BRADENTON, FLA. — One of the Orioles' offseason priorities was improving the club's left-handed relief depth, especially given the prospect of fielding an all right-handed rotation.
And now, less than two weeks before the regular season begins, Brian Matusz's nagging back injury has left the Orioles devoid of situational left-handed relief options, and the club is scrambling for bullpen help.
Matusz will likely open the season on the disabled list with a lower back strain on his right side that has limited him to two outings this spring. That leaves the Orioles needing to find a reliever who can get left-handed hitters out in a pinch. With all five of their starters right-handed, they will undoubtedly face opposing lineups stacked with left-handers, making that role all the more important.
Matusz received a cortisone injection in the right side of his lower back Sunday after making his first Grapefruit League appearance since March 2. Matusz missed nearly three weeks between outings with the back injury and even if he returns this week, it would be difficult to get him the innings he'd need to be ready for the regular season.
On Wednesday, the Orioles signed left-hander Zach Phillips to a one-year deal as an insurance. Phillips, a 29-year-old who pitched for the Orioles in 2011 and 2012, was in Chicago White Sox camp this spring, but declined an outright assignment to the minors and became a free agent.
"He's a guy who was available," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We have about 10 days, a little less than that, to take a look at some guys to make sure we're covered. It doesn't mean he makes the club or anything. It's just another guy to look at."
As spring training winds down and more players become available as teams set their Opening Day 25-man rosters, expect the Orioles to continue to scour the waiver wire and free-agent market for lefty relievers.
"[There are] some unknowns where Brian is concerned and we're kind of looking for ways to improve it," Showalter said.
Of the 22 pitchers currently on the Orioles' spring training roster, there are just four left-handed pitchers in camp — closer Zach Britton, long reliever T.J. McFarland, Matusz and Phillips.
Britton is the team's closer and McFarland, even though he hasn't won a roster spot yet, has great value as a multiple-inning lefty who can eat innings against the left-handed-stacked lineups the Orioles are certain to face.
"We know with the potential of having an all right-handed rotation … you're going to get everybody's left-handers," Showalter said. "So certainly lessen the load on some people. We've got some right-handed pitchers who have shown the ability to get left-handed hitters out. I know what ideally on paper bullpens normally look like, but I've seen real good bullpens that were predominantly right-handed.
"But the optionability of a bullpen is important, too, and sometimes in your rotation, but Zach [Phillips] is out of options. "He had some options of where to go and he chose us because he saw there might be an opportunity here."
The Orioles made several moves attempting to improve their left-handed bullpen depth during the offseason, but few paid off.
They acquired lefty C.J. Riefenhauser from the Seattle Mariners in the Mark Trumbo trade and also claimed Edgar Olmos off waivers from the Chicago Cubs. Both have since been designated for assignment to clear roster space and claimed by the Cubs.
The Orioles also lost Tim Berry — formerly one of the organization's top left-handed pitching prospects seeking new life as a reliever — when unsuccessfully attempting to pass him through waivers after removing him from the 40-man roster just before Christmas. Berry was promptly claimed by the Miami Marlins.
The Orioles signed veteran lefty Jeff Beliveau to a minor league deal late in the offseason, but he likely won't be available until May as he recovers from labrum surgery.
Down in the minors, left-hander Chris Lee is on the 40-man roster, but he's set to open the season as a starter in Double-A Bowie. Donnie Hart, Ashur Tolliver and Andy Oliver are also lefty relievers. But even if those pitchers were ready to help, they all have been assigned to minor league camp, so they wouldn't open the season with the club.
So even though Phillips is the newest Oriole, he is the most likely to replace Matusz.
"I'm here for whatever they need and I'm going to try to stay healthy and pitch whenever they need me," said Phillips, who threw a light bull pen session Wednesday and could get into a game Thursday or Friday.
Phillips had a nice debut with the Orioles after earning a late-season call-up in 2011, posting a 1.13 ERA and allowing just one run over eight relief innings with eight strikeouts and two walks.
Phillips nearly made the big league club out of spring training in 2012 — he allowed just four hits, two walks and two runs in 13 1/3 innings that spring — but lost out to left-hander Troy Patton, primarily because he had a minor league option left and Patton didn't.
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He pitched for the White Sox's Triple-A team last season, posting a 1-1 record with 12 saves and a 3.13 ERA over 54 2/3 innings. He was added to the team's 40-man roster in the offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but couldn't win a bullpen spot this spring.
Last season in Triple-A, Phillips held left-handed hitters to a .213 batting average.
"I've always wanted to come back here and I thought it was a great time to, just being familiar with Baltimore and them giving me a chance," Phillips said. "I've always liked it here and thought it would be good to come back."
To make room for Phillips, the Orioles designated left-hander Chris Jones for assignment. Jones, who was added to the team's 40-man in November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, was expected to be part of the Triple-A Norfolk starting rotation this year.
Jones spent most of his time in the Orioles organization as a reliever, but was used more as a starter the past two years. Last season, he went 8-7 with a 2.96 ERA in 22 starts for Norfolk last year. Left-handed hitters batted .305 against him, so he wasn't a candidate for a situational lefty role this spring.