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It’s not a regular occurrence to see a team that is competing for a divisional title and/or wild card spot in the playoffs to trade away a two-time 50-save closer and not have someone ready to step in immediately. But that’s exactly what the Orioles did during the offseason when they traded Jim Johnson to Oakland for underutilized and underperforming second baseman, Jemile Weeks. They made a run at free agent closer Grant Balfour but an apparent concern over the health of his shoulder caused them to back off and opt to fill the ninth-inning vacancy with one of their in-house options. A few names were bandied about and finally, reports had them settling on starter-turned-reliever Tommy Hunter. However, with the recent signing of Ubaldo Jimenez, the Orioles seem to have an abundance of arms available and there are now rumblings that the ninth inning may not belong to Hunter as many of us thought.

After Hunter’s 2013 season, his first in the bullpen, saw him post a 2.81 ERA with a 4.86 K/BB over 86.1 innings, he immediately became part of the closer discussion when the team dealt away Johnson. He saw a significant uptick in his velocity – an average of nearly 4 mph across the board on all four of his pitches – and his command looked excellent. His strikeout rate jumped nearly two full batters per nine innings, he reduced his HR/9 and he posted a career-best 82.4-percent strand rate.

But there were also some potential concerns. Hunter posted a 3.68 FIP, and while you’d normally expect a higher rate from a groundball pitcher, Hunter saw a drop in his ground ball rate to 39-percent, the lowest it’s been in four years. He also showed some troubles with left-handed hitters as 23 of the 27 earned runs he allowed and all 11 of the home runs he gave up came against southpaws. You’d certainly like to see a more even set of splits from your closer, especially when the opposition can simply line up a few left-handed pinch-hitters to get them back in the game.

He still seemed to be the logical choice a few weeks ago, but now with the signing of Jimenez, the Orioles will have a more than just a few extra arms available as they can’t all win a spot in the rotation. Pitchers like Bud Norris, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton and even Kevin Gausman could all find themselves in the mix with a handful of other relievers should the team not be convinced that Hunter is the best man for the job. Buck Showalter is not a manager who likes using the closer-by-committee approach, so you’ll likely see someone win the job eventually this spring. It’s just a matter of who and how long the leash will be.

Norris’ name was one of the first to be mentioned when the team traded Johnson, but he also struggles mightily against lefties at the plate. Matusz dominates against southpaws, but given his splits against right-handed batters, he’s much more likely to work as their lefty set-up man. Britton is out of options and is a strong ground ball pitcher thanks to his sinker, but his command, even after years in the majors, is still spotty, at best. And finally, there’s Gausman who actually seems to be a pretty intriguing option. However, he’s so young and has legitimate ace upside that it would be a shame for the team to abandon any hope for him to crack the starting rotation soon.

The ultimate decision is still a ways away, but so far, it’s still looking like the job will land in Hunter’s lap and how long he holds it could be entirely up to him. Well, him and Buck.


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