Through the first month of the season, Tommy Hunter looked to be the right man in the closer's role for the Orioles. Registering eight saves in nine opportunities and posting a 2.53 ERA, the 27-year-old had seemingly taken his new role in stride after replacing former all-star Jim Johnson, who was traded to the Oakland Athletics in the offseason.
Although he was converting saves at a league-leading pace, like Johnson before him, Hunter has given the Oriole faithful their fair share of near heart attacks, and the season is merely a quarter of the way though. Simply watching the right-hander allow leadoff runner after leadoff runner to reach base was enough for me to question manager Buck Showalter's use of Hunter.
Personally, Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers, where Hunter blew his third save of the season and his second in as many appearances, was the last straw. This came on the heels of a blown save on Saturday night against the Astros, although the Orioles would go on to win the game in extra innings. The warning signs have been there all season, and with Miguel Cabrera's three-run shot and Victor Martinez's solo jack shortly thereafter, Hunter's ERA has ballooned to an abysmal 6.60.
After the loss, Showalter was noncommittal on Hunter’s role moving forward, noting that the team needs to take a step back and evaluate the closer situation, despite the fact that Hunter is tied for the American League lead in saves with 11.
If the Orioles are to move in a new direction, they’ll have to look internally for the answer, as options are limited on the free agency market. As long as the Orioles stay in contention, they may be willing to unload a few pieces for a proven closer at the trade deadline, but Showalter must decide whether he should stick with Hunter or move on for the time being. If he chooses the latter, here's a look at Hunter's possible replacements:
When questioned, Showalter agreed that the former starter turned reliever has the arsenal to be the Orioles’ closer. Among the major league lead in many statistical categories, including his 0.84 ERA, the left-hander has converted seven holds in in 16 appearances. Many would argue that Britton's success in the bullpen might make him a viable option start a game if needed, and designating him as the closer would take away that option.
Another solid candidate for the closer’s role, there are few relief pitchers in baseball playing better than O’Day is currently. In 16 games this season, the submarine pitcher has a microscopic 0.60 ERA. Outside of a game at Boston last month, one in which he was tagged for three hits and one run in one-third of an inning, O’Day has not allowed an earned run to cross the plate. Over the past week, O’Day has been credited with a win and a save against the Rays, as well as holds against the Astros and Tigers. One downside to the right-hander is that he often struggles with lefties, and is more suited for a situational setup role.
Like Hunter and Britton, Matusz is another former starter turned reliever in Showalter’s arsenal. Matusz pitched an inning of relief in Wednesday’s series finale loss to the Tigers, striking out one batter in the ninth to keep the Orioles within striking distance. As O’Day is to left-handed batters, Matusz is to righties, and should be used as so. The left-hander’s 3.46 ERA is good for fifth on the team, behind three others on this list, but like Britton, many wonder if he’d be better off in the starting rotation as opposed late inning relief.
In six seasons with the Padres, Marlins, and Orioles, Webb has not been called upon to convert a single save. This inexperience alone will likely deter Showalter from anointing Webb his closer, although the right-hander’s sinker would provide a different look from Hunter’s reliance on the fastball. While his numbers aren’t as impressive as Britton’s or O’Day’s, sporting a 3.94 ERA in 17 appearances in an Orioles uniform.
Acquired from Cleveland earlier this season for a fellow minor leaguer, the 26-year-old recorded 90 saves in 196 games in the Indians’ organization. Last season, Guilmet was third in the International League with 20 saves and a 1.68 ERA for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Promoted from Norfolk on Monday, Guilmet retired all five Tigers he faced, striking out three of them, before being sent back to the Tides when the Orioles called up top prospect Kevin Gausman to pitch Wednesday’s game.
Although Showalter has never been a fan of a closer-by-committee strategy, he admits that he's considering it. In the short term, I believe that allowing the hot hand to pitch the ninth inning is the best move for the franchise. Not only would this allow a situational advantage, like using O'Day when the due up is nothing but right-handed batters, but could enable the closer situation to work itself out, as one of the relief pitchers may grab the opportunity by the horns.
Each candidate has potential, whether they provide an array of pitches or are dominant against batters from a certain side of the plate, as well as their share of flaws, but only two stick out as truly viable options if Showalter is dead set on a designated closer. In my opinion, both Britton and O'Day have excelled in relief this season and should be given the opportunity to lock down the closing role.