For the next few weeks and months, one of the primary questions surrounding the Orioles will be whether they can find a competent closer now that Jim Johnson has been traded away.
It wouldn't be a surprise if the Orioles attempt to acquire a free-agent pitcher who has closed before if that player can come relatively cheaply. That seems like the most obvious scenario. They won’t be paying $10 million for a closer, though, that’s for sure.
There will be some internal candidates, starting with Tommy Hunter. He proved his worth as a set-up man and has the big fastball of a closer. But, since he hasn’t done it before, there is some uncertainty as to whether he can be effective and stay healthy pitching more than two consecutive days at a time. He pitched in three straight games just once last year.
Sidearmer Darren O’Day hasn’t been a closer since college, though he, like Hunter, has a give-me-the-ball mentality. But the Orioles like him in the role he is in – a different-look guy to get clutch outs in the seventh and eighth innings. Lefty Brian Matusz has been very good in a match-up role against lefties. The club shouldn’t mess with that success, either.
And forget about rookie Kevin Gausman being thrust into the closer’s role. He’s viewed as a starter – as he should be – and there’s much more value in a potential, top-of-the-rotation guy.
The one current Oriole pitcher that is most intriguing to me as a potential closer is right-hander Bud Norris, who has made only three relief appearances in his five seasons in the majors. And I’m not the only one. There are some club officials who think Norris would thrive as a closer, and perhaps should be a consideration in 2014.
First, Norris has a solid fastball. According to fangraphs.com, he averaged 92.7 mph with his fastball in 2013 – and that’s as a starter. One can assume his velocity would increase a couple ticks if he is pitching just one inning at a time. (In comparison, Johnson’s fastball velocity in 2013 was 93.8 and Hunter’s was 96.2, which was up from 92 mph when he was a starter.)
Secondly, Norris has an out pitch that isn’t his fastball. When we think of closers, we generally think of the blazing heat. But many of the game’s most celebrated closers had another pitch that was more effective than a traditional four-seamer.
Norris’ slider is his best pitch. He throws it in the mid-80s range, it has good movement and generates plenty of swings and misses. He uses it about 35 percent of the time and has the confidence to throw it in any situation. He also has a changeup and a two-seamer, but they are clearly secondary pitches that can be primarily shelved and dusted off when needed.
Third, Norris is a strikeout guy, which is what you want in a closer, if possible. In the majors, Norris has fanned 700 batters in 740 1/3 innings, nearly one per inning. Compare that to 265 strikeouts in 400 innings for Johnson and 331 strikeouts in 555 2/3 big-league innings for Hunter.
The last component is a harsh, but honest one. Norris wasn’t very effective when he came over to the Orioles at the end of July. He was 4-3 with a 4.80 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) for the Orioles. More unsightly, Norris had a 7.30 ERA in five starts at Camden Yards in 2013, and opponents hit .355 with a 1.000 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him in Baltimore.
To compound his struggles with the Orioles, only once in nine starts did he go beyond six innings; he often accelerated his pitch count early. Several things may have led to his troubles – he was in the AL East for the first time, he dealt with some arm stiffness, he was twice asked to pitch in extra inning games while a member of the rotation – but the overall result was disappointing.
Right now, Norris projects as a fourth starter (behind Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez). And if the Orioles use some of the money from the Johnson trade on starting pitching and Gausman takes the next step, Norris could fall further back in the rotation picture.
That’s not what you want from a player that cost you a competent young outfielder (L.J. Hoes) and a promising pitching prospect (Josh Hader) in a trade a few months ago.
Obviously, the subject of moving Norris to the back end of the bullpen has not been broached yet; Johnson was just traded. And Norris may be resistant; he’s been a starter throughout his career. But there’s another part of this equation that makes me think a move might work.
Norris is an exceptionally confident guy. He has a certain swagger about him. He’s got that, “I’ll throw it, just try to hit it,” mentality that closers need to possess. It’s an attitude and personality wasted on a back-end starter. If he mentally got on board with the closing idea, Norris could potentially thrive saving games.
Remember, the Orioles’ most effective two closers in the past decade were converted starters: Johnson and Koji Uehara. And the club’s recent attempts at buying closers, Kevin Gregg and Michael Gonzalez, crashed and burned.
So maybe it is worth experimenting with the idea of Norris to the bullpen. It's something to think about as potential candidates are bandied about before the spring.