Every winter, the Orioles' big-name pitching prospects garner all the attention at their three-day minicamp. Hunter Harvey and Tanner Scott have been frequent participants, as have the likes of Chris Lee and big leaguer Mychal Givens.
Yet every year, someone on the fringes of the event emerges over the course of the next season and pitches his way onto the major league roster. In 2015, it was Givens. The next year, Ashur Tolliver and Donnie Hart made that leap from minicamp to the majors. Last season, it was Jimmy Yacabonis, and there are several candidates to take up that mantle in 2018.
Yacabonis, who built on a strong 2016 with good showings at minicamp and spring training said it's an honor to be part of that group, which shows the event's importance to the major league coaching staff.
"It's an awesome feeling," Yacabonis said. "It's good to get that feeling, especially going through all those years in the minor leagues where I wasn't really a prospect or anything. I kind of had to create my own status in the organization, so it's cool that all that hard work is kind of paying off."
Though this year's group included many pitchers on the 40-man roster who won't exactly be coming from nowhere if they arrive in the majors, there were still a few who could be cited this time next year as the latest success story.
In the Orioles' search for left-handed relief behind closer Zach Britton, there was some consternation in leaving González unprotected for December’s Rule 5 draft after the 25-year-old posted a 2.47 ERA for High-A Frederick last season.
When he pitched off the mound at minicamp, manager Buck Showalter was intrigued enough — in part by the recommendation of director of player development Brian Graham — to try to get him to major league camp next month. Combined with what they hope was an eye-opening experience in the Arizona Fall League, González could be primed to take a leap next year into a gap the Orioles are seemingly always trying to fill.
Signed to a free-agent contract in 2013 after he was released by the Philadelphia Phillies, González was a starter until 2015, when he struggled in Frederick and was moved to the bullpen. As a reliever, he has a fastball that's 93-95 mph with a slider. Over the past two years as a reliever, he's fanned over a batter per inning with a 0.982 WHIP, though the level wasn't exactly close to the majors.
That said, success this year in Double-A will mean he's right on the brink of seeing time with the Orioles.
Another pitcher who was moved to the bullpen to elevate his standing was Long, who had a career-best 2.95 ERA at Double-A Bowie last season. As a reliever, it was even better. He struck out 47 batters in 47 1/3 relief innings with a 1.90 ERA and a 1.014 WHIP.
Long, 25, said this week there was a clear difference in mindset.
"You get a different kind of adrenaline rush as opposed to starting when you know your role or routine," Long said. "As a bullpen guy, it's, 'Hey Lucas, get going,’ then boom, boom, boom, you're in the game. Either way is cool with me. When you're a starter, and you're going through the lineup two or three times, you're going to give up a couple runs through there. In a short stint in the bullpen, you're going to kick yourself if you give up a hit or two. But at the same time, it's still pitching."
Long said his "heart started racing" when he got the call from Graham to come to minicamp. As a 24th-round draft pick in 2014, he'd been around long enough to know about the event and what it meant to be invited. It charts a path to the majors for those who aren't otherwise on that track.
"We've seen firsthand guys come up out of nowhere," Long said. "You see Stefan [Crichton] last year. I was in Aberdeen with him in 2014, and a couple years later, he's almost breaking camp in the big leagues. He was up there within two weeks of the season starting. You just never know how it's going to go. String a few good months together, a couple good years and you're going to get a few good opportunities, whether with the Orioles or someone else."
A relatively thin group of such candidates means someone with past major league experience who probably should have been up last year will make this list. That means Faulkner, 25, is anything but out of nowhere, but he could still make a leap with the Orioles next season.
Before being acquired from the Texas Rangers in April, Faulkner had a 4.41 ERA over 20 major league appearances with the club in 2015 and 2016, and had a 2.79 ERA with Triple-A Norfolk last season. But instead of being a late-season call-up, he was designated for assignment for his roster spot and losty a chance at the AFL in September.
The Orioles re-signed him as a minor league free agent in December and brought him to minicamp, which Faulkner said made up for some of last year's disappointment.
"I'm definitely probably one of the older guys here," Faulkner said. "But it's nice to know that they wanted to see me and they think enough of me for that. It's nice to get to know them and what they're thinking for me this year and what they're expecting. It's all so new for me. I'm ready for it. I'm excited."