Kevin Gausman: Next Orioles Closer?

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Ray discusses the possibility that the Orioles move pitching prospect Kevin Gausman into their closer role in 2014.

Now that the Orioles have decided to back out of signing Grant Balfour to fill their closer role, the Orioles have some decisions to make. They could go out and sign closer Fernando Rodney, but he may command more money than Balfour was asking for, and he is coming off a year where he blew eight saves.

There have also been rumors of the Orioles attempting to deal for Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, but he is coming off a down year as well, where he lost velocity on his fastball. The Orioles would have to give up a prospect to get him, so the cost may not be worth it.

So what are the Orioles options after Rodney and Papelbon? We now hear from MASN's Roch Kubatko, in his recent article discussing the subject, that the Orioles may fill their closer role from within. He discusses the possibility that the Orioles could just give the closer job to Tommy Hunter, who filled in when Jim Johnson was struggling in 2013. But, as Kubatko states, Hunter has never closed before, and can't get lefties out. Last season, Hunter dominated right handed hitters, limiting them to a .140-.190-.154 triple slash line, with a 39-8 strikeout to walk rate. But, versus lefties, Hunter was hit around to the tune of .294-.322-.535, with a 29-6 K/BB,  while giving up 11 home runs.

To boot, according to Kubatko, Hunter has already talked to manager Buck Showalter, and he wants to be a starter.

So, where do the Orioles turn? How about pitching prospect Kevin Gausman? Here is Kubatko on that idea:

The Orioles are intrigued by the idea of having Kevin Gausman close, but they still view him as a starter and don't want to go through the process of stretching him out later after having him work in one-inning intervals.

So, the fact that the Orioles are intrigued tells you they have thought about it. The Orioles wouldn't be the first team to move a top pitching prospect into the closer's role. The Reds did it with Aroldis Chapman and he is now one of the most dominant closers in the game. The Rangers did the same with Neftali Feliz and he was successful before his Tommy John surgery. In fact. he is a candidate to close for Texas in 2014, along with Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers.

The real question is will the Orioles reduce their top, healthy, pitching prospect into the closer role, where his impact on the game is limited to around 60-70 innings, rather than 150 or more innings. Last season, Gausman three 129.2 innings, spread across AA, AAA and the big leagues, mainly in a starter's role. He could probably pitch around 160-180 innings before being shut down in 2014. The Orioles would have to weigh his innings limit, if any, vs using him as a closer.

As the table (courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com) below shows, Gausman struggled as a starter last season, and was much more hittable as a starter than a reliever. Small sample sizes apply here.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS
as Starter 5 110 102 21 34 8 0 7 6 20 3.33 .333 .367 .618 .985
as Reliever 15 91 83 9 17 4 0 1 7 29 4.14 .205 .267 .289 .556
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2013.

I wrote a keeper league piece on Kevin Gausman recently, where I was pondering whether I should keep him at $10 for 2014 in my AL only keeper league. In that piece, I speculated that he could close for the Orioles, as he was pretty dominant out of the bullpen last season, after struggling in several starts.

Gausman was more dominant in the reliever role in 2013, limiting hitters to a .556 OPS and .290 SLG, with an excellent 4.14 K/BB. The table below, shows how much better he was as a reliever than a starter:

I Split W L ERA G IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
as Starter 0 3 7.66 5 24.2 34 21 21 7 6 20 1.622 7.3 3.33
as Reliever 3 2 3.52 15 23.0 17 9 9 1 7 29 1.043 11.3 4.14
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2013.

His ERA, WHIP, K/9 and K/BB were all much better in the relief role than the starters role.

I cannot blame the Orioles for pondering the idea of moving Gausman into the closer role, but I would be surprised if they do. You don't put a pitcher with his upside and ceiling into a role where his impact on the game is limited to the late innings.

WIth that said, my AL only keeper league team would be very happy if they did.

Should the Orioles move Gausman into the closer role in 2014? Let's hear your opinion in the comments section and the poll below.

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