Before the season began the Orioles new closer, Mike Gonzalez, was eager to shake off spring training struggles and prove his worth to his new ball club. However, since that time Gonzalez has done nearly everything in his power to give away the position.
Two blown saves in three opportunities and an ERA of 18.00 would shake the confidence of any manager early in the season, but the gravity of blown save opportunities is even greater in Baltimore where wins don’t come easily and ninth inning leads, especially against divisional opponents, must be preserved in order to maintain any hope of late summer relevancy in the highly competitive AL East. Increased pressure on Trembley to transform a young talented team into a winner is also mounting after back to back disappointing seasons.
On Saturday, one or all of those elements came to a head as Trembley announced that Gonzalez would not pitch in Saturday’s game and would need to work on his delivery with pitching coach Rick Kranitz before he took the mound again. He did not specify whether his return would be in a save situation.
Regardless of when Gonzalez returns, the Orioles will now need to select a temporary closer. Games on Saturday and on Sunday did result in save situations, but if the season resembles anything similar to Opening Week, plenty of Orioles victories will be decided in the ninth inning. The Orioles are unlikely to make any moves in free agency or the trade market, so any replacement will probably come from within the Orioles’ organization.
The most obvious replacement is set-up man Jim Johnson. Johnson filled in as the closer last year after George Sherrill was traded to the Dodgers and garnered 10 saves in 16 opportunities. Johnson is not a strikeout pitcher as evidenced by his career 5.60 K/9 rate, so he will have to rely heavily on ground balls to get out of ninth inning jams.
Nonetheless, so far this year Johnson is pitching well in limited innings. He has given up only one earned run and struck out three batters in 2.2 innings pitched. Johnson is most comfortable in the eighth inning, but he is easily the Orioles’ most experienced replacement and will most likely enter the game in the ninth if need be on Monday night.
Left-handed reliever Will Ohman will also be in the mix, but his career save percentage is similarly unimpressive. Ohman does strike out batters at a higher rate (8.76 K/9) than many of the Orioles other options, but he has been used primarily as a situational reliever against left-handed hitters. While Ohman has been given the chance to pitch in the ninth he hasn’t exactly taken his game to another level. He is only three for seven in career save opportunities.
Matt Albers is another possible candidate, but with a career record of six blown saves in six chances the Orioles are apt to look elsewhere. Albers is another right-hander with a low 90s fastball, but unlike Gonzalez his breaking pitch sits in the high 70s range and he doesn’t possess a true strikeout pitch.
Koji Uehara and Mark Hendrickson could also be in the mix, but ideally the Orioles hope that after Gonzalez fine tunes his mechanics so that he can live up to his $12 million price tag. According to MLB.com, Gonzalez has expressed that he felt a great amount of pressure after receiving a new contract and landing in the highly regarded AL East.
Whatever the reason for his early season failure, Gonzalez is still the Orioles' best closing pitcher. He will have the opportunity to atone for his early mistakes and endear himself to the Orioles faithful, but with a fanbase as long suffering as Baltimore’s, admiration and respect will only come one save at a time.