Johnson to be slowed to start camp

Orioles reliever Jim Johnson will be slowed through the beginning of camp, although he estimated Sunday morning that he was “about a week behind” the rest of the team’s pitchers.

Johnson has been dealing with a lower back issue that he categorized as a “little strain” since the beginning of January and his rehab regimen consists mostly of stretching and some core work.

“It’s not a big deal,” Johnson said of his back issue.  “I’ll be on the mound fairly soon, [I’ll] be right back out there. I’m just probably not going to be out there running as much.”

Johnson, who admitted that the back issue was “pretty much the nail in the coffin” on him being used as a potential starter, projects to be in the backend of the Orioles bullpen. He was used increasingly in the ninth inning to end 2011, and is considered to be a strong candidate to close for the Orioles in 2012.

While there has been a strong undercurrent of rumors surrounding the Orioles’ preference to trade Kevin Gregg –signed last winter as the team’s closer – Johnson’s status could change things considerably. Gregg’s role, like most of the bullpen, is largely to be determined and the Orioles’ will closely monitor Johnson’s injury in the first few weeks of camp before making any definitive decisions on Gregg going forward. While the organization was shopping Gregg this winter –and willing to eat a good chunk of his contract — if Johnson’s injury is more serious, it’s safe to speculate that Gregg would probably stay put.

Johnson, who was slated to do some light throwing Sunday, went 6-5 with a 2.67 ERA and nine saves in 69 games last year, converting on his final eight save changes to end the season. Gregg went 0-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 63 games last season, converting 22 saves in 29 opportunities.New acquisitions Luis Ayala and Matt Lindstrom also figure to factor into the later innings of the O’s bullpen.

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