Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What do you do With O's Bullpen?

Last year, George Sherrill was the hidden gem of the Erik Bedard trade. O’s fans were excited over the prospect of center fielder Adam Jones solidifying the position for the next decade, and pitcher Chris Tillman one day taking on a #2 or even #1 role in the rotation. Sherrill, at the time, was an extra bonus for a team that needed all the pitching it could get. With Chris Ray injured for the season, Sherrill would be thrown into the closer’s role to simply see what would happen.

In the season that ensued, Sherrill went on to start the season 22 of 24 in save opportunities, but as the season dragged on his workload caught up to him, causing him to struggle down the stretch along with the rest of the ballclub. At least, that is what we thought was the reason. This year he has started the season wild and inconsistent, blowing 2 of his 6 save opportunities and making the rest way too interesting and anxious for O’s fans. And it isn’t just bad luck for a pitcher who has always played things a little loose. Opposing batters are hitting almost 100 points better than last season, clocking in at .326 this season. His home runs given up are also way up on last season. Most recently, Manager Dave Trembley conceded that he is now taking the closer role “day-to-day,” giving Chris Ray and Jim Johnson save opportunities, depending on the situation.

Like many O’s fans, I assumed the bullpen would be a strength this year, buoyed by Sherrill, Ray, and Johnson and a rejuvenated Danys Baez. Johnson, while still pitching well, has an ERA, WHIP, and batting average against that is higher than last season. Ray is still tentative and trying to rediscover the pitches that once made him a no-brainer at the closer spot. His 7.56 ERA is a good indication that he has a long way to go. However, Ray also has yet to step into an actual save situation. As I saw when he took the mound against the Rays several weeks ago in the 9th, sometimes a true closer can shine when he feels as though the game is actually on the line. That is clearly wishful thinking on my part, but Baltimore has got to be pulling for Ray to get it together. Oddly enough, the most effective pitcher in the bullpen so far has been Baez, who is on paper having one of the best years of his career. His fastball is clicking and while he doesn’t make great use of his other pitches he has been great in a relief role.

So what should the Orioles do? I am having trouble seeing why Baez shouldn’t be given a shot to save some games. Johnson struggled in the closer’s role when forced in last season, and Baez does have significant closer experience. From 2002-2005, Baez saved 102 of 126 opportunities with the Indians and Rays as their closer, including saving 41 of 48 chances in 2005. Chris Ray needs more time to find his groove in my opinion before I would be willing to push him out there with the game on the line. Put Baez out there and see what happens, he has the ability and a track record for success.

As for Sherrill, his style is one that keeps fans and players in suspense. He puts guys on, he gives up a hit here and there, but generally is able to complete the save. However, that style lends itself to coming apart if the pitcher loses even a little bit of control or leaves his fastballs hanging up there a bit too long. Sherrill will likely find his way back to the closer’s role once he is able to manage his mechanics or whatever else is wrong with him this season. In the meantime, the O’s are in for a rude awakening in a disappointing bullpen this season.

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