As the Orioles prepare to begin spring training next week in Sarasota, Fla., and with it the next chapter of the franchise's rebuild under the leadership of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, the focus will finally shift from the front office to the field.
Without a major league free-agent signing and with many of the familiar faces of past years no longer with the Orioles, the cast of players who will be charged with starting the organization's transformation on the field is a unique one.
This week, we'll break down by position groups who will be in camp, and who could factor in to the team's immediate plans, ending with a group of relievers who spent 2018 getting used to new roles and a new era in the bullpen but need to collectively elevate in 2019.
Who's at camp?
For all the turnover the Orioles bullpen experienced last summer with their trades of Zack Britton, Brad Brach, and Darren O'Day, things stayed relatively stable this offseason at the back end of the bullpen.
Mychal Givens remains the presumptive closer and most seasoned pitcher on that squad, and he'll get his buddy Richard Bleier back from surgery to repair a torn lat muscle as well. Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, Mike Wright Jr., Pedro Aruajo and Donnie Hart each made at least 20 appearances last season and are back for more this year, joined by late-season trade additions Cody Carroll and Evan Phillips. Branden Kline is the new face on the 40-man roster, though only Givens, Wright and Dylan Bundy have been in the organization longer than he has.
All that inexperience among their relief corps gave the Orioles an easy selling point for minor league free agents, with Josh Lucas, Gregory Infante, Bo Schultz and Sean Gilmartin all signing agreements with invites to major league camp. Left-hander Chris Lee took well to a relief role after he was outrighted off the roster last year and re-signed with an invite as well, and Zach Pop, the hard-throwing right-hander acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, rounds out the non-roster invitees.
Gilmartin was gone when he was outrighted off the roster, but returned, so he's technically not gone. Austin Brice was around for about a month before he was lost on waivers, and right-hander Ryan Meisinger was designated for assignment in December and claimed shortly after by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Who are the front-runners to make the team?
By pitching coach Doug Brocail's assessment, he knows he's got "Givens and some relievers," so Givens can rest easy and prepare for the rare save opportunity that might materialize. Provided Bleier is healthy, he said his sinker is still sinking and has been among the most effective relievers around since joining the Orioles, so he can likely count on heading north.
Scott was uneven in the majors last year, but has little left to prove in the minors after allowing one run in 12 innings at Triple-A Norfolk last year. Araujo needs to be around for around three more weeks before his Rule 5 draft restrictions are exhausted, and Wright and Castro are each out of minor league options, so as long as they're pitching well, they could stick around.
All that discounts the player who perhaps surprised the most in 2018, Fry, who had a 3.35 ERA and could be better than that if the Orioles deploy him properly. That's seven right there.
What about the rest of them?
It's not out of the question that someone pitches well and earns a roster spot, but so many relievers have minor league options that it might make sense for the Orioles to just keep who they have and make sure there are pitchers with options who can be called up if the roster gets thin.
Carroll and Phillips, each of whom came in a July trade with sterling Triple-A numbers and a big fastball to match, will need to show the command and consistency required to succeed in the majors. Kline has the big fastball and the swing-and-miss secondary pitches, but again has never faced this level of competition.
Among the minor league invitees, Infante is interesting thanks to his impressive 2017 with the Chicago White Sox, though he didn't have that form last year. Schultz is a veteran minor leaguer who dominated in Triple-A last year after 2017 elbow surgery, and Lucas is a fastball/slider reliever who hasn't had success in the majors yet, either. Lee and Gilmartin are different kinds of lefties, but might find themselves too far down the depth chart to factor in, while Pop's big fastball and plus slider might make him the darkhorse of the group.
What's worth watching this spring?
With the relief corps in a completely different spot than they were a year ago considering the lack of their All-Star leaders, it will be fascinating to watch how the interpersonal dynamic develops this year. The young players talked about what they learned from the traded veterans even after they were gone. Who's going to step up and be that example in a new group?
Givens has it in him, and will get a full season at the back end of the bullpen instead of being the player who was called upon often to protect the trade chips, which he was last year.
Bleier's health will be something to keep an eye on, determined just as much by the quality of contact he gets as anything else. And any kind of consistency for Scott, Castro and Wright, each of whom have tantalized at times but left plenty to be desired, would be welcome.
Otherwise, all the attention will be on the young players. The Orioles don't have that many homegrown relievers on the cusp of the majors, so Carroll and Phillips showing they're going to be contributors for years to come will ease a lot of concerns about what the future of the bullpen looks like. Someone like Pop jumping onto the radar would help that too, and no one has better raw stuff among the next wave of relievers than Kline. If he's able to replicate his success from last year and make the majors, it might be the best story in camp.