When the Orioles traded Jim Johnson in December and then spiked a potential deal with Grant Balfour weeks later, the likelihood of Tommy Hunter being the club’s 2014 closer increased.
With a few weeks left in the offseason, the Orioles could still land a closer-type pitcher, but management isn't sweating things if Hunter begins the spring as the club’s closer-in-waiting.
As executive vice president Dan Duquette likes to say, no one knew what Johnson could do until he was given the job full-time in 2012 (and saved 51 of 54 games).
Johnson was part of a bullpen in 2011 that included two guys who the Orioles had signed to be closers but lost the job (Michael Gonzalez and Kevin Gregg) and one set-up man who emerged toward the end of last season with the Boston Red Sox as a shut-down closer (Koji Uehara).
So effective closers don’t have to be marquee free-agent signings; they can be homegrown or pulled off the scrapheap.
Perhaps no one in baseball has had more success in building a bullpen out of spare parts than the Tampa Bay Rays, who abandoned that philosophy somewhat this winter by signing Balfour for two years and $12 million after his deal with the Orioles collapsed.
The Rays have finished in the top half of the American League in bullpen ERA in each of the past six seasons – twice placing first – despite an always changing cast of characters. They fell from first in 2012 to seventh in 2013 and, consequently, bolstered that group this year with the additions of Balfour and Heath Bell while losing Fernando Rodney.
I had a chance to talk to Rays manager Joe Maddon recently about the challenges of building a bullpen and finding a closer, and he had some interesting things to say. I thought they seemed to make sense for the Orioles, so I figured I’d pass them onto you.
Perhaps most important for bullpen construction, Maddon said, is achieving balance in the late innings. He gave credit to his boss, Andrew Friedman, for keeping that in mind when he considers adding personnel.
“I think the big part is complementary pieces. You try to get people that balance each other out. You have to keep in mind you are trying to get both left-handed and right-handed hitters out at the end of a game, and how does this all play?” Maddon said. “I think Andrew does a wonderful job keeping an eye on that, and he gets us the right kind of folks to work with.”
The Rays put together a sheet on each new pitcher, specifying perceived strengths and weaknesses, and Maddon likes to use that as a blueprint as he gets to know his new players. If you’ve ever watched a game Maddon manages, you know he likes to make pitching changes in the latter innings, matching up whenever possible. It can get tedious for the opposing team and fans, but there’s always a method to his madness.
“It’s all about building confidence and putting them in a position to succeed,” he said. “It’s the understanding of how they can succeed in this role and not let them out there too long where something bad can happen and let them build their confidence.”
It’s going to be interesting this spring to see how Orioles manager Buck Showalter handles Hunter and the “closer’s role,” if it indeed ends up as his job to lose. Showalter is very careful about making pronouncements about a player -- he’d rather let things play out. Remember his reluctance to name Manny Machado the club’s No. 2 hitter last spring, though it was obvious what was happening?
Maddon also subscribes to that understated theory when it comes to a closer – and I can imagine Showalter will as well.
“We really tried to stay away from that [closer label],” Maddon said. “We’re interested in worrying about pitching in high-leverage moments in the latter part of the game and, of course, if someone wants to take over that [closer’s] role, basically, let’s do it.”
But if you announce that someone is a closer and they can’t handle the job, and those situations have to be given to someone else, then there can be a problem.
“All of the sudden you have a little quarterback controversy going on that you don’t need. So why set yourself up for that moment?” Maddon said. “You just let the guys try to find their own niche and, eventually, as it works out that way, it’s worth something. When a guy does that, the rest of the group is pretty accepting, because this guy’s earned the right to be in that spot.”
That’s how I envision Showalter dealing with Hunter – putting him into high-leverage situations this spring but not automatically naming him the closer. That approach certainly has paid off for the Rays, who have had eight different saves leaders in their past nine seasons.
Maddon said the other thing that a manager needs to do with his relief corps – and something he thinks Showalter exhibits particularly well – is showing patience in pitchers through the rough times.
“When you go through a full season, some guys are going to get into some bad spots, and you have to stick with them because that’s what they are there for, and I think part of it is building confidence,” Maddon said. “So we’ve been able to build confidence in the Fernando Rodneys or the Joaquin Benoits and all these guys that have come through that maybe were not branded [as a closer or late-inning reliever] at the time.”