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Orioles roster preview: Relief corps to feature familiar faces aiming for improvement, and new arms to push them

With the Orioles kicking off spring training next week in Sarasota, Florida, an uneventful offseason for the rebuilding club will at least begin to be about baseball again.

Their rebuilding project, which yielded 108 losses and a handful of memorable moments in 2019, continues with what’s expected to be a similar 2020 season. But as they wait for the fruits of their focus on player development to make it to the majors, there are plenty of opportunities to impress for the players in big league camp.

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Each day this week, we’ll break down a position group that will get a chance to prove itself to executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde, and the rest of the front office and coaching staff when spring training begins, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers on Wednesday.

The final portion of the breakdown features the group that broke down the most in 2019: the relievers. The group, kept largely intact from last year, will be trying to hold up its end of the bargain and improve along with the rest of the team.

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Who’s in camp?

A group that, fairly or not, became the focal point of many Orioles fans’ frustrations last year is back en masse in 2020. Their top five players in appearances — Paul Fry, Miguel Castro, Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and Shawn Armstrong — return with the hopes that they can cut out the downswings that obscured what were at times very good stretches for each in 2019.

Former top prospect Hunter Harvey, who made the bullpen better during the three weeks he was active late last summer, will be back to compete for a full-time role. He’s one of three well-regarded relievers in camp who made their major league debuts last year. Dillon Tate remains on the 40-man roster, while Branden Kline will be in camp despite being outrighted off the roster this week.

Kline was largely a back-and-forth reliever between the majors and Triple-A Norfolk last year, as were Tanner Scott and Evan Phillips. Scott and Phillips both showed at times that they could hold their own, and will try to prove that they can do it consistently. Cody Carroll might have been in that group if he hadn’t missed last season with a back injury, but he’ll be right back in it if he shows he’s healthy in 2020.

There are plenty of newcomers in this mix, too. Rule 5 draft pick Michael Rucker could get a rotation look but took a real step forward in 2019 once he moved to the bullpen. The team views him as a swing piece.

Four waiver claims — Travis Lakins, Cole Sulser, Eric Hanhold and Marcos Diplán — added relief depth in the fall and winter, with Hanhold and Diplán later outrighted off the roster and in camp as nonroster invitees.

Other nonroster invitees in the bullpen include left-hander Hunter Cervenka and right-hander Christian Alvarado, the latter of whom has improved of late on the farm and could be a dark-horse impact-player candidate.

Who’s left?

Despite having their top five back, the Orioles have moved on from a lot of relievers who pitched in 2019. Among them, Gabriel Ynoa and Aaron Brooks went overseas, while Jimmy Yacabonis elected free agency and signed with the San Diego Padres this offseason.

Other notable names who appeared in relief for the 2019 Orioles but won’t be back include Tayler Scott and Josh Lucas.

Who’s making the team?

While Givens, Bleier, Fry, Castro and Armstrong all had good and bad moments last year, they’re also the most experienced and reliable relievers the Orioles have. None is necessarily a traditional long reliever, something Hyde will be hoping he doesn’t need as often as he did last year, but they seem like the five safest bets to fit into an eight-man bullpen.

As for the other three spots, Harvey is certainly making the roster if he’s healthy. He could get some more development in Triple-A, but the same could have been said when the team called him up in August. Nothing, save for health, should change that.

Rucker could end up in the long-relief role, though his status as a Rule 5 pick who can’t be optioned would make that harder. That leaves Scott, Sulser, Phillips, Tate, Lakins and Carroll to grab the final spot. Scott probably has the most raw talent and upside, so he gets the nod here.

Who could change that?

Anyone in that second group of five players on the roster could have a big spring and pitch himself onto the Opening Day roster. If not, they likely won’t have to wait long to find themselves pitching for the big league club.

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There’s always the possibility of a shake-up. The Orioles could take a shot on a veteran reliever on a minor league contract in hopes that he’d pitch well enough to attract a contender at the trade deadline.

There’s not a lot stopping someone like that from picking the Orioles just for the chance to pitch in a significant role. Nor is there a lot keeping the Orioles’ own relievers from pitching themselves into the same position. Once relievers without clubs start to get antsy as camp starts, the Orioles might provide a good opportunity for one or two to rebuild their value on a cheap deal.

Who’s the future?

Relief pitchers in the minors are tricky propositions. Many teams simply develop their best arms as starters for as long as they can until moving them to the bullpen, so pretty much any starting pitching prospect in the system could be considered a viable option for the next contending Orioles bullpen.

As far as relievers go, the player closest to the majors whom the Orioles acquired in their offseason trades is right-hander Isaac Mattson, who reached Triple-A last year with the Los Angeles Angels. Elias has said that he could be with the Orioles sooner rather than later.

Elsewhere, Zach Pop remains a top-30 prospect despite having Tommy John surgery last spring. Though it would be asking a lot for him to make his debut this year, he could be an interesting option in relief.

What’s more likely is that the Orioles will start to transition some of their starting-pitching depth to relief roles. Harvey and Tate both started 2019 as minor league starters and ended it as interesting future bullpen pieces.

With such a stockpile of high-minors pitching and more on the way, the Orioles could easily start to find relief standouts.

Schedule

Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report in Sarasota, Florida

Feb. 16: Position players report

Feb. 17: First full-squad workout

Feb. 22: First spring training game, vs. Atlanta Braves in North Port, Florida

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