With the signing of reliever Kevin Gregg to a two-year, $10 million deal, the Baltimore Orioles have loaded their bullpen up with late-inning options.
Gregg joins fellow righties Jim Johnson, Koji Uehara and freshly signed Jeremy Accardo, as well as lefty Mike Gonzalez, in the back end of the O's bullpen. With all of these guys having had a season with 10 or more saves at the Major League level (as well as Alfredo Simon, who may or may not be with the team in 2011 due to legal issues), the debate of which one of them will close begins.
We can be almost certain that, barring anything unforeseen, Johnson will be proving he is healthy in a 7th or 8th inning set-up role and Accardo will likely be doing the same as a middle reliever. Each have had injury-plagued seasons the past few years after having very strong seasons in 2008 and 2007, respectively. Both guys have been very good before and will be hungry to prove they still are this season.
After singing a two-year, $12 million deal in December of 2009 to be the closer for the O's in 2010, Gonzalez blew two of his first three saves in an O's uniform, then went on the disabled list for a good three months. He came back as effective as ever in a set-up role for the O's, and that's likely going to be where he remains in manager Buck Showalter's 2011 Orioles bullpen.
Gonzalez remains an effective late-inning option for an O's manager who is praised for his ability to use a bullpen to the best of its ability, and the fact that Gonzalez is a good left-handed pitcher makes him more appealing to use in the 7th and 8th innings against tough left-handed batters.
That leaves Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 to go along with a 3.51 ERA in 59 innings pitched, and Uehara, who became the O's closer once Showalter took over in August of last season and saved 13 games, finishing the season with a 2.86 ERA.
Each pitcher has their strengths and weaknesses. Gregg is an experienced closer in the MLB, having saved over 120 games during the past four years, and has a bulldog mentality. He won't give in to a batter, which helps attribute to his relatively high walk totals. He'd rather walk a tough batter than give in and give him something to hit, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the situation.
But Gregg will blow his share of saves, doing so six times last year. His save percentage last season was 86%, and anything over 85% is considered good, so though he will blow games, he's a good option to close out a game among most late-inning type guys in the MLB and has shown he can do it in the AL East.
Uehara, while not having anything in his pitching repertoire completely overpowering to most MLB hitters, has pin-point location and almost never walks batters. In fact, Uehara set an Orioles' franchise record by not allowing a walk over his final 32 appearances, spanning 34 innings pitched, and had the fewest walks per 9.0 innings (1.02) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (11-1) of all AL relievers. He also had a strikeout ratio of 11.25 per 9.0 innings pitched, second among AL relievers. The only downside he has presented thus far is his inability to show he can stay healthy during the grueling 162-game season in his first two years in the MLB.
Manager Showalter has expressed his desire to remain open-minded with the closing situation, and has even suggested the possibility of having a closer-by-committee option, stating that he likes to go with the "hot hand"; in other words, whichever pitcher has a strong streak of great pitching going. Though I'm a person who enjoys looking at awesome statistics, like high batting averages or large save totals, I feel as though that would be the best option for the O's, at least going into the 2011 season, unless someone proves they're very obviously the best for the job in Spring Training.
Gregg's blown saves numbers scare me, as does Uehara's inability to stay healthy all year. Using each conservatively and interchangeably would maximize their abilities without over-exposing Gregg or over-working Uehara. During games where Uehara would be slotted to close it out, Gregg could help set-up, or Showalter could even use the both of them or three different pitchers in the 9th to throw the opposing batters in the on-deck circle off.
Whatever Showalter decides to do late in the ball game, he has plenty of options to work with, each of which being a solid one. On paper, President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail has supplied the Orioles' manager with a revamped, strong bullpen going into the 2011 season. Hopefully, the new bullpen will stay healthy and respond to the O's needs, consistently slamming the door on many wins during the 2011 season.