O's armed with 3 options

Righty could stay the setup man, close or start

Jim Johnson's role next season

August 08, 2008|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Pitcher Jim Johnson acknowledges that going into the season, he couldn't have imagined becoming the Orioles' top setup man.

That's why Johnson, a converted starter, hesitates to talk about his role with the team next year, knowing how quickly things can change. The Orioles, however, will spend some time over the coming weeks discussing where Johnson fits in their long-term plans.

Is it in a rotation that has been dogged by lengthy injuries and ineffectiveness? Does he make the transition to closer with George Sherrill potentially being dealt and Chris Ray's health still in question? Or does the right-hander, 25, stay where he is, providing a steady bridge from the middle-relief corps to the closer?

"I think that's an ongoing discussion that will probably be near the top of the list when the season is over," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "But he certainly has solidified his spot as a late-inning guy. I think he has shown the ability to handle it both physically and mentally."

Johnson is more than willing to leave the decision to the Orioles' front office and coaching staff.

"Coming into camp this year, I was just trying to make the team, so as long as I'm pitching up here, I don't care," he said. "I like both roles. Whether you are starting or relieving, you are trying to get guys out. Once you toe the rubber, it's all the same."

Though club officials insist a decision hasn't been made, the most likely scenario is Johnson returning as a setup man, a role he has handled this season with aplomb. Since he was recalled the second week of the season from Triple-A Norfolk, where he was in the Tides' rotation, Johnson has pitched in 45 games, all in relief. He has a 1.97 ERA and has allowed only 39 hits - and no home runs - in 59 1/3 innings.

"Setup guys, guys that can pitch in the eighth inning, they don't just grow on trees," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "They're just not there for you to have. You never know what you have until somebody goes in and actually does it in the situation. He has the right demeanor for it. I don't think we're going to attempt to make him a starter. I think he's found his niche on what he's going to do."

Said Trembley: "I think it would be hard to find somebody to do what he does in the bullpen. There's something to be said for having some success where he's at and leaving him alone. You don't know how well he would adapt going back to starting."

Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said the decision is "going to be a function in large degree to what our uniform staff suggests, but I have general philosophies and one of them is if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The eighth inning is an important role. Somebody is going to have to convince me otherwise, but my job is to be open-minded and see what the best role is for Jim and the team."

MacPhail said it would be somewhat of a need-based decision, and the Orioles have no greater need than starting pitching. Barring any changes over the final two months of the season, Jeremy Guthrie and Daniel Cabrera appear to be the only locks for the 2009 rotation. MacPhail said last week that the club would devote "significant attention to increasing our [starting pitching] options this offseason."

In parts of eight minor league seasons, Johnson went 46-40 with a 3.84 ERA, with all but 11 of his 132 outings coming as a starter. And just about all those numbers - he started one game for Norfolk this season - came before Johnson made significant changes to his mechanics, including lengthening his stride to home plate. That has resulted in more velocity on his fastball - he was clocked as high as 95 mph this week - and downward action on his pitches.

One scout who has watched Johnson extensively over the years compared his transformation to the one made by former Oriole John Maine, who became an effective starter after the Orioles traded him to the Mets before the 2006 season.

"I think the role that fits [Johnson] greatest is as a starter," the scout said. "Starters are tough to find, and you can always go back to the other way if you needed to. But he has pretty good command and a decent feel. He's a big, durable kid, and one thing he does is throw strikes."

Another scout said Johnson is better suited as a back-end-of-a-bullpen guy and wouldn't be miscast as a closer despite low strikeout totals (32 in 59 1/3 innings).

"He has the stuff to be a solid closer," the scout said. "He throws strikes, has a nice assortment of pitches and goes right at hitters. From the standpoint of having the pitches to do that, I believe Johnson could be successful. But will he be able to bounce back when he blows a save or two saves in a row? The only way to find out is to put him in that role and see what happens."

That would mean Johnson switching roles with Sherrill, who has saved 31 games in 37 opportunities in his first year as closer, and supplanting Ray, who has 49 career major league saves. Ray, who had ligament-reconstruction surgery on his elbow in August 2007, should be ready for spring training.

"I think Jimmy has fit in nicely in the eighth, and I've been pretty good with closing," said Sherrill, who thinks Johnson has the stuff and mentality to close. "But if Ray comes back and takes the closer role, that's fine with me. I just want to win. The bullpen is pretty stable and only gets better with him coming back. It's up to them how they want to approach it."


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