Much has been made about Dan Duquette's offseason focus of strengthening the Orioles' starting rotation — retooling it with pitchers capable of providing quality innings — but it's in the bullpen where the team's new executive vice president of baseball operations might have made his most notable hauls.
In rebuilding a pitching staff that had a major league-worst 4.89 ERA last season, Duquette has assembled a dynamic stable of late-inning relievers, ones who created the spring's most compelling competition down the stretch in Sarasota.
The looks of the pitchers in the Orioles' bullpen are diverse, and heading into Opening Day on Friday against the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards, their roles will be, too.
"Players determine what they end up doing," pitching coach Rick Adair said. "You can get things in your mind about what they can do, but when it's all said and done, the game evaluates the players."
Among the Orioles' relievers, four have experience saving games at the major league level. Two others did it in the minor leagues. There's a variety of deliveries — from right-hander Luis Ayala's three-quarters arm slot to right-handed Darren O'Day's sidearm approach to right-handed flamethrower Matt Lindstrom's compact motion. Some have experience pitching multiple relief innings at a time.
"We were looking for pitchers in the bullpen who could get both left- and right-handed hitters out," Duquette said. "We have some pitchers who can do that, so that makes you a little bit stronger and it gives us a little more depth to the bullpen, but it's all based on the starters giving you the innings required to have a good pitching staff. But if the starters can do their job, we have a little bit more depth in the bullpen with some qualified relievers."
"The closer is statistically the pitcher that gets the last three outs," Duquette said. "But there are several games when it's vital to get the key outs of the game earlier. We have some pitchers who can do that and help us win games in the sixth, seventh, eighth innings, as well as the ninth.
Jim Johnson, who converted all seven save opportunities in September, said he hasn't been told he will open the season as the team's closer, but in all likelihood, he will. The main question concerning Johnson was lower-back discomfort earlier this spring, especially coming off a season in which he was second in the American League in relief innings pitched (91.0).
Kevin Gregg, who continued to be the subject of trade rumors, will likely also have some save opportunities as well. As long as Gregg, and his $5.8 million salary, is on the Orioles, he will get late-inning opportunities. Despite seven blown saves last year, he has experience closing games.
But it's the bridge between the Orioles' starters and the ninth inning where the true renovation lies.
"It actually started last year with some of the guys we brought in," Johnson said. "Last year was the first year we had overlap, when we had guys who could do different things. Those seventh, eighth, ninth innings, you had guys who could share the duties instead of just one guy just getting worn out. They've done that again this year but more toward the front part of it. That's a good dynamic to have.
"I don't think we have guys who can only do one set thing," Johnson added. "I think we can all do a little bit of everything."
Ayala and Lindstrom, both newcomers, were acquired within two weeks of the opening of spring training.
Lindstrom, 32, acquired in the trade that sent right-handed starter Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies, is coming off a season in which he had career lows in hits allowed (52), earned runs (18) and ERA (3.00). He throws a fastball that topped off at 97 mph this spring, as well as a splitter and curveball. He has experience closing games, tallying a club-high 23 saves in 2010 with the Houston Astros and saving 15 with the Florida Marlins in 2009. But last season in Colorado, he was mainly used as a seventh- and eighth-inning setup man. He had 14 holds for the Rockies.
Then there's the 34-year-old Ayala, who quickly became a clubhouse favorite this spring. Signed as a free agent Feb. 10, the veteran right-hander was 2-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 56 innings with the New York Yankees last season after spending 2010 toiling in the minors. Ayala might be the most flexible member of the bullpen because he can come in to pitch to one batter with his sinker to get a double-play ball or be used in multiple innings — he pitched more than one inning 18 times last season and threw two innings eight times.
However, those occasions will be more pivotal in Baltimore than they were in New York. Many of his multiple-inning outings with the Yankees were in games that weren't close.
But Ayala also offers a much-needed veteran presence. His first major league season was in 2003, and he's able to pass on a lot to his fellow relievers.
"We talk a lot about the hitters, we talk about the division — it's a tough division," Ayala said. "I'm always going to be there if they ask. I'm one of the more experienced guys. I'm no master, but sometimes guys will ask about how you pitch to a certain guy. Baseball is about the little things."
O'Day, who was claimed off waivers from the Texas Rangers in November, was limited to 16 games last year with hip and shoulder injuries. He earned one of the final spots in the bullpen Wednesday after a spring in which he overcame a groin injury to allow just one earned run in six spring innings (a 1.50 ERA). His sidearm delivery has been tough on both righties and lefties over the course of his career, and he allowed just one hit in three innings against lefties this spring.
The Orioles also kept two pitchers without options — right-hander Pedro Strop and left-hander Troy Patton. Strop, acquired as part of the trade that sent Michael Gonzalez to Texas late last year, was 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA last September in Baltimore, working mainly the eighth inning. He might be the most intriguing of the bunch because the 26-year-old has the mid-90s power arm to pitch late in games.
Patton, a dark horse to make the team out of camp, didn't allow a run in 101/3 spring innings. He's the bullpen's sole lefty, but the fact that he made 12 multiple-inning appearances in 20 big league appearances last year suggests he's better suited to a long-relief role. Left-hander Zach Phillips, the Orioles' final roster cut Wednesday, would be the closest thing to a situational lefty the Orioles had. His 2011 splits, though a small sample size, are remarkably skewed — he held lefties to a .100 average last season, but right-handers hit .364 against him.
"When we were in Seattle, we had a whole year when we didn't have a left-hander in the bullpen," said Adair, previously the pitching coach with the Mariners, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. "Whoever we have, they're going to have to do multiple things, especially if our starters go deep."
So the Orioles' bullpen appears to be a group of pitchers who will be asked to accomplish a multitude of duties depending on the day — at least until roles become more defined.
"What you'd like to be able to say and what you'd like to do is to say their role is to get people out," manager Buck Showalter said. "All outs are important, even in a game where you're way ahead or way behind because of what it allows you to do over the long haul. So in a perfect world, every manager would love to have a bullpen with pitchers that say, 'OK, what does the team need me to do today?'"
Breaking down the bullpen