No pain could mean gain for 'pen

Relief corps has potential to be Orioles' best since 2002 - if it can remain healthy

March 22, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Based solely on resumes, the Orioles' 2009 bullpen should be a major strength.

George Sherrill is an All-Star closer, and Chris Ray has a 33-save season and an electric arsenal. Jim Johnson was one of baseball's best setup men last year, and veteran Jamie Walker has made a career of shutting down left-handed hitters.

Dennis Sarfate and Matt Albers are young, versatile pitchers with strong arms and untapped potential.

On paper, this version of the Orioles' bullpen looks to be the club's best since 2002, when it ranked second in the American League in ERA.

But there's a catch - one that will go a long way toward determining the success of this season.

All six pitchers spent time on the disabled list last year. All six, to differing extents, have to be monitored closely in hopes of keeping them injury-free for an entire season.

"I just hope we all stay healthy. That would be the main thing," said Albers, who missed three months with an ailing right shoulder. "But I think we can all stay healthy because we have enough guys to where we can pick up for each other and guys can take a day off if they are throwing too much."

The list of injuries is extensive - and concerning.

Ray didn't pitch in the big leagues last year after elbow surgery in 2007. Albers is throwing with a slight tear in his labrum. Johnson is shut down with a shoulder impingement and is uncertain for Opening Day.

Walker pitched with elbow discomfort much of last season, and his 6.87 ERA was by far a career worst for a full season. Sherrill threw a career-high 58 1/3 innings and posted a 6.59 ERA after the All-Star break. And Sarfate missed the last month of 2008 with a fractured clavicle.

Orioles manager Dave Trembley is acutely aware of the situation. Through the first 20 games of the spring, he has been conscious of not pitching his relievers on consecutive days. That will have to change, though, as the season approaches.

"We have not overextended anybody in spring training. We have given guys extra days," Trembley said. "I've always felt that as spring training draws to a conclusion, those guys get closer to that game-type atmosphere. You close the gap. You start getting them in roles they are going to be more accustomed to. And everything will be fine."

If everyone is healthy, the roles are already defined. Trembley is keeping Sherrill in the closer's role, but to maintain Sherrill's effectiveness, he'll be spelled by Ray.

Ray and Johnson will share eighth-inning duties, with Sarfate and Albers bridging the gap in the sixth and seventh and Walker used primarily against left-handers. There is room for one, maybe two long relievers with Brian Bass, Chris Waters, Mark Hendrickson, Hayden Penn, Danys Baez and Radhames Liz among the candidates.

"Hopefully we'll be able to set it up to where we'll be able to get the left and right going and have the power arms in there," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "It can be very good."

Last season, the bullpen kept the Orioles competitive through the first half, posting a 3.54 ERA. But, because of the rotation's inability to go deep into games (it averaged fewer than 5 2/3 innings per start in the first half), the bullpen was called on to throw an overwhelming 313 innings in the Orioles' first 88 games.

When Albers went down in late June, it was the first of a string of injuries that buried an already swamped corps. The group's ERA for the second half was a dreadful 5.99, pushing it to 11th in the AL for 2008 - the third consecutive year the bullpen ended up in the bottom four of the league.

"We got wore down a little bit, I think," Walker said. "A lot of people don't see how many times you get up in a game, and that gets you - and then the appearances. It was frustrating. A lot of guys played the whole year not 100 percent, and at the end it took a mighty toll."

A bullpen is only as good as the starting pitching that gets to it, Walker said. But the six relievers believe they can handle any situation when called upon.

"I think we expect that from ourselves, to be one of the best," Sherrill said. "We've got lefties, we've got righties. We've got guys who can go a hitter, we've got guys who can go an inning, we've got guys that can go multiple innings. We've got guys that can do it all."

The question remains whether they can stay relatively healthy for a season, however.

"I am every bit confident that all my [bullpen] guys are going to be ready to go on Opening Day," Trembley said. "That's how I feel."

no relief

Year Bullpen ERA AL ranking

2008 4.57 ........ 11th

2007 5.75 .......... 13th

2006 5.27 ........ 13th

2005 4.10 ........... 9th

2004 4.13 ......... 7th

2003 4.57 ........... 9th

2002 3.49. ..... 2nd

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