Gregg keeps even keel despite uncertain role
Veteran closer remains confident as ever in ability to be effective
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Kevin Gregg spent seven years in the Minor Leagues, most of which came in an Oakland organization that had long ago deemed the right-hander, a former 15th-round Draft pick, as nothing more than an organizational filler.
An intimidating presence at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, there are a lot of numbers about Gregg -- who has 29 or more saves in three of the last four seasons -- that impress. But the only figure that you really need to know in regards to the Orioles' newest closer candidate is 954. That's the number of innings it took Gregg to finally get redemption.
"That will tell you what kind of a survivor he is, and what kind of attitude he has in this game," said Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young, who was Gregg's pitching coach in rookie ball and at every stop but one during his time in the A's system. "You log that many innings in the Minor Leagues and you learn a lot of things about yourself."
The 32-year-old Gregg, successful in 82 percent (121 of 147) of his Major League save chances, learned just how resilient he could be. After toiling in Class A for parts of several seasons, he repeated Double-A in 2000 and '01. The A's wouldn't release him, but they made it clear that they had no intention of bringing him up to wear the green and gold. There were times that Gregg -- who stood out to Young as much for his talent as for his exuberance for mundane early-morning workouts -- considered calling it quits. But it was Young's constant support -- that ever-present preaching that Gregg belonged in the big leagues -- that kept the prospect believing.
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"He kept pushing himself," Young said of Gregg, whom he describes as a guy who simply loves to pitch. "I truly thought that he always thought he should be moving up one level from where he was at. That kind of confidence will take you a long way."
In 2003, it took him to Anaheim, where Gregg -- finally granted free agency the previous winter -- signed with the Angels and started the season at Double-A. Eager to make good on his fresh start, Gregg asked one of Arkansas' coaches for an honest assessment.
"Just trying to pick his brain and learn," Gregg recalled. "And he was like, 'Honestly, I really don't see you as a big league pitcher. I see you maybe as a spot starter or in a long-relief appearance, but I don't see you as an established big league pitcher with your stuff.'"
Gregg brushed it off and made his debut several months later with Anaheim, where he served mostly as a middle reliever for three seasons before being traded to the Florida Marlins. Still considered an option in the rotation, the Marlins told Gregg that he had a guaranteed spot on the team, but they had a lot of young starters coming up through their system. Plus, the bullpen was a free-for-all, and he could win any role.
Sure enough, by the end of May -- after Florida had exhausted several options -- the Marlins started handing the final three outs of the game over to Gregg. By season's end, the once-unheralded reliever had converted 32 of 36 saves, good enough to finish eighth in the National League.
"I'm not a big, hyped guy," said Gregg, who saved 37 games for Toronto last season. "You aren't going to see me on 'SportsCenter' with fist pumps or big antics that I think is a bunch of eyewash. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to do my job and I'm going to walk off the field.
I know that I'm pretty good at my job, and I guess that's all that matters."
The same confidence that helped Gregg survive a hardened journey in the Minors has equated into a fearless ninth-inning presence, a trait that didn't go unnoticed in the Orioles' search for a closer-type this winter.
"Kevin's pretty comfortable in his skin, and he knows what makes him successful and what gets him into a bind," O's manager Buck Showalter said of Gregg, who won and later lost the Cubs' closer job during the '09 season.
"There weren't many guys floating around there [this offseason] that saved 37 games in the American League East. He's had experience pitching meaningful innings in close ballgames for a long period of time. He's a survivor."
Even now, with 406 career appearances under his belt, Gregg is still pushing himself. He signed a two-year deal with the Orioles (including a vesting option for 2013) knowing that he will have to compete for the closer's role with Koji Uehara. While other pitchers can't get out of the AL East fast enough, Gregg isn't fazed by the lethal lineups in New York and Boston.
"If I make my pitches I get everybody out," said Gregg, whose refusal to give in to the strike zone makes his control a double-edged sword. "That's kind of the way I approach it. And what division I'm in, I really don't care."
An unusual closer with no rituals or special game-day routine, Gregg can be found most afternoons in the weight room, where he lifts several hours before he might be taking the mound. Considered taboo by most relievers, Gregg's reasoning is two-fold: he would prefer to be sore and fatigued from his workouts and not game situations, and he is constantly trying to build and maintain strength.
"That way, I know if I pitch four days in a row, it's not what's tiring me out," said Gregg, who has never been on the Major League disabled list. "It's kind of a weird concept, but I'm one of the few who do that."
Always vigilant in regards to conditioning, Young still remembers Gregg's giddiness over the 10 a.m. workouts at Double-A Midland.
"Most guys are complainers about getting out of bed and not wanting to go," Young said. "He had the attitude that he was excited to go workout. I always saw Kevin as one of the hardest-working pitchers on the team, and those are the guys that succeed."
And while Gregg is quick to point out that he's not an overly vocal guy, the right-hander's unflappable demeanor on the mound speaks volumes to his teammates.
"[The last three outs] mean more, but you can't try to do more because it's that late in the game," said Jeremy Accardo, Gregg's teammate in Toronto last season who also signed with Baltimore this winter.
"You almost have to do less, and he's a great example of that. He just goes out there and pitches. He doesn't show any emotion. He just gets the job done."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.