One of the team's biggest strengths -- especially considering all the upheaval caused by injuries and mass rainouts -- was its bullpen. Time after time, when a starter got bombed or had to be scratched, someone was there to pick up the slack and put the team in a better position to win.
Want proof? Check the numbers. Here's a breakdown of how many spot starts each reliever made last season*:
Kanekoa Texeira - 6
Josh Schmidt - 5
Wilkins Arias - 2
* - I'm not counting Brian Bruney's rehab "start."
Texeira (taken by Seattle in the Rule 5 Draft) and Schmidt (almost certainly will be promoted) will not be back, and the same probably goes for Arias, too. So, who can Thunder fans count on to make the jog in from the right-field corner every night? Let's take a look at a few candidates.
1. Pat Venditte: This is the sexy name. By now, you've probably read all about Venditte and his switch-pitching exploits. If not, you can do so here, here, here (with video) and here.
Sure, the pure spectacle of a pitcher who throws with both hands will put some fannies in the seats, but will those paying customers be happy with what Venditte produces? If he performs like he did last year with Charleston and Tampa, you're darn right they will.
Between the affiliates, Venditte accrued a 4-2 record, a 1.87 ERA, fanned 87 in 67 1/3 innings and walked just 11 men. For a guy who, like Schmidt, struggles to break 90 with his fastball, those numbers are more than impressive.
He got hit around a little bit this winter with Venezuelan League's Aguilas de Zulia -- where he was teammates with Schmidt, but the extremely pitcher-friendly confines of Waterfront Park should help ease the transition to the upper levels.
2. Jonathan Ortiz: This 24-year-old could wind up being next year's closer, something the Thunder really didn't have once Amauri Sanit left early in the season.
With Charleston and Tampa last season, Ortiz posted a 3-4 record with a 2.91 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 55 2/3 frames. He walked just 10 in that span. For those keeping track, Ortiz and Venditte combined to issue just 21 free passes in 120 innings in 2009.
If Ortiz continues at last year's pace, he will give Tony Franklin a very powerful weapon toward the end of games.
3. Philip Bartleski/Adam Olbrychowski: If you paid attention toward the end of the 2009 season, then you know these names already. Both pitchers were called up during the last series of the season -- on the road against the eventual EL North Wild Card winners, the New Britain Rock Cats -- to help in what was ultimately a failed playoff push.
Both men offer something neither Ortiz and Venditte can: an intimidating physical presence on the mound, much in the same manner Grant Duff did for a few months.
Olbrychowski stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 205 pounds. Bartleski checks in at a mammoth 6-foot-7 and 240, both of which should play up in Waterfront Park.
Expect to see them both in the Thunder's late-game arsenal in 2010.