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Baltimore Orioles Bullpen: New Closer In Town

While the Orioles are making headlines with signings of Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, it’s time to take a look at another aspect of the team in which they’ve made some changes. Gone is Jim Johnson, a two-time 50-save closer for the O’s and while they were all set to bring in free agent Grant Balfour, they were unhappy with the results of his physical and opted to fill the vacancy in-house. So let’s take a look at what Baltimore’s bullpen is looking like right now.

Closer

Tommy Hunter

Even before the Orioles started dealing with Balfour, there were rumblings that perhaps Hunter could become the team’s new closer. His move from starter to bullpen in 2013 was met with success as he posted a 2.81 ERA over 86.1 innings. His 7.09 K/9 isn’t exactly the strikeout rate you want out of your closer, but with improved command, he pushed his K/BB to a career-best 4.86 mark. The biggest difference that grabbed everyone’s attention though was the spike in velocity that Hunter had with the move. And not just a small spike, but an average of nearly 4 mph on all his pitches. While we would all like to see him maintain his velocity increase, one of the biggest things we’d like to see is a return to the 40-plus percent ground ball rates he had in the three years prior to last. The increased velocity is great and all, but being a fly ball pitcher in Camden Yards and not a hefty strikeout rate can be a tricky business. It’s not clear how long the leash will be on Hunter, but it seems as though he’s going to get a legitimate opportunity here.

Set-up Men

Darren O’Day

The 31-year-old right-hander with return as the primary set-up man for Hunter and will likely be the first one called upon should the team’s new closer falter. He’s not a particularly hard-thrower, but his submarine-style tends to keep hitters off-balance and with the use of his slider, has been able to rack up some decent strikeout numbers. He does tend to struggle against lefties through which tends to be a bit of an issue, especially when you’re a fly-ball pitcher and your home park favors left-handed power. If he can overcome that, well then his role could very well expand in the near future, but for now, he’ll remain in a set-up role.

Brian Matusz

Prior to the signing of Jimenez, Matusz was competing for one of the two available spots in the rotation, and while he is still getting that opportunity, his odds of successfully winning a job have changed dramatically as he is now competing with several players for just the fifth starter’s spot. Quite possibly working against him is the fact that the Orioles lack quality lefty arms and could really use Matusz as their primary lefty set-up guy after seeing his increase in strikeouts last year and improved command. Not to jinx his chances, but this is likely where he’ll be this season which will at least give him some value in fantasy leagues that count holds.

Middle Relief

Ryan Webb

It was tough to figure where to put Webb exactly as his ability to throw multiple innings puts him here in middle relief, but as a pitcher with such a strong ground ball rate (over 50-percent every year), he can also be called upon late in games when the team just needs a ground ball to get out of an inning. However you want to categorize him, the former Marlin will to play an integral role in this pen this season. He may even be called upon for saves if Plans A and/or B falter. The strikeouts aren’t great, but with a solid infield backing him up, he should post strong numbers this year.

Troy Patton

Patton’s role in the bullpen remains undefined at this time, primarily because his place is dependent on how Matusz does in his bid for a rotation spot this year. Should Matusz earn the fifth starter’s spot, then Patton should end up as the primary lefty set-up man. However, should Matusz not get the job, something that seems to be more likely with the recent signing of Jimenez, then Patton will shift back into a middle relief/lefty specialist role. Of course, everything with respect to Patton goes on hold for now as he must open the season serving a 25-game suspension for amphetamines use. He’ll be eligible to return April 29, so maybe we’ll just worry about him then.

Brad Brach

He was acquired from the Padres during the offseason and seems likely to land a middle relief role with the Orioles should he have a strong and consistent spring. He’s got low-90’s heat, a decent changeup and an okay slider, but he continues to exhibit command problems and the walk rate tends to get a little high. His strikeout rate has declined over the last couple of season which isn’t too appealing, but the Orioles seem to have faith in him being able to recover. If not, believe it or not, the soon-to-be 28-year-old still has options so they can let him work on his game down in the minors if need be.

T.J. McFarland

The former Rule-5 pick from the Indians will be one of, again,  what seems to be a dozen guys getting an opportunity to compete for a rotation spot. Again, that was the plan before Jimenez joined the team, so everyone who was originally slated to compete for a couple of open spots is now basically competing for one. That means, if the O’s want to keep McFarland as a starter, his likely destination for the start of the season is in Triple-A. He’s got a strong ground ball rate but the strikeouts are on the weak side. Should he stay in the pen, we’re probably looking at middle relief/mop-up duty and if he stays a starter, we may only see him in the wake of an emergency.

Josh Stinson

There’s really not much exciting about Stinson who doesn’t strike many guys out nor does he keep the ball on the ground very often. That’s a very risky proposition in Camden Yards and the rest of the AL East. He is not someone with whom fantasy owners need bother.

There’s still a lot to sort out with this bullpen right now and many of the questions will be answered during the spring. By mid-March we should have a better idea as to which pitchers who failed to win the fifth starter’s job will be bumped to the bullpen and which ones will land down in Triple-A. Among those we’re waiting on are Matusz, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman (most likely Triple-A if he doesn’t win the job), and Suk-Yin Moon, so we’ll likely to continue updating when things start to unfold more.