In a two-week span late in 2006, top Orioles executives Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette attempted to solidify the team's bullpen by signing three relievers to three-year contracts totaling approximately $42 million.
The moves proved disastrous as Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker all failed to make it through three full seasons with the club.
Current president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's bullpen makeover, which includes Thursday's official signing of Kevin Gregg to a two-year, $10 million deal, is far less costly, both in terms of dollars and commitment. However, the motive remained the same as it was four years ago: build a bullpen that will take pressure off a young rotation and hold leads late in games.
MacPhail thinks he has done that with the addition of Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010; Jeremy Accardo, who saved 30 games for Toronto in 2007; and the re-signing of Koji Uehara, who converted 13 of 15 save opportunities for the Orioles in 2010.
Uehara signed a one-year, $3 million deal with a vesting option for 2012, while Accardo inked a one-year, $1.08 million pact in December.
"We've always felt going into any season that a key for the morale of our fans, our players, everybody, is you have to win the games that you are supposed to win. There is nothing as demoralizing as letting leads get away late," MacPhail said.
"Almost a week into the season last year, we had lost our seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning relievers. [Jim] Johnson got hurt on Opening Day, Koji didn't make it out of spring training and [Michael] Gonzalez wasn't right until he came off the [disabled list]. We felt that contributed to our terrible start. When they came back healthy for the last two months of the season, they were part of why we had the second-best record in the [American League] for the last two months. We were still concerned about the potential health issues of those relievers going forward and didn't want to find ourselves in the same predicament. We thought it was important to get somebody who has shown himself to be durable and to be able to pitch late in the game in the AL East as Gregg has."
Gregg, a 32-year-old right-hander, took his physical Tuesday and spoke to the Baltimore media Friday via conference call after the Orioles announced the deal.
"There is a solid group down there," Gregg said of the bullpen. "The biggest factor we have is health. If these guys stay healthy, we're definitely a shutdown bullpen. Adding me to the mix allows us to get deeper and pushes guys to the right innings to allow us to be successful. Teams that win have deep bullpens, and [that] takes a little pressure off the starters. They kind of work hand-in-hand together."
Gregg, who has made 121 saves over the past four seasons, reiterated that he wants to be the Orioles' closer, though MacPhail and manager Buck Showalter haven't guaranteed him that role.
"I know what I want to do. I know what I can do," Gregg said. "Given the circumstances, it will play out the way it needs to play it out. But the bottom line is the best interest in the team is what we need to go with. I like my chances of being a closer, but I like the other guys, too.
We don't have to have one certain guy every single night."
Showalter is content to let things play out in spring training as he sorts through his options for the back end of the bullpen. The Orioles' Opening Day bullpen could have as many as five pitchers who have recorded double-digit saves in at least one major league season. That list includes Gregg, Uehara, Accardo, Gonzalez and Johnson. It does not include Alfredo Simon, who saved 17 games for the Orioles in 2010. Simon's status for the coming season is in doubt as he remains in a Dominican Republic prison awaiting word on whether he'll be charged in a fatal shooting earlier this month.
"Andy and I agreed that
we [didn't] want anything said or promised to get this guy to sign with us," Showalter said of Gregg. "He knows exactly what the deal is. Obviously he's going to be in the bullpen. Last time I looked, he's the only guy on the club that saved 37 games in the AL East. But I also know how Koji pitched the last couple of months. If Koji is healthy, it's tough not to give him an opportunity to pick up where he left off. I don't look at it as a problem. It's a good situation to have."
Regardless of Gregg's role, there is little doubt that the Orioles have significantly improved an area that has been a team weakness for several years.
The Orioles' bullpen last season compiled a 4.44 ERA, the second worst in the American League, better than only the Kansas City Royals (4.46). It marked the fourth time over the past five seasons that the Orioles' bullpen ERA was 13th among 14 AL teams.
Last season was the first time they had a bullpen ERA under 4.50 since 2005, when their relievers pitched to a 4.10 mark, the ninth-best ERA in the AL.
"If [Jason] Berken comes back healthy, it shapes up to have the potential to be pretty deep," Showalter said. "You have to like, obviously, Koji and Gregg, Gonzalez, Johnson and Berken. You're able to spread the load around a little bit. You are talking about five guys who have had some success in the major leagues."
Still, MacPhail knows there are no guarantees. Relief pitching is the most mercurial commodity in baseball.
"It's something that needs attention, but at the same time, you have to recognize that whatever resources you use to bolster it, it's not exactly a sure deal," he said. "I know there is a school of thought that the bullpen is not the most efficient use of money, but following teams over a course of 162 games, the reasons clubs do what they do in the bullpen is because they understand how much uncertainty at the end of the game can affect the organization and fans."