- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
As a longtime follower of Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jim Johnson, I'm pretty interested in seeing what role he ends up in. Johnson was really good in 2011, finishing with a 2.67 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, and doing so with 91 relief innings, which ranked second to Alfredo Aceves of the Boston Red Sox. Johnson also saved nine games, most coming in September. The recent acquisition of Matt Lindstrom makes one wonder if Johnson could potentially be headed to the starting rotation, which is a role he has previously requested.
Jim Johnson? Matt Lindstrom? And there's still Kevin Gregg. Seems like a mess to some, but there's clearly fantasy upside here. Johnson isn't a strikeout guy, but he just missed being one of the top 10 relievers in the game last season, according to FanGraphs WAR (wins above replacement). Yes, the Orioles aren't going to win many games, but we've seen bad teams produce 25-save closers before. Johnson has the skills to succeed ... but will he have the job?
I think we can finally assume Gregg isn't the leading candidate. For years this average right-hander would be written off by fantasy owners and still find his way to 20-plus saves. Saves are saves, even if they're ugly, and those owners who used a late-round pick on him benefited from it. Even last season, Gregg saved 22 games, 15 in the first half, for the 93-loss Orioles. In the past five seasons for four franchises he somehow has averaged 29 saves (and a 3.89 ERA and 1.35 WHIP). There's value in that, especially if you find those saves sitting in free agency in April.
Lindstrom was acquired along with Jason Hammel from the Colorado Rockies for presumed No. 1 starter -- although he wouldn't be for most teams -- Jeremy Guthrie just a few days ago, and I think Lindstrom should be the most valuable fantasy player in this deal. I can't like Guthrie at Coors Field, and Hammel is average, at best. Johnson pitched very well in 2011, but we can't pretend there aren't concerns about his durability -- he has had elbow woes in the recent past -- and whether a bigger need summons him to the rotation. The Orioles plan on using Zach Britton, Hammel, Jake Arrieta and left-handed Japanese imports Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada as starters, with Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman lurking. You don't want any of these fellas in a 10- or 12-team fantasy league. I think Johnson will close and he's one of my top saves sleepers, but there's at least some doubt.
Lindstrom jumps to near the top of the list for handcuff closers, too. He throws in the mid-90s, so he has "closer stuff," and he has closed before. Last season as a Rockie he delivered the best of his five big league seasons, all things considered. He saved only two games, but a 3.00 ERA and 1.22 WHIP while playing half your games at Coors Field is a feat. Lindstrom's strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, a pedestrian (for a reliever) 6.0 per nine innings, but he posted his best rates in hits and walks per nine. And Lindstrom did save 38 games over 2009 and 2010 for the Florida Marlins and Houston Astros. I wouldn't expect a big season from him, and Johnson is preferred, but keep an eye on this situation in March.
Johnson and Gregg were essentially the only Orioles pitchers worth owning in 2011, which is kind of sad. I will be watching not only the closing situation in spring training, but Matusz, as well. Don't look at his 2011 numbers; the young lefty was supposed to be the staff ace, but things went horribly wrong. His velocity was way, way down, and I thought it was a bit mean to keep pitching him in September when his ERA was on the wrong side of 10. Matusz finished up with some of the most atrocious numbers we have ever seen from a regular starter: 10.69 ERA, 2.11 WHIP and 18 home runs allowed in fewer than 50 innings! But I'd like to offer this reminder: Way back in 2000, someone named Roy Halladay threw 67⅔ awful innings with a 10.64 ERA and 2.20 WHIP. He turned out OK.
Using my age-old corollary that we should not judge players solely on their recent failures, let's remember Matusz, still only 24, showed promise in 2010, getting AL Rookie of the Year votes, flashing a nice strikeout rate and thriving in the second half with a 3.63 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Forget 2011. Something had to be wrong. I'll take a shot in an AL-only or deep mixed-league, assuming I have bench spots. There remains upside here.