New approach

The Baltimore Sun

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- It was supposed to be fixed last year when the Orioles spent $42 million to sign four veteran relievers and turn one of the team's longtime weaknesses into a major strength. But night after night during the 2007 season, the Orioles' bullpen was exposed.

Danys Baez, the most costly addition, faltered badly and then needed the same season-ending surgery that closer Chris Ray required. Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker, two high-priced setup additions, were solid but were thrust into situations for which they were ill-equipped. Scott Williamson, the cheapest of the four signings, was let go before the All-Star break, and countless other relievers were discarded after they proved incapable of getting major league hitters out.

When the Orioles' top decision-makers convened in Florida in October for the organizational meetings, a thorough overhaul of the bullpen was at the top of Andy MacPhail's offseason to-do list. The Orioles just went about it in a totally different way.

"I'm not philosophically opposed, when the timing is right, to spend money on the bullpen through free agency," said MacPhail, the Orioles' president of baseball operations. "But given where we were, we were going to try to solve our problems other ways. Whether it was trades or the Rule 5 [draft] or waiver claims, we were going to use every other option available to us."

Knowing Ray and Baez would likely miss most, if not all, of the 2008 season after having ligament-reconstruction surgery, the Orioles acquired promising right-handers Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate in the Miguel Tejada deal with the Houston Astros. Then they got their likely closer, veteran left-hander George Sherrill, from the Seattle Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade.

They plucked deceptive right-hander Randor Bierd out of the Detroit Tigers organization in the Rule 5 draft and then claimed former closer Greg Aquino off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers.

The moves have made the competition to make the Orioles' Opening Day bullpen one of the most intriguing story lines in an otherwise routine training camp. And amazingly, team officials, who held their collective breath last year every time a starter handed the ball to the manager and left the game, now view the bullpen as one of the Orioles' biggest strengths heading into the 2008 season.

"We've definitely upgraded," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "There are some better arms down there. There are some guys that have some finish on their pitches and there are guys that have some put-away, swing-and-miss pitches, and you need that."

Trembley will carry a seven-man bullpen, and only Sherrill, Walker and Bradford have been assured spots. Sherrill, who has four career major league saves, will be asked to make the transition from setup man to closer, while Walker and Bradford will resume their roles as situational setup men in either the seventh or eighth innings. Trembley has also said that Sarfate, whose fastball is clocked in the mid- to high 90s, might be used late in games, too.

"When you know you have your guys at the end of the bullpen, then things fall into place," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "You don't have to ask guys to do things that they're not accustomed to. Now, we just need to get other guys to come in and get the outs in the sixth or seventh, or sometimes the eighth. I think we're ahead of the game on that."

Aquino has all but locked up a middle-relief spot by allowing only one base runner in four scoreless innings this spring. It is also expected that the Orioles will find a spot for Bierd, who will have to be offered back to the Tigers if he doesn't stay on the 25-man roster. Trembley said he essentially sees all but two of the bullpen spots accounted for with much of the uncertainty based on who will serve as the team's long reliever.

It's a hard competition to gauge, because several of the contenders -- Albers, Brian Burres, Jon Leicester and, to a lesser extent, Lance Cormier -- are in the mix for the fifth starter's spot. Trembley hasn't ruled out keeping two long men, but the more likely scenario is stretching out Bierd into a multi-inning guy. Regardless of how it plays out, Trembley will have many more options than he did last year, when the bullpen gave him nightly headaches.

"It wasn't tough, it was miserable," Trembley said.

The Orioles lost leads in 120 of 162 games last year and dropped 16 games in which they led after the seventh inning. Orioles relievers -- and 21 different ones were used -- finished last season with a 5.71 ERA, the second worst in the major leagues and the fifth highest over the past 51 seasons.

It also was the highest bullpen ERA in team history, a stunning result after the front office spent the $42 million to repair a bullpen that had the second-worst ERA in the league the previous year. During one stretch, Oriole relievers surrendered an incomprehensible 52 runs in 21 innings.

"The fans know, you know, everybody knows. Last year was a joke," said Walker, who joined Bradford in setting a franchise record for appearances in a season. "The last month ... if you could've thrown a strike, you would have been out there, too. I don't mean to question nobody's ability or nothing, but that's how I saw it."

So did MacPhail. That's why he made the Orioles' bullpen an offseason priority.

"I knew we had to try to improve it," he said. "We got a lot of new bodies out there, and based on the early returns, they clearly have the arms to be successful. But they are going to have to show command and make the adjustments that you can only make at the major league level."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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