New Orioles reliever Mike Gonzalez answers questions during… (AP photo )
While looking at potential fits this offseason, left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez said he targeted the Orioles because he knew they were in the market for a full-time closer.
But he said another contributing factor for signing a two-year, $12 million deal was the club's young nucleus, which he believes can stop the franchise's 12-year malaise.
The Orioles were "definitely on my radar, just seeing the talent alone that these guys have," Gonzalez said during a news conference Friday after he passed his Orioles physical. "But not only that, also looking at the lineup, seeing our team, seeing the core, I mean, the guys are not just young, but very talented."
Gonzalez, 31, whose contract could be worth as much as $16 million if he achieves all bonuses and escalator clauses, is expected to take over the Orioles' closer role after saving 10 of 17 games for the Atlanta Braves last season and 54 of 66 in his seven-year career with the Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Yet president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail stopped short of officially anointing Gonzalez as closer Friday.
"That is a possibility, probably likelihood, but it's not something that is guaranteed to him," MacPhail said. "There will be a competition."
Orioles manager Dave Trembley added in a telephone conference: "I would say he is at the top of the list [to be closer]. I think that's why we got him."
When the Orioles dealt All-Star closer George Sherrill to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 30, primary setup man Jim Johnson took over the role. Johnson, who saved 10 of 16 games in 2009 and was the favorite to be closer in 2010 before Gonzalez signed, told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that if the move "makes our team better, then I'm happy. It's fine by me."
Trembley said he hadn't yet talked to Johnson, but "I will." Trembley added that, throughout a season, he may need more than one person to close games.
Gonzalez, who is 14-16 with a 2.57 ERA in his career and had a 2.42 ERA in 80 appearances last season, said he's not bothered by the lack of an official guarantee.
"I've been competing since I was 5 years old," he said. "That's nothing new to me. I never felt like I've ever been handed anything, so I just go out there and do me, and I'll be fine."
With a young team, MacPhail said it's paramount to be solid in the late innings, and Gonzalez was "the No. 1 reliever on our board."
"There is nothing more dispiriting to a team than getting in a circumstance where you're losing games that you really should be winning," MacPhail said. "And we're very confident that Mike ... and others can really lock down the back end of the bullpen and reward the young starters with those games that they should be winning."
Gonzalez had elbow ligament-replacement surgery in May 2007 but returned to pitch in 2008 and last season. "The injuries are completely behind me," he said.
His signing is the second of three major offseason moves for the Orioles. They traded for starting pitcher Kevin Millwood last week and are expected to announce the signing of corner infielder Garrett Atkins to a one-year, $4 million deal after he passes his physical either Monday or Tuesday.
"I like what we have done, and I don't think Andy is done yet," Trembley said. "And I think it makes the holiday season a little bit brighter for all of us."