Closing time

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --The jewel from last month's Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners is sleek outfielder Adam Jones, and there's no question about that after watching the 22-year-old glide around a diamond.

And Chris Tillman, a 19-year-old with a blessed right arm, could end up being the best of the quintet that the Mariners graciously handed over to the Orioles.

Pitchers Tony Butler and Kam Mickolio are, in baseball-ese, "projects with high ceilings."

The remaining piece from that deal is George Sherrill, the comparative old guy whom Orioles manager Dave Trembley named yesterday as the team's closer.

"I think he's our best option right now," Trembley said. "He's competitive. He has finish on his pitches. It doesn't bother him [to face] right- or left-handed hitters."

Sherrill, who once toiled in the independent leagues, is eager for the opportunity.

"It's something special," Sherrill said. "To be playing this game, it's something that I don't take for granted. Looking back, it's a long trip, but I'm finally here."

At first glance, Sherrill doesn't seem to fit into team president Andy MacPhail's rebuilding plan. He turns 31 in April, and though he's not a free agent until after 2011, he'll be looking at some nice paydays soon thanks to arbitration.

So why not take another early 20-something guy in the trade who still will be cheap when this team is ready to sniff the American League East's rarified air?

Or why not immediately flip Sherrill, who is left-handed and effective, to a contender for a hitting prospect?

Because Sherrill might be the club's most important player this season. If he is successful, he could inadvertently be a huge part of the future, even if he is wearing a different uniform at some point in 2009.

The conventional wisdom is that a bad team doesn't need a quality closer - and every indication is that the 2008 Orioles will be south of good.

But every club, good or bad, needs someone to assume the closer's job, to grab the ball in the ninth and to keep every other reliever in a set role.

"It's definitely important to have a closer," Orioles left-hander Jamie Walker said. "A closer by committee doesn't work. It never has, never will work."

Walker and fellow setup man Chad Bradford shared the role last season when Chris Ray and Danys Baez were injured. Walker and Bradford did yeoman's work, and Trembley tried his best mixing and matching. But it was difficult for all involved.

"If you know your role and you know when you are going to pitch ... you can prepare yourself and get ready for it," Bradford said. "It was tough at times, but after a while, you kind of knew you had to do what you had to do. Sometimes you may need to pitch in the seventh, sometimes you had to close the game out. It's just the way it was."

This year, the ninth inning is Sherrill's alone. That means the eighth can be Walker's and Bradford's - at least to start - allowing Trembley to carve out specific roles for inexperienced relievers such as Randor Bierd and Dennis Sarfate. Low-pressure experience is often invaluable in developing pitchers.

"We could have a pretty good bullpen, but at the same time, we need to establish roles and know who is doing what so there is no question," Sherrill said. "And when it gets to a certain time, you can get up, get ready and go in."

He has only four career big league saves, but he doesn't need to be Mariano Rivera to establish stability for the Orioles' pen. He only needs to be fairly consistent - because continuity is every bit as important as results for this club. And, conversely, nothing is more demoralizing than losing a game you are in position to win.

As one American League scout said, Sherrill isn't a closer, but he can close games. He might never be among the elite, but he should be able to effectively handle an important and difficult job.

Go one step further. Assume Sherrill really takes to this promotion. Assume he saves 30, maybe 35 games and blows only a few.

Then when Ray returns from ligament-reconstruction surgery in September, or next spring, he can be eased back into his old role. And when the July 2009 trade deadline rolls around, the Orioles could market Sherrill as a guy who can finish games. His value will be higher - and so will the return on the investment. Plus, his presence allows the team to shop Walker and/or Bradford at this year's trade deadline, if the interest is there.

Basically, dealing for Sherrill, and keeping him this year, accomplishes three things: It fills a temporary void left by Ray; it establishes a consistent hierarchy, taking pressure off the young relievers, and it gives the Orioles more trade options.

Jones and Tillman were obviously the keys to the Bedard deal, and should be bright spots for the future.

Sherrill, however, might be the most important addition for 2008.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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