This time last year, Darren O’Day was fighting for a roster spot in Orioles spring training — every outing precious, every impression critical — as he tried to salvage his big-league career.
After a stellar 2012 season in which he was the team’s most consistent reliever, O’Day — a quirky, light-hearted side-armer — was rewarded with a two-year contract from the Orioles with a third-year club option, the team announced on Monday.
It’s the peak of a remarkable 15-month ascension for the 30-year-old O’Day. Following the 2011 season, the Texas Rangers — unconvinced he could recover from an injury plagued-season — placed O’Day on waivers. The Orioles, in the midst of their general manager search, claimed O’Day on the recommendation of manager Buck Showalter.
“I got picked off the scrap heap,” O’Day said.
A key piece to the Orioles’ best season in 15 years, O’Day went 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA last season, allowing just 49 hits in 67 innings and striking out 69 batters. He stranded 37 of 43 inherited runners (86.0 percent), the third-best mark in the American League, and went 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 36 games vs. AL East opponents, holding hitters to a line of .135/.207/.270.
O’Day also shined in the postseason, tossing two scoreless innings in the Orioles' AL wild-card win in Texas and made four scoreless appearances in the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees.
“He was a big part of our success last year,” Showalter said. “He's a guy who's very easy to trust. You put your head on the pillow regardless of what the results are. It's not a purely statistical evaluation, though Darren wouldn't take a back seat to many guys in the role he used. And he did more than one thing for us.”
O’Day was the poster boy for Showalter’s maneuverable bullpen. He serves in situational roles and for multiple innings. He held batters to a .191 average with runners in scoring position and recorded 15 holds. By the end of the season, O’Day was Showalter’s most trusted relief arm in his team’s tightest situations.
“Obviously, the kid did a great job for us as a pitcher,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “But he’s the kind of pitcher who can get you out of a jam and he can also pitch responsibly and protect the lead. And he pitched when we needed him to pitch in the playoffs. He was terrific. That kind of player, who is very dependable, has a lot of value to the Orioles.”
O’Day was never drafted. He was cut from the University of Florida’s team as a freshman, prompting him to teach himself how to throw sidearm. Even when he broke into the big leagues, he had a difficult time finding a home. The Orioles were his fourth organization in a five-year span.
“They gave me an opportunity and they kept running me out there last year, and I hope I did what they expected,” O’Day said. “And now maybe this is them saying they believe in me and they want to keep me around and be part of what's going on here. It's really a good time to be a Baltimore Oriole, to bring a winning team, some winning baseball, back to Baltimore. To be a part of that is pretty awesome, and hopefully I can be a part of that for a few more years.”
When the Orioles claimed O’Day off waivers, he was still recovering from a partial labrum tear in his left hip that required surgery in 2011. O’Day knew he could still get hitters out in the big leagues. His previous three seasons, he recorded a 2.36 ERA and a .991 walks and hits per innings pitched.
“[My expectations] were just to prove that I was healthy,” O’Day said. “I knew that I could pitch. [It was] if I was healthy and that was really the big test, and these guys took a leap of faith with me and trusted that, if I was healthy, that I was going to be the guy that I had been. I knew that if I did that, I would have a good shot at making the team and that we could be a competitive team.”
O'Day was the last of 13 arbitration-eligible Orioles to agree to terms. O’Day, who earned $1.35 million last season, was seeking $3.2 million in arbitration this year, and the Orioles countered with a $1.8 million offer.
The deal accounts for O’Day’s final two arbitration years and the 2015 team option would cover his first season of free-agent eligibility.
The Orioles are making an investment of at least $5.8 million in O’Day. He will make $2.2 million this season, $3.2 million next year and could make $4.25 million in his option year in 2015, according to an industry source. That option includes a $400,000 buyout.
“During the course of the negotiations,” Duquette said, “it became apparent that there were good reasons for both parties to talk about a multi-year deal. I think they brought it up initially and we took it under consideration and we thought it was a good idea for us and that’s why we got a long term deal.”