Orioles remain in need of relief

Club recognizes burden of repairing bullpen once again


Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo vacates his seat in the dugout and makes another trip to the mound. He'll extend an arm, the bullpen gates will swing open and more gray hairs will sprout on his head.

Let others spend millions each year trying to reverse the aging process. For about the same cost, the Orioles have found a way to speed it up.

Kerry Ligtenberg in 2003. Mike DeJean in 2004. Steve Reed and Steve Kline in 2005. Jim Brower in 2006.

The names go much further back, of course, a veritable roll call of veteran relievers who were supposed to plug holes, not clog the base paths. At least Ligtenberg and Kline lasted an entire season. Brower lasted 12 games this season before the Orioles released him, with Perlozzo no longer able to trust or hide him.

In the offseason, the Orioles will attempt to repair their bullpen again in what has become a winter ritual. Going into tonight's game against the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards, their relievers had the second-highest ERA in the majors at 5.13. Only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' bullpen, at 5.21, was worse, and vice president Jim Duquette concedes that the front office overestimated what it had coming into the season.

If it's broke, fix it.

"We want to upgrade in that area just like anybody else," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "It's been inconsistent. We've had some guys come in and shoot lights out, and we've had some guys come in and get blown out. It's been rough."

Said Perlozzo: "There's no question it's [a priority]."

Executive vice president Mike Flanagan said the Orioles will search for "a couple of experienced relievers," middle- and late-inning guys, to go along with some of the young arms in their system. Closer Chris Ray is the only certainty for next season, though rookies Chris Britton and Kurt Birkins apparently have done enough to factor into the organization's plans. The club believes Britton needs to develop another pitch, as does Sendy Rleal, who's among 17 relievers used this season.

James Hoey, a 13th-round pick in the 2003 draft, has advanced from low Single-A Delmarva to Double-A Bowie this year and is on the team's radar. One executive says Hoey could be a setup man for the Orioles next season. He'll likely be called up when rosters expand next month.

The Orioles would like to re-sign pending free agent LaTroy Hawkins, but only at a reduced price. Acquired from the San Francisco Giants for Kline during last year's winter meetings, Hawkins recently cleared waivers, but no team has been willing to offer much in trade beyond low-level prospects. It's conceivable that Adam Loewen or Hayden Penn could move into the bullpen next spring if they don't make the rotation.

"It's an area that's going to be a high priority for us in the offseason," Duquette said. "I'm not a fan of spending a lot of money on the bullpen because of the inconsistency some relievers tend to show on a year-by-year basis. But we know we need to bolster our bullpen."

That was the idea when the Orioles signed Brower, Kline, Reed and DeJean, when they enticed another veteran with a track record, only to hear the same, old song.

"It's the nature of relievers overall," Flanagan said. "It almost seems like you're better off if they're coming off a bad year than a good one. It's the ebb and flow of being a reliever."

The Orioles experienced some lows as far back as spring training, when Todd Williams, Aaron Rakers and Ryan Keefer suffered injuries. Veteran left-handers John Halama and Eric DuBose didn't pan out; Tim Byrdak underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow; Eddy Rodriguez proved once again he's ineffective above Triple-A, and Perlozzo was left to sift through unproven commodities such as Rleal, Britton, Birkins, Winston Abreu and Julio Manon.

"It's a tough division to be learning on the job," Hawkins said.

"I don't think Birkins had ever pitched out of the bullpen, and he was going three, four, five days in a row warming up. He did some things that guys who are new to the bullpen aren't acclimated to doing. Chris Britton did an unbelievable job. He's struggled the last few times out, but that's part of learning at the big league level. He's going to be good."

Said Perlozzo: "What happens is you've got young kids, it's their first time in the big leagues. They experienced a little failure and they tried to do a little too much. Instead of making it better, it gets a little worse."

It didn't help that the starters were getting knocked out of games early, putting more pressure on the bullpen. Three of them - Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen and Russ Ortiz - were removed from the rotation, though Lopez later returned.

"Sammy's done a hell of a job with what he has to work with," Hawkins said. "Not the actual people, but so many innings."

The Orioles expressed interest in Braden Looper last winter, but his medical records were a concern. They liked J.C. Romero, but the Minnesota Twins wanted Melvin Mora in return.

Undaunted, they'll hit the free-agent market again in a few months, check on potential trade partners and hope for a better return. They'll have cash at the ready, but spending on the bullpen is always a crapshoot. For every Bob Howry or Scott Eyre, there's a Rudy Seanez or Guillermo Mota.

Meanwhile, the ghosts of bad relievers float above Perlozzo, gray in color, reminders of how quickly a manager can age.

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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