For the Orioles, the 'pen needs to be good again. The O's bullpen was decent in 2013, but it was outstanding in 2012.
During that 93-win season, Jim Johnson recorded 51 saves and went 20-for-21 in save chances against the AL East with an ERA of 0.80. The bullpen's strong performance was a big factor in a remarkable 29-9 record in one-run games that helped propel the Orioles back to the playoffs.
He hasn't been officially given the job yet, but Tommy Hunter is expected to begin the season as the O's new closer. Hunter has four career big league saves, all coming last season.
He was very solid out of the 'pen last year, pitching to an ERA of 2.81 but he will need to improve those stats against left-handed batters. Lefties hit .294 with a .535 slugging percentage and .857 OPS off Hunter with 11 homers in 170 at-bats in 2013. By comparison those numbers for lefties against Johnson were .279/.400/.740 with three homers in 140 at-bats.
I have no doubt that Hunter has both the stuff and makeup to be a good closer. If he blows a game one day, I don't see that impacting him at all the next time he's out there. He wants the ball and he's going to get it.
But it would surprise me to see Buck Showalter show the same loyalty to Hunter this year in that role he showed to Johnson when he struggled last summer. If the O's have to turn to a second closer, they have some interesting potential candidates. That list could include Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman and Suk-min Yoon to name just three. If he makes the team, Alfredo Aceves has experience in the role and saved 25 games for Boston in 2012.
If the Orioles kept eight relievers come opening day - and that number could be seven - here is one potential makeup of the 'pen.
Right-handers Hunter, Darren O'Day, Ryan Webb, Josh Stinson and Aceves. Lefties Brian Matusz, Kelvin De La Cruz and Zach Britton.
This setup gives the edge to players that are out of options like De La Cruz, Stinson and Britton. It sends to the minors some strong bullpen candidates that can be optioned like Steve Johnson, Brad Brach and T.J. McFarland. Brock Huntziner and Evan Meek, who are on minor league deals, could start the year in the minors.
This scenario is just one guess and Britton could still find his way into the rotation. So could Matusz for that matter. But if McFarland begins in the minors and with Troy Patton suspended, both Matusz and Britton could begin the season coming in from the bullpen. Yoon could potentially begin the year pitching at Triple-A and right-hander Edgmer Escalona is a possible DL candidate due to right shoulder inflammation.
With the pitching staff right now, there are a lot of moving parts, as Showalter might say. The potential addition of Ervin Santana could bump another starter, like Norris, to the 'pen. It could trigger a trade or two as the O's look to move, rather than lose, a player that can't be sent to the minors.
How do you see the bullpen coming together at this point?
Minors matters: Two O's minor leaguers that were among the 2013 draft class are going to miss the start of the 2014 season.
Right-handed pitcher Jacob Bray, selected in Round 12 last summer out of Feather River (Calif.) College, has a ligament sprain in his elbow. O's doctors will decide soon what his next step will be. Last season in the Gulf Coast League, Bray went 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA over 12 innings with no walks and 13 strikeouts. He pitched in the low-90s in college, touching the mid-90s.
Infielder Jared Breen, a 24th-round pick last June out of Belmont University, is set to undergo hernia surgery today. The recovery time is expected to be six weeks for Breen. In 63 games last year at short-season Single-A Aberdeen, Breen hit .223 with no homers and 13 RBIs. He was a candidate to open the year at shortstop at Single-A Delmarva.
The O's minor league teams begin playing exhibition games in Florida on Wednesday. The O's Double-A and Triple-A squads will play in Port Charlotte against Tampa Bay at 1 p.m. and the O's Single-A squads will host Tampa Bay at 1 p.m. at the club's Twin Lakes facility in Sarasota.