Revamped 'pen to be strength for O's
Closer Ray, offseason acquisitions form solid relief corps
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If nothing else, the Orioles achieved an impressive clubhouse coup by spending more than $40 million on their bullpen this offseason. In nearly every corner of the room, Baltimore's returning core has applauded both the idea to seek relief help and the flawless execution it took to rebuild without a hitch.
The Orioles have just two relievers -- Chris Ray and Todd Williams -- who are solid bets to start the season in the same capacity as last year. Veterans Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford, Danys Baez and Scott Williamson were brought in to support the holdovers and collectively change the culture in the bullpen from within.
"We filled our biggest hole, for sure, which was our bullpen," said Baltimore starter Adam Loewen. "We still have some young guys that can do some things there, but it was kind of a revolving door out there last year. Nobody was comfortable out there.
"This year, we have some stability at the back end of our bullpen, which is huge for closing out games. And once we get leads, just holding it there."
Baltimore's bullpen struggles from last season have been well documented, which led to making the refurbishment a high offseason priority. The Orioles had the second-worst relief ERA (5.27) in baseball, and their bullpen allowed more home runs (86) and a higher slugging percentage (.478) than any other relief staff.
None of the incoming relievers are devastating in their own right, but if used correctly, they could be a formidable unit. Walker is one of the best southpaw specialists in the game, and Bradford is a fitting bookend against right-handers. Baez, a former closer, is a late-inning setup man who should save Ray some strain on his arm.
If he's healthy, Williamson is a low-risk and potentially high-reward option in the middle innings. For the first time in a while, Baltimore has bullpen depth and palatable choices on how to attack any given lineup.
"That's the main thing any team needs: A good pitching staff, and especially relievers," said Baltimore catcher Ramon Hernandez. "Relievers hold on to the lead when the game is late and they give you a chance to win.
"Those guys have a lot of experience, they've been through competition and they've been on winning teams. They know what it takes to win a ballgame."
Ray, who had to pitch through several multi-inning outings last season, is likely the biggest beneficiary of the bullpen realignment. The right-hander saved 33 games in 38 opportunities, but he may have been even better if he was sheltered. This year, Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo plans on using him in less adverse circumstances.
"Chris was outstanding last year," Perlozzo said. "What I hope to see out of this [is] we can keep him out of mulit-inning saves [and] give him a break a little bit. If our starters pitch well and our bullpen comes to fruition, then he's going to get some more saves because we're going to be in [better] position to get that done."
"I'm definitely excited to get the season under way," added Ray, who was the only Baltimore reliever with more than 10 innings and an ERA under 4.00. "Those guys have been established for a while, and they're good pitchers. If everybody pitches the way they can, we're going to have a bullpen that a lot of teams won't want to go through."
Last year, by contrast, too many relief innings were filled by rookies like Sendy Rleal and Chris Britton, or overmatched starters like Bruce Chen and Russ Ortiz. This year, all of those arms have been cleared out or moved into less visible roles. That's a relief to some, but Hernandez and Ray said the O's actually learned through their struggles.
"It was a kind of a rough year for the whole team," said Ray. "Everyone had ups and downs, including myself. We'd have a lead and then we'd lose it. ... This year, for the whole staff, we just need more consistency."
"I think you learn from the tough seasons," Hernandez said. "With the good seasons, you don't learn much because everything goes right. When you have a tough season, you see who's out there pitching their heart out, no matter the result. You see who's a guy that likes to compete no matter what the score is.
"Last year, we lost a lot of games, but it taught us what we have to do extra to create wins."
The formula is pretty simple, when you think about it. Baltimore pitching coach Leo Mazzone likes to preach the importance of his starting pitchers making it deep into games. In turn, that lessens the strain on the bullpen. And the more you restrict your relievers' workload on any given night, the more likely they can pitch the next day.
That's how the plan looks on paper, but in reality, it's significantly harder to make it come to fruition.
"I think we have the ability to have a really excellent pitching staff if everybody stays healthy," Mazzone said Thursday. "I think we can get in there, mix it up and make a run at this thing."
"I'm looking forward to it," said Bradford. "I was just talking to Baez and we just looked at each other. It was kind of like, 'This is going to be good.' I think everybody is pretty excited about it."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.