Health is a welcome relief for Orioles' bullpen

'So far, so good,' Showalter says of relievers, who have had a strong spring training overall

Uehara resumes throwing

  • Reliever Jeremy Accardo has given up just two hits in four scoreless innings in spring training. He pitched two innings against the Yankees on Monday and might be asked to complete a multi-inning outings this season.
Reliever Jeremy Accardo has given up just two hits in four scoreless… (J. Meric / Getty Photo )
March 10, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

BRADENTON, Fla. — — The question didn't even have time to slide safely into Buck Showalter's consciousness when the Orioles manager politely interrupted and motioned with his hands to indicate that the topic was premature.

"So far, so good," Showalter said when asked about the Orioles' revamped bullpen. "It would be nice to break camp with all the pieces. That would be something that we didn't have last year."

The early returns on the Orioles' offseason bullpen makeover have been positive. Kevin Gregg, signed to a two-year, $10 million deal in January, has thrown four scoreless innings. Holdover setup men Jim Johnson and Michael Gonzalez each have three scoreless outings on their Grapefruit League ledger. Koji Uehara, re-signed in December to an incentive-laden deal, has been battling a sore elbow, but he resumed throwing today.

Jeremy Accardo, another veteran with experience as a closer, has given up just two hits in four scoreless innings, while fellow offseason signees Clay Rapada and David Riske have pitched well enough to thrust themselves into the mix for Opening Day roster spots.

The early performances have only reaffirmed team officials' beliefs that the bullpen could emerge as one of the Orioles' biggest strengths. But any conversation about the relief corps comes with one big caveat.

"You have to stay healthy. That's the bottom line," said Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Toronto Blue Jays last season. "You're going to get the most out of Gonzo and the most out of Koji when they are healthy."

Gregg has pitched parts of eight big league seasons and never been on the disabled list. However, the rest of the Orioles' projected bullpen is littered with guys with extensive injury histories.

Uehara is 35 years old, has a history of elbow and hamstring injuries, and has been on the disabled list four times in two big league seasons. The Orioles weren't overly concerned about shutting him down recently, simply because they know he has only so many bullets left in his elbow and they'd rather he save them for the season.

Gonzalez missed 31/2 months with a shoulder injury in 2010, and he's battled elbow problems throughout his career. Johnson missed four months last year because of a sore elbow, while Accardo was sidelined for much of 2008 with a forearm injury. Jason Berken, who entered camp as a prohibitive favorite for a middle relief spot, is also attempting to pitch with a torn labrum, an injury that prematurely ended his breakthrough 2010 campaign.

"Injuries are the key for anything, even for our offense," Gonzalez said. "You see a Brian Roberts. You need a Brian Roberts in the lineup. That's kind of the same thing [for our bullpen]. It's like a chain link and one of these guys falls, it all kind of drops. Health is definitely an issue but everybody seems to be healthy. Koji has had a few issues here and there, but he's gotten it done also."

There is obviously no magic formula to ensure that any bullpen stays healthy. However, the performance of the starters usually factors heavily into that equation. Far too often in recent seasons, the Orioles' bullpen has been called on too early and too often, resulting in a bunch of tired arms in the first couple of months.

The composition of the bullpen in recent years has also been problematic for past Orioles managers who have been forced to rely on too many one-inning relievers. Showalter and pitching coach Mark Connor have already begun the process of stretching out certain guys. Accardo pitched two innings against the New York Yankees on Monday, and Johnson, Gonzalez, Berken and Rapada may also be asked to extend their outings.

"You have to have overlap," Johnson said. "You can't just have one guy in a bullpen pitching well. I know it's been said, but you can't just have all one-inning guys. You have to have guys that can cover different innings, and the starters have to go deep in games. We'll see how it shakes out."

Several of the relievers downplayed the spring numbers, saying none of that matters until April 1, when the Orioles open the regular season against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. But it's still tempting to look at the track records and imagine the possibilities.

Gregg, Uehara, Johnson, Accardo and Gonzalez have all saved at least 10 games in a major league season. Berken was the Orioles' best reliever last season before going down with the shoulder injury. Rapada was dominant against left-handed hitters during his time in the big leagues last season, holding them to one hit in 19 at-bats. Mark Hendrickson, Rick VandenHurk and Ryan Drese also give the Oriole depth for the swingman role.

Showalter hasn't settled on his closer — Gregg and Uehara are the top two options — and he hasn't elaborated much on how he will slot the rest of the bullpen. It's clear, however, that he has more pieces at his disposal than previous Orioles managers.

The Orioles have had the second-worst bullpen ERA in the American League in four of the past five seasons. Last season, their bullpen posted an ERA below 4.50 — it was 4.44 — for the first time since 2005. Things figure to improve significantly in that area. That is, of course, if the relievers are able to stay healthy.

"There are five or six guys here with closing experience," Accardo said. "That's something that will help you from top to bottom. If a starter can't get you through six, you got guys that know how to get outs in key situations. If that helps you win ballgames, that's the overall goal. Win as many games as you can and get to the playoffs."

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