Through the first six weeks of this season, the Orioles' pitching shuttle to and from Triple-A Norfolk is 10 pitchers deep. The Orioles have used their bevy of optionable arms to keep their bullpen fresh and to make spot starts.
By now, the pitchers involved know it's a part of the way this club operates, using depth to keep the staff ready for any situation on a daily basis. But that doesn't make it any easier for those pitchers looking to stick in the major leagues, many of whom get rewarded for a strong outing with a ticket back to Norfolk.
Take right-hander Logan Verrett, who is responsible for two extra-inning wins nine days apart, but was optioned to the minors the following day each time. Then there's right-hander Stefan Crichton, who over a 13-day span in April was recalled, optioned two days later, recalled the next day as part of a disabled list move and was then sent back to the minors again nine days later.
"They know, but I think there's a part of them where they've got to think at some point, 'How do I stay there?'" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Well, one of the ways is at some point if we go to seven pitchers down there, they'll stay here. It's going to be hard not to do that eventually over the course of a long season. So I think that's when it kind of stabilizes. You might [still] have to send a long guy out if you're short, but I do put myself in their shoes and say, 'Yeah, I'd like to be in the big leagues all the time. I don't want to be going back and forth.'
"They understand what it means for the club. What's tough is sometimes I think to myself when they're pitching in a 7-1 game in long relief and they pitch three shutout innings. And I wonder in the middle of pitching are they thinking, 'Well yeesh, what's my reward for this?' Or are they in the bullpen watching a starter struggle and think, 'Well I hope he doesn't bring me in.' That's just reality. They're doing what they need to do to stay on the map and it's up to us to make sure we can get constructed as we go forward, when a guy is pitching real well we can cover him the next couple days for he doesn't have to go out [to the minors]."
There's not much the veteran relievers can say other than give them a pat on the back for a job well done.
"I feel like we've used half of our Triple-A pitching staff and they've all done awesome, so I don't think they're Triple-A pitchers. I think they're big league pitchers. It's just we went out and we acquired a lot of depth in that area," right-hander Darren O'Day said. "The guys have been awesome. It's tough being rewarded for your good pitching by being sent down. All you can really tell them is, 'Great job.' People notice how well they're doing and how they're handling tough situations. You just have to believe they're going to be rewarded for that in the future. Hopefully it works out for them in the long run and people notice how they pitch and how they handle themselves."
So far this season, Crichton, Verrett, Alec Asher, Jayson Aquino, Paul Fry, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Vidal Nuno and Richard Bleier have all worn Orioles uniforms one day and been jettisoned back to Norfolk. Right-hander Gabriel Ynoa was recalled on May 4 and was placed on the DL after an outing in which he provided six scoreless innings.
"It's not fun to be a part of that train or whatever you want to call it," right-hander Brad Brach said. "It feels like you're a part of the team, but at the same time you can feel like you're kind of being used. It's tough and its difficult, but it's part of the rules and just kind of the way it is."
Brach, who has gone from a long reliever to a setup man and interim closer, has been in that situation before, providing length only to be sent to the minors the next day.
"I wish there was something more you could say, but I just remember being in that spot when you pitch and for whatever reason you get sent down the next day," Brach said. "I just know it really didn't help when people would say, 'Hey, we'll see you soon,' and stuff like that. I think everybody should kind of know by now that it's the way it's going to be.
"It's unfortunate that's the way it's going to be, but I think guys realize it now, that that's just the way this bullpen is going to work for a little bit. I wish there was something I would say, but I just kind of just give them their space and on their way out, just say, 'Hey, best of luck. Hope to see you soon.' It's kind of one of those things that gets redundant. I just remember when I was getting sent down, I didn't want to hear it. You understand it, but it still doesn't make it any better."
Left-hander Donnie Hart, who moved between the major league club and the minors in the second half of last season before finding a permanent role in the Orioles bullpen, said players have to look at every call-up — no matter how short — as an opportunity to showcase themselves.
"You understand what goes on. You don't think about it. But also from the other side of it, you can get called back up at any minute," Hart said. "If a starter goes down, there have been guys who have come up right away. We've had guys like that with Ynoa and Aquino and Asher. You never know what's going to happen. Over the course of three days, a lot can change. Two starters could go down and they call a guy right back up.
"Every time you come up, it's an opportunity to help yourself. Yeah, you're helping the team of the jersey you wear, but everyone's watching, so if you throw five scoreless innings one day and you're pitching in the spotlight, scouts are there watching. And then teams look around and see it and say, 'Hey, look at what these guys are doing.'"
Ultimately, Showalter would like to get to the point where at least one of the optionable pitchers sticks in the majors, but he has to get back to seven relievers to do that. The Orioles currently have a five-man bench that they've used with great success.
"But I think at some point, it's going to be a challenge to stay at six [in the bullpen]," Showalter said. "We can do it, but you have to spread out the send-downs. I keep an eye on the morale of that, too. The guys know down in Norfolk that if they're doing the job, they're going to come get them in a time of need and we've had a lot of that."