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With Jim Johnson Gone, Who Will Step Up To Close In 2014?

March 18, 2014

As Opening Day approaches, the Orioles seem to have most of their essential roster spots accounted for. The five spots in the starting rotation are basically locked down. The nine players in the everyday lineup are pretty much set, or likely will be when third baseman Manny Machado returns. There's not a lot of mystery when it comes to projecting the Orioles' regulars.

But there's one key job that remains a question mark for the Orioles: closer. When the Orioles dealt Jim Johnson, their closer of the past two years, to the Athletics in December, they opened a vacancy in the ninth inning. And it remains to be seen how well Johnson's replacement will be able to fill his shoes.

The presumed front-runner to assume the closing duties is right-hander Tommy Hunter, the Orioles' top setup man in 2013. Thus far this spring, manager Buck Showalter hasn't tipped his hand. He hasn't officially anointed Hunter -- or anyone else -- as his closer.

Orioles 2013: Tommy Hunter

"It's something I'd like to do," Hunter said. "It's not my decision. It's definitely not up to me. So I'd like my hat to be thrown into the mix."

If Hunter gets the nod for the closer's job for the first time during his career, he would bring a solid repertoire to the table. Hunter has flourished since moving to the bullpen in 2012; airing out his fastball during short relief stints has allowed him to occasionally hit 100 mph on the radar gun. In 2013, his first full season as a reliever, he posted a 2.81 ERA during 68 games. His walk rate of 1.5 per nine innings was the lowest of Orioles relievers.

Those numbers figure to be a point in Hunter's favor. But he comes with his share of concerns, as well.

One of the most pressing issues is Hunter's struggles against left-handed hitters. In 2013, while Hunter held right-handers to a .141 average and .344 OPS, lefties had an .857 OPS against him in 177 plate appearances. That statistic doesn't inspire confidence if Hunter is asked to hold a one-run ninth-inning lead against menacing American League East lefties such as David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran or Brian McCann.

Hunter, too, is prone to the home run ball. Hunter allowed 11 home runs in 2013, more than any other O's reliever, and all were hit by lefty swingers. Hunter will need to find a way to minimize the lefty damage in 2014, or he could be in line for a few ugly ninth-inning blowups.

Still, Hunter's recent experience in the bullpen -- and his bulldog mentality -- could allow him to acclimate well to the job.

"Tommy's been a great addition to our bullpen," bullpen teammate Darren O'Day said. "Through his time being in the bullpen, I think he's learned how to pitch. You could see throughout the year last year as he went on, he was in higher leverage situations. He was more consistent. He wasn't walking guys. He was striking guys out. So Tommy's figured out how to attack the zone [and] strike guys out when he needs to, which is what a good closer needs to be able to do.

"And I have all the confidence in terms of Tommy's mentality. I don't think you could have a better attitude for a closer. So Tommy's got all the tools to be an exceptional closer. I think he can still learn; he can still get better, but he's a pretty good candidate."

Hunter's success could hinge on how well he's able to mix his pitches, rather than trying to zip the fastball past everyone.

"Tommy's kind of gone from being a bull in a china shop to having an idea [how] he's trying to use his technique," O'Day said. "[Throwing] 100 miles an hour is a lot of fun, and you can usually just get away just blowing people away, but he's learned how to control it and kind of be a little more tactical with what he has."

Right now, there might be only one pitcher other than Hunter with a strong case for winning the closer's job -- O'Day.

O'Day, too, has been a reliable workhorse reliever for the Orioles during the past two years, posting ERAs of 2.28 and 2.18 during consecutive seasons. O'Day, like Hunter, had severe platoon splits in 2013 -- allowing a .922 OPS to lefties -- but he has worked with former O's submarine pitcher Todd Frohwirth this spring to develop a changeup.

Could O'Day, who has no prior experience as a regular closer in the majors, handle the ninth inning if needed?

Orioles 2012: Darren O'Day
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

"Sure," O'Day said. "Being a closer is not that hard until you fail -- really, until you fail a couple times, and then it's having the fortitude to come back and have confidence in yourself. So I have done it. I did it in college. I did it in the minor leagues. I've done it a few times in the big leagues when guys were down. I can do it. It's getting three outs in the ninth inning, which is not that much different from the eighth inning, until you screw it up. So yes, I can do it."

Hunter, too, stressed the importance of treating the ninth inning the same as any other inning.

"I don't think you have to do anything necessarily above and beyond what you normally do," Hunter said. "I don't think it's something [where] you need to go out and run an extra 10 miles because you're pitching one inning later. I think it's a mindset. I think there's a lot of guys who we've seen are capable of closing out a game."

It's possible that Showalter could throw a curveball and decide not to name any single pitcher as a designated closer, but rather mix and match in the ninth inning depending on matchups. While most managers nowadays shy away from a closer-by-committee approach, it might make sense in certain situations.

"Buck's going to put the best team out there to win," Hunter said. "If he feels there's a better matchup with somebody else going into the ninth ... we really don't have a say-so as a player. At the end of the day, Buck's going to put out who he wants to put out, and you've just got to be ready to go."

Regardless of who gets the bulk of the ninth inning chances, both Hunter and O'Day emphasized that the new closer would have a tough act to follow in Johnson.

"Jim is going to be missed," O'Day said. "He made us a better team, on and off the field. He was a great teammate. And he was a strong presence in the back of the bullpen, and those are big shoes to fill."

Hunter said: "You're getting rid of a guy that had 101 saves the last two years. Whenever you get rid of a guy like Jim, you're getting rid of a guy that pretty much puts everything together out there. He was the guy at the end of the game everybody looked up to, and somebody's going to have to fill the void.

"Somebody's going to do it. Somebody's going to step up, and it's going to be one of us here." 

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