Are the Orioles still planning to sign or trade for a closer? Or will they be going with Kevin Gregg again?
-- Bill P., Arlington, Va.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has made it clear he will upgrade wherever he can without sacrificing the team's long-term success, and that certainly includes the ninth-inning role. But with the immediate focus on accumulating starting pitching -- a huge hole considering the O's rotation ranked last in the Majors in several categories in 2011 -- the most likely scenario is leaving manager Buck Showalter to decide how to use Gregg and setup man Jim Johnson.
Johnson, who could be moved to the rotation if the Orioles don't feel they have enough starting depth, assumed a bulk of the closing duties down the stretch and could be an easy -- and much cheaper -- solution than an addition through free agency.
Keep in mind, recent history of Baltimore's signing late-inning arms hasn't worked well. Gregg had a disappointing season in 2011 -- the first of a two-year deal with a club option for '13 -- and Michael Gonzalez, who was signed before Gregg to be the team's closer, never lived up to the two-year, $12 million deal he signed before the 2010 season.
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There were three closer-types still on the free-agent market as of Tuesday: Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero and David Aardsma.
Of that trio, Madson is considered the prize, and many believe this winter's sluggish relief market will immediately pick up in a domino effect once he lands with a team. I wouldn't bet on that team being the Orioles, although the club has rumored interest, along with several other clubs with uncertain closer situations. A client of agent Scott Boras, who is reportedly expecting a multiyear deal, Madson was originally looking to get in the ballpark of $44 million, the reported sum he nearly landed in Philadelphia before the Phillies scooped up Jonathan Papelbon instead.
Cordero is coming off an average salary of $12 million and is expected to take a large pay cut as a result of a declining strikeout rate and a drop in fastball velocity. If he's willing to take a one-year deal to reestablish himself, the Orioles could use Cordero to help keep Gregg and Johnson in setup roles, although it's difficult to attract pitchers to a hitter-friendly park like Camden Yards.
As for the possibility of a trade to land a closer, the primary teams who were believed to be willing to part with that have already done so, with Sergio Santos and Huston Street both finding new homes for next season. Don't get me wrong, the O's still need to upgrade their bullpen. But if they can add a few capable starters and have Showalter manage Johnson and Gregg like he did in the season's final month, it would be a far better solution than using those resources on acquiring another closer.
Alfredo Simon, at times, looked like the Orioles' best starting pitcher last season. Is he going to get any real consideration for a spot in the rotation or is a return to the bullpen more likely?
-- Brian H., Frederick, Md.
Like several other players, Simon's standing in the organization depends largely on whom the Orioles acquire. If 2011 showed anything, it's that the Baltimore can't survive a season with its current starting pitchers -- which forced the bullpen to throw a Major League high in innings -- and Duquette's trade for Dana Eveland and the signing of Tsuyoshi Wada out of Japan should at least help add some depth. While the team is still optimistic young arms Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen can rebound from disappointing seasons, ideally the O's would like to add starters and foster some competition.
Where does that leave Simon? Right now, it's hard to say. While the 30-year-old right-hander isn't young, his arm is, with Simon logging less than 200 career Major League innings. In a perfect world, I think the Orioles would like to have him as insurance as a starter at Triple-A, but if the team can't upgrade the bullpen as much as it would like, Simon could make for a useful middle reliever.
Since first-round Draft pick Dylan Bundy was signed to a Major League contract, will he be on the 25-man roster on Opening Day for the Orioles?
-- Tiamieu S., Laurel, Md.
No, because Bundy signed a Major League deal, he went directly onto the 40-man roster and will be at the Orioles' big league Spring Training in February. The difference between Bundy, who signed a deal worth $6.225 million and, say, top prospect Manny Machado -- who got a large bonus in 2010 but not a Major League deal -- is that when the Orioles send Bundy to the Minors before the 2012 season, he'll use the first of his three or four options. Once those options are up, the O's will have to pass him through waivers to send him to the Minor Leagues again.
So essentially a Major League deal could accelerate a player's timetable to reach the big leagues and eventually force the Orioles' hand sooner than it would have otherwise. Selected fourth overall in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Bundy is seen as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, and the young right-hander will likely move through the system at a faster pace than your typical high school arm.
Known for his intense training and weightlifting programs, Bundy has a fastball in the mid-to-high-90s, and he reportedly hit 100 mph last spring. He also throws a cut fastball, a curve and a changeup.
The Orioles announced on Tuesday that they'll continue to offer fans free tickets to a "non-prime" game in their birthday month. Fans born in January, February or March can receive a ticket to an April game. Those with birthdays from October-December can get a ticket to a September game. Fans can register at www.orioles.com.