Albers to assume bullpen role in '09
Reliever set after bouncing between rotation and 'pen last year
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If nothing else, Matt Albers has closure. The Orioles have finally decided on a role that maximizes both his talent and the need to protect his right shoulder throughout the long grind of the regular season. Albers will pitch out of the bullpen this year, leaving behind his starting aspirations.
"That's what he had success in last year," said Baltimore manager Dave Trembley. "He was probably our most valuable guy and we didn't realize that until after we lost him. I just think he is the guy that is the bridge to [Jim] Johnson, [Chris] Ray and [George] Sherrill. I think he's the perfect guy for that."
And with Albers' new assignment, the bullpen appears to be nearly complete. The Orioles are also expected to carry Dennis Sarfate in addition to the aforementioned trio, and veteran southpaws Mark Hendrickson and Jamie Walker are both owed guaranteed contracts that could have the effect of guaranteeing jobs.
With Albers, though, virtually nothing performance-related is certain. The right-hander spent all of the second half of 2008 on the disabled list with a partial tear of the labrum in his right shoulder, and after opting for a strengthening program instead of surgery, Albers knows that he has to treat the joint as carefully as possible.
"My goal here in Spring Training was to be healthy and to show that I can pitch," Albers said Wednesday. "I came in ready to be a starter and prepared myself to be one, but I don't know that I would've prepared any differently as a bullpen guy. The way they explained it to me is coming off this injury and after having watched me throw, 175-180 innings could be tough. I just want to go ahead and hopefully not throw too much, and if I throw a couple innings in middle relief, I can get a couple days off. It's plenty of time to get loose, so I'm on board with it."
Albers pitched in Wednesday's 4-3 loss to the Twins, allowing two runs on three hits in an inning of work.
Albers, who was acquired from Houston in last winter's Miguel Tejada trade, proved to be one of Baltimore's most reliable relievers before the All-Star break. The 26-year-old worked longer than an inning in 12 of his 25 relief outings and even started three games before coming down with the injury in late June.
From there, Albers struggled with the decision to have his shoulder strengthened or surgically repaired. His physicians recommended trying to avoid an operation at all costs, and Albers came to Spring Training not knowing how he'd feel. Now, a month after arriving, he feels more comfortable about his prognosis.
"I think I'll be fine as long as we can keep it under control and I can be honest," he said. "Last year, it was one of those things where you try to pitch it through it. You need to be honest if you need a few more days. Whatever it is, I need to be honest about it, and they don't want to run me out there without my best stuff.
"I think I'll be OK, but I may not pitch as much as last year, when I was going a few innings every other day. I'm trying to look at the long view and make it through the whole season. That's my goal."
From his end, Trembley said there's a variety of ways to make sure he doesn't expose Albers to too much risk. The first is by carrying a deeper bullpen, and the rest boils down to pure common sense.
"If you get him up, he gets in the game. You limit his pitches and early in the season you don't pitch back-to-back," he said. "I've had this discussion with Matt earlier, and I think the thing he's concerned about is if he starts in the bullpen, he doesn't want to become a starter. He doesn't want to get ping-pong balled back and forth.
"I told him the decision that we would make would be based on putting him in a spot. And unless something God forsaken happens, he would be in that slot. I wouldn't move him back and forth."
However, there's still one nagging concern. Albers said one of the major symptoms of last year's shoulder discomfort was having to warm up longer than usual, and he also said that manifested itself again early in camp. He's been making progress his last few times out, though, and doesn't think it will present a problem.
"Actually, we've been doing better," he said. "The last couple times, we've been getting it going a little quicker. And now that I know I'm definitely going to be a reliever, we'll definitely work on that. It's definitely improved since my first game outing, when it took me a little longer than usual. The last couple have been better."
And if Albers was concerned about his decision, he has an object lesson in camp to compare and contrast. Southpaw Troy Patton had a similar but slightly more severe injury last spring and opted to get corrective surgery, a procedure that held him out for all of last season and still has the Orioles treating him carefully.
Baltimore has thrown Patton every seventh day this spring instead of every five, a pattern that the Orioles have afforded to several other pitchers with injuries that forced them to miss big parts of last season.
"I don't think he's in the program like everybody else," said Trembley. "I don't think you can expect he's going to be able to do the workload. You're trying to build arm-strength, you're trying to keep the guy healthy, you're trying to bring the guy back. You know he's got to go pitch somewhere this year ... and get a lot of innings."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.