designated hitter, but unfortunately that did not help his stats.
Rumors say the Orioles are willing to trade Gregg and eat a chunk of his salary. If Gregg does remain in Baltimore in 2012, he will need to improve his strike-to-ball ratio and be a factor late in the bullpen.
In the past it was common for the Orioles to bring in at least one guy in the bullpen for a solid amount of money. This offseason that focus has changed. Other then Tsuyoshi Wada, (who is battling for a starting rotation spot) the Orioles have signed players to smaller deals, traded for players, and kept players from the previous year to fill out the remaining spots in the pen.
Dan Duquette has emphasized shutting down teams in the latter innings this offseason. By trading for former closer Matt Lindstrom, the O’s are have another guy with closer experience. Lindstrom, Luis Ayala, Kevin Gregg, Alfredo Simon and Jim Johnson will look to take a positive step in an aspect of the game in which the O’s have lacked. With late inning roles filled, guys like Wada, Bergesen, Berken, O’Day, and Eveland will look to sure up the middle innings. The pivotal factor to this team being able to win games will be the bullpen. In 2012, the Orioles hope to avoid the “Big Bust” player they’ve signed in the past.