It feels odd to be writing an Orioles column, but at this point I feel like the designated beat writer for this team while the drums beat louder and louder for the start of the Ravens’ much-anticipated season. Even as they clinched their 13th consecutive losing season last night, the Orioles still have news that might help them keep the first winning record in August since these disastrous second-half swoons started over a decade ago. Just a week after reliable reliever Jason Berken went on the DL, Baltimore could be getting back another reliever in the next few days in former set-up man Jim Johnson.
Johnson, if you recall, struggled mightily out of the gate this season not only as a set-up man but even moreso when Mike Gonzalez’ ineffectiveness and injury took him out of the closer’s role. One of the principal reasons that Gonzalez was signed of course was to give the Orioles a true closer after trying out Johnson for a stretch last season. Normally I don’t put much stock in roles for relievers- it is a relatively new concept in baseball terms and has pitchers shoved into middle relief, set-up, and closing when the game situation might call for the hot hand rather than the right matchup or the right role. In my mind managers should go with the best pitcher at the time and not be married to terms like specialist, set-up man, or closer. However, in Johnson’s case, it seemed to make a tremendous difference.
Johnson was the model of consistency in 2008 and most of 2009 while working in tandem with George Sherrill, but Sherrill’s trade left Johnson with a bit more than he could handle. After being put into the closer role late last season, Johnson turned in a terrifying 12.27 ERA in September after turning in another remarkable season to that point, en route to a 4.11 ERA and 1.37 WHIP for the season. These were both huge jumps from his 2.23 and 1.19 marks in those same categories in 2008, and contributed in no small part to him being just 10/16 in save opportunities last season, and giving the Orioles few reasons to have confidence in Johnson as a possible closer. But his value as a reliever in general was never questioned, and was included as part of the foundation for the improved Orioles bullpen entering this season. But like his replacement at closer, Johnson appeared to be struggling with his delivery from the moment the season began, and after just 9.2 troubling innings and three blown saves in 4 opportunities, he wound up on the DL himself.
By the way, looking at all these blown saves from April just makes me wonder, what if the Orioles had had a decent closer to start the season? Or at least one healthy one? It still wouldn’t have been pretty, but it sure as hell wouldn’t been leading to speculation as to whether the team would be worse than the ’62 Mets.
Where was I? So Johnson seems set to return as early as Friday, with Jason Berken transferred to the 60-day DL to make room (and in the process, formally end any chance of Berken pitching again this season). It is easy to forget players on this Orioles team, with prospects being shuffled up and down and countless pitchers landing on the DL for months at a time, but Jim Johnson has a strong future given his youth and proven success back in 2008 and the first half of 2009. I don’t look at this as a Chris Ray situation, as Johnson is still trying to avoid having Tommy John surgery as he rehabs his elbow, though if he struggles and needs surgery fans could be looking at Johnson being out all of 2011 as well. At that point, the Orioles will have to make some contingency plans.
In the meantime, Baltimore will have one more experienced arm in the bullpen, hoping to build off of his previous success. On a team filled with prospects and hopes, it might be good to have someone on the roster with some proven track record of success. Regardless, this team will need all the arms it can muster to avoid another September swoon.