SARASOTA, FLA. — When Buck Showalter dissects the process of picking the Orioles' Opening Day roster, he distinguishes the difference between selecting the best 25 players and the right 25 players.
When it comes to assembling his bullpen, he makes it clear on which side he falls in that discussion.
"Mine is going to be the best," Showalter said. "I get reminded of the right. … We're here to say, here's our best 12 [pitchers] or whatever. That's what I deal with, because a game in April is the same as a game in September."
Rosters don't have to be set until April 3, and deciding the final bullpen spots might be among the last decisions the club makes. So the last week of spring training games could be instrumental in Showalter assembling a bullpen that has few open spots and even less wiggle room.
The Orioles must weigh the possibility of losing pitchers who are out of minor league options versus keeping a few optionable arms who have pitched well, and maybe more importantly, give the bullpen much-needed roster flexibility.
"That's the right," Showalter said. "I'm talking about the best. I'm here about the best. … I've got it and I'll weigh that in eventually, but today is about the best."
The Orioles bullpen will be one of the club's biggest strengths regardless of how it is staffed. But the Orioles face some difficult decisions with their relief corps over the next several days leading into Opening Day.
"We have some good depth," closer Zach Britton said. "I think either way we cut it, if we're going to keep guys with options or keep guys without options, we're going to be in good shape either way. That's a credit to the depth we have from a reliever standpoint."
Britton, setup man Darren O'Day and right-hander Brad Brach have their spots locked. Right-hander Dylan Bundy, who has been limited to 17 minor leagues games since Tommy John elbow reconstruction in 2013, is out of minor league options, so if he's healthy, he must remain on the major league roster. And since he has thrown only 63 1/3 innings over the past three seasons, he'll certainly open the season as a reliever.
Maybe the best news for the bullpen this spring has been the performance of Bundy. Despite yielding two runs in two innings of work Friday — he allowed four hits and struck out three — Bundy allowed just two earned runs over 8 1/3 innings in his first seven outings. Bundy has thrown more than one inning in three of his spring outings and also pitched twice in three days on one occasion. His role is unclear and will probably evolve, but the Orioles enter the season with more trust that Bundy can be a solid contributor than they did last year with Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia, who hadn't pitched above Low-A.
Situational lefty Brian Matusz would also have a spot, but he has been limited to just two spring outings and will likely open the season on the disabled list with a lower back strain. If Matusz is on the DL when the club goes north, that potentially opens a spot for recently signed reliever Zach Phillips to serve as the situational lefty.
Right-hander Mychal Givens and left-hander T.J. McFarland both fill key roles, but both have minor league options, so they could ride the Triple-A Norfolk shuttle when the bullpen needs a fresh arm.
After two brief stints with the team, Givens joined the Orioles bullpen for good in early August after Baltimore added roster flexibility by trading veteran reliever Tommy Hunter. Givens, who gives the Orioles a different look with a low three-quarters delivery, began working the middle innings, but eventually began getting late-inning opportunities. Seventeen of his 22 big league appearances were scoreless and he posted a 1.80 ERA, striking out 38 and walking six in 30 innings.
"I really don't think about it," Givens said about the possibility of opening the season in the minors after pitching so well last season. "It's nothing I can control. All that I can control is what I can do on the field. Everything else behind that, I'm just going to out there and perform the best as possible to help the team. And if they option me down, I'll just go down there with a great attitude and do everything I can to get called back up."
McFarland also plays an instrumental role as the team's left-handed long reliever, especially given the fact that the Orioles will have an entirely right-handed starting rotation. However, McFarland hasn't made the Orioles' Opening Day roster since he had to as the team's Rule 5 pick in the 2013. Last year, he opened the season in Norfolk's rotation before being called up in early May, the first of McFarland's seven moves between the minors and the majors.
"We talk about [starting him] all the time," Showalter said. "Unfortunately with an all-right handed rotation, it's kind of tough to go there because we need somebody that's able to do what he can do down there, too. It's one of those things."
Right-handers Chaz Roe and Vance Worley are also out of minor league options. Roe was a nonroster invite to camp last year, but came up in late May and had a 0.90 ERA in his first 15 outings (20 innings, holding batters to a .162 batting average). Roe struggled in the second half and eventually went on the DL with shoulder tendinitis, but he has pitched well this spring. His past six Grapefruit League outings were scoreless over 6 2/3 innings and he's allowed three runs over 10 innings overall this spring.
Even if Roe isn't considered among the club's best relievers now, he was a valuable bullpen piece last season, and losing him on waivers would hurt the club's depth. If he does clear waivers, he could reject an outright assignment to the minors and become a free agent.
Worley, who was claimed off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates this offseason, was initially stretched out as a starter this spring but has only pitched more than two innings once in five Grapefruit League outings. When the Orioles acquired Worley in mid-October, they saw him as a possible No. 5 starter; he would seem to be more targeted for a bullpen role at this point.
Like Roe, Worley would have to accept an outright assignment to the minor leagues if he cleared waivers. He is set to make $2.6 million this season.
Because the Orioles don't need a fifth starter until the sixth game of the season, they could conceivably open the year with an extra reliever, but that's just a quick fix.
The Orioles bullpen's strength is not only in the arms it has but also in Showalter's ability to maneuver the roster to keep the relievers fresh.
But last year, they Orioles went into Opening Day with an eight-man bullpen that included just one optionable arm, right-hander Kevin Gausman. Carrying Garcia, who had to remain on the active roster (not including DL time) for at least 90 days didn't help roster flexibility.
Keeping the bullpen fresh often means dipping into Norfolk's rotation. Right-hander Tyler Wilson moved between Triple-A and the majors nine times last year. Right-hander Mike Wright rode the shuttle seven times in 2015. Expect right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne, acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres last month, to also get a seat on the shuttle this season because he has minor league options.
Wilson and Wright are mostly considered to be in the mix for a rotation spot, but three of those players could open the season with the club as long relievers and are expected to fill spot-start and long-relief needs throughout the season.
There's no question that Showalter will use numerous pieces again in 2016, but which ones will be in the mix heading into the season remains to be seen.
"Knowing Buck is really good and knowing he's one of the best at managing a bullpen, you just go out there and trust in his philosophy and its shown the last few years how capable he'd been able to do it in the past," Givens said.