One of the key factors in the Baltimore Orioles' surprise turnaround last season was their incredibly solid and shutdown bullpen.
The team had five relievers with over 50 innings pitched and ERA's at 2.64 or under, making for a smooth transition from taking the starting pitcher out with a lead to shutting the door on the opposition with first-year closer Jim Johnson.
Most of the relief corps will return to pitch for the team in 2013, and barring anything unforeseen, will again come together and attempt to replicate their success.
With that in mind, let's take a look at these pitchers and rank them in the order of which arm is most trustworthy to hand the ball to in a tight situation. Since there remains a spot or two open and up for grabs headed into spring training, I'll only be covering who can be considered a lock for the 'pen when the team heads to Tampa for Opening Day.
Luis Ayala was a great asset to the bullpen for the team last season, going 5-5 with a 2.64 ERA over 75 innings pitched. And at $1 million a season, he's a bargain for any team and a no-brainer to bring back to the club.
The reason why Ayala is No. 5 on this list is because he allows a heck of a lot of inherited runners to score. In 2012, he let 44 percent of runners score who were on base when he was brought into the game. That number is just way too high.
However, when brought in to start an inning or in the middle of a clean inning, Ayala would get the job done much more often than not.
He's a valuable sixth- or seventh- inning guy. Just don't put too much pressure on him and he'll be fine.
Lefty Troy Patton has really established himself as a reliable arm in the 'pen for the Birds, and manager Buck Showalter has come to like him.
Patton finished last season with a record of 1-0. That's how you know a reliever is doing their job properly, as relievers are meant to pass the ball along, not mess the game up and in turn allow themselves to receive a decision. If a reliever has an extremely low decisions record for a season, it usually means he did his job well, and Patton is no exception. His 2.43 ERA over 55.2 innings pitched proves that fact.
Some fans may argue that Patton isn't a lock with the team for 2013, but I think that Showalter would be crazy not to include Patton on his Opening Day roster. He's a valuable piece to help navigate through tough AL East left-handed hitters late in games, plus he's able to sit down right-handed batters as well.
There are few pitchers on the O's roster who I'd rather hand the ball to in a tight situation than Patton.
Pedro Strop has nasty stuff. The guy is good. For much of the season, he could have set up games in his sleep.
But he fizzled out toward the end of the year, and though he finished with a 2.44 ERA over 66.1 innings, he threw to a 4.09 ERA in August and a dreadful 6.48 ERA in September.
I'm convinced Strop's end-of-the-year struggles were due to fatigue, as he had never thrown that much in his career at the major league level. Toward the end of the year, Showalter tended to avoid using Strop, and that may have benefited the right-hander in the playoffs, as he gave up only one hit and one walk over 2.1 ALDS innings.
Strop may not start the season as the primary setup man, but should he return to the form that made him so dominant for most of 2012, then expect to see him back out there in the eighth inning pretty quickly.
The acquisition of Darren O'Day last offseason was one of my favorites, and probably the most overlooked one by fans.
O'Day has a funky and deceptive submarine-style delivery, helping to give his pitches awesome deception and action. After Strop became unreliable in 2012, O'Day stepped up as the primary setup man and did a fantastic job.
A 2.28 ERA over 67 innings is some brilliant relief work, and O'Day has always been a guy capable of that, leading me to expect a very similar 2013 campaign from him.
He figures to start the season as the team's primary setup man, but could be unseated should Strop return to being as effective as he can be. And even then, O'Day would remain one of the most important pieces in the O's bullpen, giving Showalter an absolutely sick weapon in the chess game that is late-inning relief.
Everyone had to see this one coming.
A 2-1 record. An ERA of 2.49. 68.2 innings pitched. Locking down 51 saves in 54 chances, which set a new franchise record.
Closer Jim Johnson was the man for the Orioles in 2012.
There were few pitchers better than Johnson in baseball last season, and the righty has set himself up for a big pay raise in arbitration and success in the MLB for years to come.
If Johnson just sticks to what has made him so effective for the last few seasons, he'll be able to have a season just as dominant for his team this year as well. The sky is the limit for the man Orioles fans affectionately refer to as J.J.