Saturday, September 3, 2011

About Kevin Gregg and front office thinking

For some reason, the Orioles failed to learn from Mike Gonzalez's awful first season (and plenty of other failed reliever signings before that) that signing relievers to multi-year deals rarely goes according to plan. Except for the elite, relievers are notoriously fickle, and it's difficult to predict their performances for one year, let alone two or three. So instead of cutting their losses and searching for other cheaper or underappreciated bullpen options, the O's front office decided to bring in Kevin Gregg to assume the closer's role.

Unlike Gonzalez (who received a two-year, $12 million deal in 2010), Gregg was not a Type A free agent (but was a Type B), meaning the O's didn't have to surrender a draft pick to sign him -- something that made the Gonzalez signing even more ridiculous. But the O's did hand Gregg a two-year, $10 million contract, meaning he'll be back next season. And regardless of what Buck Showalter says/said in MASN commercials about how the save rule "doesn't carry much weight with [him]," well, that just hasn't proven to be true.

Before joining the O's, Gregg had never been signed to more than a one-year deal. True, he was arbitration eligible until the 2010 season, but even then the Blue Jays signed him as a free agent to a one-year, $2.75 million deal. If the O's had done something similar with Gregg, I doubt many fans would have complained. Sure, he's not a lights-out reliever, but even a rather ordinary reliever can pitch well for one season. And that's basically what Gregg did last season for the Blue Jays: He finished the season with a pitching line of 3.51/3.57/4.05 (ERA/FIP/xFIP), accumulated a WAR of 0.8, and struck out 8.85 batters per nine while walking 4.58 per nine. Again, those aren't fantastic numbers, but they are useful and didn't cost the Jays a ton of money.

So why did the O's overreact and sign Gregg for two years? Maybe they were impressed by the then-32-year-old's 37 saves in 2010. Or maybe they just liked his goggles. Either way, they brought Gregg on board, and he has been terrible. In 52 innings, he has a pitching line of 4.33/5.03/5.01 while also striking out fewer batters (7.27 K/9) and walking way too many (6.23 BB/9). In his career, Gregg has struck out 8.23 per nine and walked 3.97 per nine, so his numbers are obviously down across the board this season. By the way, Gregg has a WAR of -0.4 this season, which is awful. It's also worth noting that in his 52 innings, Gregg has allowed 50 hits and 36 walks, while also hitting a batter. That's a ton of baserunners.

When the O's had both Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara, it was ridiculous to have Gregg saving games, particularly in situations with, say, a one- or two-run lead. Without Uehara and with the O's apparently wanting to stretch Johnson out so he can start at some point this season or next (more on that in a second), there really aren't that many options for the O's to turn to late in games.

But look at last night's win, for example. Zach Britton pitched six innings and then handed the ball off to Jim Johnson with a 3-2 lead. Johnson pitched two spotless innings, and then it was Gregg-in-for-the-save time. First of all, are the O's going to stretch Johnson out, or not? He pitched three innings against the Angels on August 20, and in five appearances since then he's pitched one inning three times and two innings twice. Haven't they decided what to do yet? Second, again, the O's bullpen does not have a bunch of fantastic relievers in it right now, but how can any team rely on Gregg in a one-run game? He's not pitching like someone who Showalter can just throw out there for an inning, especially with such a slim lead. In the ninth inning last night, Gregg nearly blew another save (which would have been his seventh). He allowed a leadoff single but retired the next two batters. He then proceeded to walk the next two to load the bases. Thankfully, he retired Brandon Guyer to end the game, but not after yet another roller-coaster outing.

If Gregg's performance this season hasn't bothered you enough, maybe this quote after the game will:
"The bottom line is you obviously haven’t acquired my taste in pitching yet,” Gregg said. “It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. And yeah, it’d be nice if I was like [Jim Johnson] and went 1-2-3, every inning I’m out there. But I’m not J.J. I don’t throw 97 [mph] with sink.”
It's easy to get mad at Gregg for saying something like this. He's certainly frustrated with how he's pitched this season, even if you can't quite take that thought away from his quote. But in a way, he's right, and I don't mean that as a positive. Sure, Gregg is having his worst season in the majors, and I don't think many people would have thought he'd be just this bad. But for the most part, this is who he is. He likely wasn't going to join the Orioles and transform into some dominant closer; you can't predict that type of thing by just looking at save totals. So it was foolish for the O's to think they could predict what an average pitcher like Gregg would do for a single season, let alone two.

I know one thing, though: I will never acquire Gregg's taste in pitching. He can try to convince fans that he'd prefer to walk guys in order to end up facing someone who he's more confident he can retire, but, frankly, I'm tired of hearing about how he never gives in to opposing hitters and that he continues to nibble when he's down in the count because he's a gambler out there who refuses to give in. Really, he's just not that good, and the O's are relying on him to do more because they made the mistake of paying him to do so.

The reason why the O's are trotting Gregg out there in save opportunity after save opportunity is because they're looking to justify the money they're paying him. It's the same reason why Vladimir Guerrero continues to bat fourth or fifth every game. Maybe the O's don't have a slew of other options to replace either guy, but by refusing to cut their losses, or at the very least adjust, Showalter and/or the front office are hurting the team. And they're upsetting fans.

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