By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
8:44 PM EST, January 14, 2014
SARASOTA, FLA. -- In the midst of the fallout from the Orioles' trade of closer Jim Johnson last month, manager Buck Showalter received a comforting text message from reliever Tommy Hunter.
The message from Hunter, one of the club's top set-up men last season, was clear: If you need me to be the closer, I'm ready.
"I don't think I said it that way," Hunter joked Tuesday while recalling the message. "I think I said, 'I want the [damn] job.'"
The 27-year-old Hunter rarely wastes words.
At the time, Hunter was a secondary option for the ninth. The Orioles would prefer to keep him in the eighth inning but with less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, it's almost inevitable that Hunter will be the leading candidate to assume the closer job.
Hunter's assimilation into that role will be one of the top storylines of spring training.
"I'm up for the challenge, but it's really not up to the players at this point," said Hunter, who is voluntarily attending this week's minicamp in Sarasota. "You wait and see, and you get the ball, and you go. I think it would be a pretty cool position to fill and pretty big shoes.
"Jim had 101 saves in two years. Not too many people do that, but I'm up for a challenge and I've love for it to come true, if it does. And if it doesn't, I'll probably fill a role somewhere in the end of the bullpen. I'm really not concerned about it. I'm going to play baseball next year. We're going to let it eat."
The Orioles agreed on a two-year, $15 million deal with free agent closer Grant Balfour to replace Johnson, who posted back-to-back 50-save seasons over the past two years. But the Orioles pulled back from the deal following a concern with Balfour's physical.
The team has since spoken with former Rays closer Fernando Rodney, but at this point the club appears content with filling the void internally.
Showalter said Hunter is a candidate to be the team's closer, but wouldn't say that Hunter is the leading internal choice
"There are some things we could do between now and then," Showalter said. "But he is a candidate. I'm not going to go any further than that right now. I'm not getting into handicapping it right now."
Hunter was 6-5 with a 2.81 ERA and 21 holds last season, his first as a full-time reliever. Hunter, along with sidearmer Darren O'Day, served as the Orioles' bridge to Johnson.
Closing out games, however, is a different task, especially against the strong lineups in the American League East, where one-run leads can vanish in an instant. Hunter was prone to giving up home runs as a starter.
Last season, lefties hit .294 against him, and the club was hesitant to pitch Hunter three consecutive days, something he'd have to sometimes do as a closer. Still, Hunter pitched 861/3 innings, second most by a reliever in the AL, and allowed one or fewer runs in 61 of his 68 appearances. He held right-handed batters to a .141 average.
"I think I was pretty good last year," Hunter said. "I think I put together a solid year. I think I can definitely do better. Don't get me wrong, but I think if I do what I did last year, I think we're going to be OK if I get a little better, which hopefully will happen with experience and time.
"Coming into a role in one year, it's different," said Hunter, who shifted to the bullpen from the rotation for good in mid-September 2012. "It's a big difference from starting. You can ask a lot of people, but I'm not going to change [anything] from what I did last year. I'm just going to try to improve on what I did and hopefully it gets better. … But I'm not going to try to be something that I'm not. I'm not going to go in there [this spring] and try to squat 800 pounds because I have the chance to do something."
The Orioles bullpen has been a tight-knit unit, and the trade of Johnson — who was dealt because he was projected to make $10 million through the arbitration process — wasn't a popular one. Johnson was a fixture in and unofficial leader of the Orioles bullpen, but Hunter said new leaders and a new closer will emerge in 2014.
"Everybody in baseball goes through change," Hunter said. "There's always going to be new faces. One year your powerhouse guy goes out from this team to that team. [Darren O'Day] is a big fixture, too. He's a pretty smart guy and he knows how to handle everybody. I think we'll be all right in that regard. Granted, we lost a guy with 101 saves, so we lost the 'El Capitan' of the bullpen. Yeah there's going to be a hiccup here and a hiccup there, but I think everybody is mature enough to handle the situation."
Showalter has often said that closing out games requires a certain makeup that is rare — those pitchers need a short memory and the ability to block out distractions. Even though Johnson converted 50 saves last year, he blew nine opportunities.
"I think it's part of baseball in general," Hunter said. "It's 'what have you done for me lately?' That's what this game is about, it's what it's been about for a long time. ... I don't think things are going to change. Hell, I gave up [runs] last year. And you have to bounce back."
Showalter does like how Hunter's path to the back end of the bullpen has been natural. Much like Johnson, Hunter spent time as a starter, then pitched in long relief before earning a role in pressure situations in the late innings.
"Like all guys, there's a process there doing that, too," Showalter said. "If you look at the process of some of the various relievers, they just don't go from Point A to Point B overnight. … He's followed a similar path as good relievers do. What does that mean? And just about every one of them had a problem with somebody, some form of the game, whether it was left-handers or [something else]."
Hunter seems to have the faith of his manager, and Hunter definitely thought it was a significant gesture to send that text message last month to let Showalter know he was ready for a new challenge.
"I think [it was important]," Hunter said. "I think it's someone expressing interest in something that they want, that they see themselves doing. I definitely do. There's definitely stairs to climb with where I want to be, and this is another step, so why not?"
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun