Don't start: Orioles' Johnson, Berken fine with relief roles

Pitchers both have rotation experience, but Showalter says they'll stay in bullpen

February 15, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Jim Johnson doesn't want to hear it, nor does Orioles manager Buck Showalter, but the question still intrigues.

Would Johnson be better off as a starting pitcher?

"Are people still debating that?" Johnson said. "You guys ask me that every year. What am I supposed to say? Ask Buck, ask [pitching coach] Mark Connor. How many career big league starts do I have? One. There's really not much of a debate."

Johnson has a point, but he also has a solid three-pitch repertoire and a bulldog mentality that would seemingly make him a good fit for an Orioles rotation that has been dogged by instability and inconsistency. The 27-year-old was also a starter throughout his minor league career.

Showalter acknowledged that he has considered moving Johnson into the rotation, but the right-hander is much too valuable in a setup role.

"I know repertoire-wise, I think he's capable of doing both things. It's kind of going to be what the needs of the club are initially," Showalter said. "I wouldn't play up that starting thing with Johnson too strongly at this point, especially because of some of the health issues he had last year. Right now, he's focused and we're focused with how he can help us in the bullpen. But I do know that's there as a potential avenue."

The same holds true for Jason Berken, a starter throughout his minor league career who made his big league debut in the Orioles' rotation in 2009. Berken made 24 starts that season before winning a spot in the bullpen in spring training last year. The right-hander, 27, was the Orioles' most effective reliever in 2010 until a shoulder injury ended his breakout season in early August.

This spring, he's 30 pounds lighter and said he's in the best shape of his career. He also has a much better idea of how to handle the rigors of the bullpen.

"I found out last year that relieving, at times, can take a greater toll on your shoulder because you don't factor in the ups and downs, you don't factor in the multiple days," said Berken, who decided to rehabilitate rather than have surgery on a partially torn labrum and rotator cuff fraying. "As a starter, you might get more innings, throw more pitches, but it's on a five-day basis."

Johnson and Berken gave the company line, saying they just want to contribute to the club, regardless of their role. Both have said in the past that they would welcome a return to a rotation, but each has become a victim of his own success.

Johnson was summoned from the minor leagues early in the 2008 season when a series of abbreviated starts taxed the Orioles' bullpen. Initially used as a long man, he emerged as one of the team's top relievers and was even given an opportunity to close in 2009. But he has struggled at time since, partially because of a right elbow injury. Armed with a heavy sinker and durable enough to log multi-inning outings and pitch on back-to-back days, Johnson induces a boatload of meekly hit groundballs when he's on his game.

Berken, meanwhile, was knocked around during his 24 starts in 2009, going 6-12 with a 6.54 ERA. He allowed 164 hits and walked 44 batters while striking out only 66 in 1192/3 innings. As a reliever last year, he pitched to a 3.03 ERA and struck out 45 batters in 621/3 innings as his slider emerged as a swing-and-miss pitch.

"It's a thing where I think both could start, but as long as they are helping the team in the bullpen, that's good for the team," catcher Matt Wieters said. "I think we have starters that we believe in and we have guys in the 'pen that we believe in. I like the way our bullpen is setting up, especially with some of the additions that we made in the offseason."

Orioles veteran left-hander Mark Hendrickson has done a little of everything in his career, which spans parts of nine big league seasons. He knows well the dilemma of wanting to start but being more valuable to a team in a relief role.

"Guys have to understand that sometimes it's take your pick," he said. "Do you want to be in the minor leagues starting or do you want to be in the big leagues? The opportunity to be in the big leagues is important, but once you've done it for a little while, you have to sift through and see what is going to be best for each person and your career. I think, ultimately, if you're trying to get your feet wet in the big leagues, you take whatever opportunity that you can get."

Hendrickson has been instrumental in helping Berken get used to a relief role.

"Did Berken get a heavy workload last year and did that contribute to some of his [injury] issues? Perhaps, but it's also guys not understanding maybe what it takes to be in the bullpen because nobody has really done it," Hendrickson said. "Coming from the minor leagues, you get babied with pitch counts and you get monitored. In the big leagues, you're thrown in the fire. Guys maybe don't necessarily know how to prepare for that.

"I've never seen J.J. as a starter. I would say with Berken, from what I saw, I'd stick to what he is doing. Not to say that he couldn't go back, but I think, mentally, he was more relaxed in that role. He was able to just react instead of thinking about it. Sometimes as a starter when he first came up, he was over-thinking, and knowing exactly when he was going to pitch wasn't necessarily a good thing."

Johnson and Berken said that they would be able to make the transition to a starting role this spring if they were asked. However, Showalter made it clear that's not in the cards.

"It's not like I'd do anything different preparing for the season," Johnson said. "You still have to get your arm in shape, and spring training is where you build your arm strength. You've already done all the legwork. I don't know what their plans are. I just do what I am supposed to do."

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