It was a calculated risk. The Orioles have opened the season with what manager Buck Showalter willingly concedes is an "unconventional" bullpen, which could leave him and baseball operations chief Dan Duquette with some explaining to do if the starting pitchers aren't able to provide enough good innings to keep the relievers fresh.
The Orioles do not have a true long reliever to pick up the slack if the starters again make a habit of stalling in the early and middle innings. That might change over the next few weeks — as circumstances dictate — but the team clearly is hoping that the rotation will go deep in enough games to make it a non-issue.
If you recall, the Orioles entered last season banking heavily on their stable of inexperienced starters to keep the club competitive, only to have the rotation unravel early and the bullpen wilt from overwork. Both Showalter and former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail would later admit they knew they were playing some long odds, which is why Duquette spent the winter stockpiling pitchers.
There are some similarities between this April and last, but it's not Groundhog Day. The Orioles have far more rotation depth than they did a year ago, but there is still no guarantee that the starters will consistently get into the sixth and seventh inning and seventh inning, so the lack of a legitimate long guy could come back to haunt them.
"That's missing…I get that,'' Showalter said. "It's not conventional right now, but it's what's best for our organization over the long haul."
This is where it gets complicated. The reason the bullpen seems out of balance is — at least in part — because Duquette and Showalter packed the roster with so many major league set-up guys that they couldn't justify keeping somebody like Alfredo Simon or Dana Eveland around to soak up non-critical innings. There also is no left-handed specialist to match up in key late-inning situations.
It's a strange mix, but Showalter seems oddly comfortable with it, at least for the moment. He used former closer Kevin Gregg, left-handed middleman Troy Patton and right-hander Darren O'Day to hold things together after Brian Matusz lasted just four innings on Monday night, and said that the bullpen would be OK for any eventuality afterWei-Yin Chen took the mound on Tuesday for his American major league debut.
Of course, it didn't hurt that the Orioles got three spectacular starts to open the season, so Showalter was searching for innings for some of his relievers.
"We had two guys I definitely wanted to get pitch in the game [Monday] night — Kevin and Darren,'' Showalter said. "They needed to pitch. I felt real comfortable extending them. We were fortunate to get through that game and have everybody available (Tuesday). In the future, that's not something you're going to be able to weather if you have it three or four days in a row with any type of bullpen."
Fair enough, but if the Orioles do have a long run of short starts, they probably would be better served to have at least one guy who can take the mound in the fifth inning and finish the game. But Showalter would rather focus on the extra options he has at Triple-A Norfolk if he needs to replace a struggling starter.
"I think it's more about trying to make sure we don't have that happen as often as it did last year and the challenge that it presented,'' he said. "Because of that, I remember having two or three conversations with relievers who didn't deserve to (be sent down), but we had to do that not put anybody at risk physically."
It didn't have to be this way. Duquette could have kept the versatile (but inconsistent) Simon and started O'Day in Norfolk, but chose to let Simon be claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds. The next best option might be Jason Berken, who pitched four shutout innings in his first start for the Tides on Monday.
Showalter will tell you that it's not a problem until it becomes one, but he's not going to make the same mistake the club made last year and bank so heavily on the precarious promise of a best-case scenario. The Orioles' chances of being competitive this year depend almost entirely on the ability of the rotation to pitch deep into games on a frequent and regular basis, but it would be foolhardy to assume anything after a handful of strong performances.
"That's would be nice to say,'' he said, "but I don't think we have enough of a sampling to know that's going to happen. No track record. We hope we have that potential. If we have to make an adjustment, we will. We'll certainly have more pieces to choose from."
Read Peter Schmuck's blog, The Schmuck Stops Here, at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com
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