The Orioles entered 2010 with a litany of questions facing their pitching staff.
After a forgettable 2009, where the Orioles finished in the bottom rung of nearly every major statistical category, the Orioles have placed their faith in a group of promising yet unproven youngsters, a reliable veteran ace, and a closer freshly adorned with a two-year, $17 million contract.
Despite holding a 3-2 lead entering the ninth inning on Tuesday night, the O’s would ultimately fall short as the Rays were able to load the bases in the final inning and drive in the winning run off a Carl Crawford single.
Mike Gonzalez opened the inning by striking out Pat Burrell with a pitch low and inside, but that would be the last out in this opening day contest as rookie Sean Rodriguez and Kelly Shoppach would both reach base successfully and Jason Bartlett received a free pass so that Orioles could set up the force at any base.
Carl Crawford’s single would signal the first Orioles loss of the year even though they never trailed before giving up the winning run.
Gonzalez, who posted an 11.25 ERA and barely scraped the 90-mph zone in Spring training, failed mightily in his first save opportunity as an Oriole and while there are many more opportunities to come Gonzalez has already given rise to some doubt.
Gonzalez, though effective in the back end for the Braves last season, is by no means a prototypical closer.
The best evidence of this fact is that despite a respectable 17 holds, 10 saves, and 3.45 ERA in save situations, the Braves removed him from the closer role in July which they felt fit Rafael Soriano better. Soriano found himself in a similar bases loaded situation in the bottom of the eighth last night for the Rays, but was able to work out of it.
One of the biggest knocks against Gonzalez is his relatively low velocity for a closer, especially now that he’s made the transition to the American League East.
History shows that Gonzalez’s fastball sits in the 90-93 range and last year he tied his career high in average fastball velocity with an average of 92.6 mph.
To lessen the likelihood that hitters adjust to his fastball, Gonzalez has consistently increased his use of his slider since first entering the Major Leagues in 2003. The problem is that his slider tops out at approximately 83 mph.
Velocity dropoffs in pitchers early in Spring can often be attributed to a pitcher working himself back into throwing shape, but when the problems continue all the way through Spring, and when the respective pitcher’s velocity is already shaky, it can become more alarming.
Regardless of the speed of his pitches one attribute that can’t be denied is Gonzalez’s favor of the punch out.
In 2008 and 2009 Gonzalez earned 11.76 and 10.90 strikeouts per nine innings, respectively.
That was good enough for 17th in the National League last year.
In addition, Gonzalez’s slow, rocking release can be a distraction especially as he enters a new division where any batters will likely be unfamiliar with him.
Gonzalez will likely hold the closer spot for much of the year as a result of his contract, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he continues to struggle if he falls into a setup role against left–handed hitters.
Gonzalez will likely be in many more one-run save situations with the Orioles and will face many a daunting lineup in the ninth inning.
Is the career National Leaguer up to the challenge?