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Baltimore’s Baffling Bullpen Problems

May 25, 2010

One of the oldest baseball clichés in the book is that you can never have too much pitching. But how is a team reasonably expected to win without any viable pitching?

Granted, the Baltimore Orioles weren’t reasonably expected to compete in the stacked AL East, at least not this season. But the team that is already in last place with a 14-31 record and 18 games behind the division leading Rays (not counting tonight’s games, of course) and things just continue to get worse for the Orioles pitching staff as they placed two more players – Koji Uehara and  Alfredo Simon – on the disabled list. That brings five total pitchers on the DL, four of whom have served as closer for the much beleaguered bullpen this season*.

* The fifth, minor league right hander Luis Lebron, underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in early May. Lebron is one of the organization’s top relief prospects and had shown promise of being future-closer material after saving 20 games with a 2.54 ERA between two levels in 2009. He likely wouldn’t have reached Baltimore this season unless he continued to dominate the minor leagues as he has yet to pitch above AA but the loss of depth within the organization still hurts.

Uehara was signed as a free agent out of Japan prior to the 2009 seasons for a 2 year, $10 Million contract that he has since failed to live up to. Shut down in late June of last season after just 66.2 innings over 12 starts due to a variety of injuries, the team came into this season expecting to utilize him out of the bullpen due to a deceivingly deep starting rotation. Yet those plans were derailed when Uehara was forced to start the season on the DL due to a hamstring strain. He would miss the first month of the season before being activated prior to the team’s 2-0 win at Minnesota on May 7th. Since then he has made just 6 appearances, primarily serving as the setup man for Simon before returning to the DL due to a right elbow strain. A timetable for his return has not been set.

Simon found little success in brief stints as a starter in late season callups in both 2007 and 2008 before finding his place at the back end of the Oriole bullpen when he was called up in late April. Since then he had seemingly taken complete hold of the closer’s role, saving 6 games with a 2.92 ERA in 12 appearances. Simon’s biggest flaw is that he walks too many batters (5.1/9 this year) but some hurdles are to be expected with any young pitcher trying to learn a new role. A strained left hamstring will keep him out of action at least until mid-June.

Simon was originally thrust into the closer’s role when the previous closer, Jim Johnson, was sent down to AAA and subsequently placed on the DL due to what was determined to be a slight tear in his right elbow. It has yet to be determined if Johnson will undergo season ending surgery on the elbow but at the moment it’s hard to imagine that the organization is expecting much help from him at any point this season due to all the uncertainty. Johnson took over the closer’s role near the end of last season, earning 10 saves over the final two months, but failed to impress enough to prevent the team from seeking a closer on the free agent market over the winter. Still, he was expected to help anchor the back end of the bullpen and provide insurance in case free agent signee Mike Gonzalez faltered at any point.

Gonzalez didn’t just falter, he completely imploded. And didn’t waste any time doing so.

After signing a 2 year, $12 Million deal to leave Atlanta over the winter, Gonzalez blew the save on Opening Day, allowing 2 runs and taking the loss against Tampa Bay. Two days later he would work a scoreless ninth for the save but not before allowing a hit and 2 walks to load the bases. The next day, 2 more earned runs, a second blown save, and a second loss. He would be shut down the next with a strained shoulder, placed on the DL, and no timetable has been set for his return.

Sadly for Orioles fans there seems to be a pattern developing here. It’s almost as if the closer position in Baltimore is cursed. Gonzalez was signed to close games, got hurt, and was replaced with Johnson. Johnson got hurt and was replaced with Simon. Now Simon is hurt.

So, what do the Orioles do from here?

Only one player on the active roster has earned a save this season, Cla Meredith, but he isn’t really suited to finish games on a regular basis. Will Ohman has been impressive (0.00 ERA, 15 K’s) over 24 appearances (just 14.2 innings) but he has settled into his role as a lefty specialist and likely isn’t the best candidate to close games either.

Looking over the remainder of the team’s roster, there aren’t any viable options to close out games. A team 18 games out of first place in arguably the toughest division in Major League Baseball isn’t about to go out and empty the farm to acquire a closer on the trade market. In fact, at the rate this season has been going it is more likely the team trades away any viable pieces in an effort to begin a complete rebuilding process. Baltimore’s bullpen woes aren’t getting any better anytime soon. But hey, at least at some point (in theory) they’ll get their star second baseman Brian Roberts back in the lineup. I wonder if he can close out games for them?

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