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BALTIMORE -- Perhaps no unit of the Orioles' team reflects the changing times better than the bullpen, where the club has undergone a change of heart as much of a change in personnel.
Last year at this time, Baltimore was touting the efficiency of the free-agent market and money well spent, but a $40 million investment in four relievers couldn't save the team from the highest relief ERA in franchise history. Now, the Orioles are hoping to build an improved bullpen around frugality and a host of young arms with something to prove.
Part of the new strategy is due to injury, which claimed two power arms from Baltimore's late-inning arsenal. Both Chris Ray and Danys Baez needed elbow surgery and are expected to miss most or all of the season, which leaves veterans Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker as the only substantial investments left in the Baltimore bullpen.
Bradford and Walker, who were two of the prize additions last year, are expected to return to situational chores in 2008. That leaves manager Dave Trembley without an experienced closer, a fact that he lamented recently. Trembley is determined not to stretch the situational pair from their intended roles, which means he has to fashion a closer from scratch.
"I'd still like to get a guy who's closed and has some experience as a closer. If that doesn't happen, we'll make do with what we have," he said recently. "Somebody's going to emerge. When you carry a 12-man pitching staff, you have five starters, three relievers for late in the game and four guys that can pitch in different situations."
Those roles will mostly be settled by a vigorous sorting job in Spring Training, and the Orioles may have as many as four relief slots open for competition. Bradford and Walker are virtually the only sure things in the bullpen, which may also carry lightly tested arms like Dennis Sarfate, Rule 5 Draft pick Randor Bierd and Minor League closer Bob McCrory.
Sarfate, who came over from Houston in the Miguel Tejada trade, is considered by many to be the favorite to log innings as Baltimore's closer. The right-hander struck out 26 batters in 15 big league games last season, his first as a full-time reliever. Sarfate also logged 23 saves for Triple-A Nashville before a late-season waiver claim landed him in Houston.
The most experienced competition could come from Greg Aquino, who came to the Orioles this offseason as a waiver claim. The right-hander saved 16 games as a rookie for Arizona in 2004, but has never repeated his success. Aquino has the experience Trembley seeks, but he may not have the pure stuff to retire American League hitters on a nightly basis.
The stuff complaint doesn't apply to McCrory or fellow homegrown closer Jim Hoey, who has gotten two brief chances to stick in Baltimore's bullpen in the last two seasons. Both McCrory and Hoey have posted big Minor League numbers and would give Trembley a pair of hard-throwing and lightly tested options to use in the late innings next season.
McCrory may be a little further away, but he recorded 14 saves at Class A Frederick and 13 for Double-A Bowie before an impressive stint in the Arizona Fall League. Hoey saved 14 games for Bowie and logged a 1.33 ERA in 27 innings at Triple-A Norfolk before coming to the big leagues and getting hit hard down the stretch for the second straight year.
Baltimore is reportedly close to landing Seattle reliever George Sherrill in the long-rumored Erik Bedard trade, and Sherrill would help frame the rest of the bullpen with his experience. Trembley may also consider veteran reliever Lance Cormier -- who signed a Minor League deal after starting with the Braves last season -- for a similar role.
"I think he's a guy that is a multiple innings type guy," Trembley said of Cormier, a non-roster invite to Spring Training. "He can throw back-to-back days out of the bullpen. He could be basically a guy that starts if there's a rain delay or as a spot starter. I've talked to him, and he's of the understanding that he's coming to camp to earn a job out of the bullpen."
The stakes are a little higher for Bierd, who must stick in the bullpen or be offered back to Detroit. The 23-year-old notched a 3-2 record and a 3.35 ERA for Double-A Erie last season in his first experience against upper-level batters. Bierd struck out more batters (52) than he allowed baserunners (41) last year, attracting several teams in the process.
The Orioles will also look at Brian Burres and Matt Albers for a long relief role, and both of them have their own selling points. Albers has a higher ceiling and a stronger arm, but Burres has the luxury of knowing his manager. Trembley used Burres as a starter and long man last season and recently ticked off the southpaw's wide variety of marketable skills.
"He's kind of the forgotten man," he said. "Is he the fifth starter or is he a long guy? Is he a one-inning guy? He can do a lot of things, and I've got a good idea of what Burres can do. ... It probably would be easier for him if his role was a whole lot more defined, but he is a swing guy. That's what he is, but there's a place on the club for guys like that."
The Orioles will also evalute Fernando Cabrera and Rocky Cherry in a Spring camp that could go several ways. Trembley won't show his cards just yet, but he has several options and few big contracts coloring his vision. Baltimore's bullpen will be flexible next season, even if it doesn't have the kind of surefire answers the Orioles would like to see.
Another Blown Save wrote:Am I the only person who thinks Sherrill is overrated?
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