Hunter gets opportunity to take over closer role
As expected, Orioles promote in-house after Rodney signs with Seattle
BALTIMORE -- With Thursday night's news that Fernando Rodney had agreed to a two-year, $14 million deal with the Mariners, the expected -- that the Orioles would look internally to fill their closer role -- became a foregone conclusion.
While Baltimore had some interest in Rodney, who was the top remaining available closer, the club's priority is on upgrading the rotation, and manager Buck Showalter will likely call on right-hander Tommy Hunter for the ninth inning this season. It would be a surprise if Showalter publicly announced Hunter as his closer this spring, preferring to foster competition and keep his options open, but he's the most logical candidate to replace Jim Johnson.
"It's not my decision, it's not up to me," Hunter said of being the closer at last weekend's FanFest. "I'd like my hat to be thrown into the mix. If I get a chance, I'll try to live up to it and take it and run. It's something I'd like to do.
"Jim was the guy at the end of the game that everyone looked to. Someone has to fill the void. Somebody is going to do it. Somebody is going to step up. It's going to be one of us here."
Hunter has four career saves, all of which came last season, and has a power arm that has been clocked in the triple digits. The 27-year-old, who got married this winter, has a career 2.99 ERA as a reliever, with a 2.31 ERA in 62 appearances (50 2/3 innings) in the eighth inning and a 3.47 mark in 29 appearances (23 1/3 innings) in the ninth.
"I'm extremely confident in Tommy," said O's first baseman Chris Davis, who came up through the Rangers' Minor League system with Hunter. "I was excited to hear he was going to be given the opportunity. I think in the last couple years, Tommy has really grown up a lot. It's a responsibility he's ready for. I just want him to go out there and be himself. He was really dominant at certain points last year and definitely has the stuff to be a closer. I've got all the confidence in the world in my buddy."
"I was with him in Texas when he was just a starter, and I was there for his first Minor League outing, when he was throwing 99 [mph] and everyone was like, 'Where did that come from?'" said fellow reliever Darren O'Day, who could be another late-game option. "Tommy was just a thrower back then. And from his time being in the bullpen, I think he's learned how to pitch. You could see it throughout the last year: He was pitching in high-leverage situations, he was more consistent, he wasn't walking guys, he was striking guys out.
"Tommy has figured out how to attack the zone and strike guys out when he needs to, which is what a good closer needs to be able to do."
Still, replacing Johnson would be a tall task for anyone. A popular player in the clubhouse and with Baltimore's fanbase, Johnson posted consecutive 50-save seasons and made the American League All-Star team in 2012. A ground-ball pitcher, Johnson thrived on weak contact and double plays. Hunter relies on strikeouts and is more susceptible to fly balls, which he will have to be especially careful with in homer-happy Camden Yards.
"I have all the confidence, in terms of Tommy's mentality. I don't think you can have a better attitude for a closer," O'Day said. "Tommy has got all the tools to be an exceptional closer. I think he can still learn and still get better, but I think he's a pretty good candidate."
And if Showalter decides to trot out O'Day, who has some closing experience as well, for the final three outs?
"I just pitch when they tell me to pitch," O'Day said. "If they want me to do that, I'll do that."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.