Orioles' bullpen personnel could be the final thing figured out this spring

In a spring training devoid of much roster drama, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has a perfect-world scenario for how he'll fill the long relief role he cherishes so much.

Filling it in reality could prove much more complicated. Over the next 10 days, the team will have to evaluate everything from performance and roster flexibility to the team's future vision for a pitcher before deciding which of its candidates is ticketed for a minor league rotation or the major league bullpen.


"We got in a bind last year where we didn't have the type of roster at Bowie and Norfolk and Baltimore that we could maneuver around some of the challenges that some of [the injuries presented]," Showalter said. "We're in a lot better shape there."

The long-relief role is given greater import in Baltimore than anywhere else because Showalter values it so much, but with a starting rotation as unstable as the Orioles have had, it's a near necessity.

Last season, they had 37 relief appearances of seven outs or longer, with Vance Worley and Dylan Bundy leading the way with 12 and nine, respectively. Both of those players, however, were static in their roster spots. Before Bundy went to the starting rotation at the All-Star break, the Orioles had their two long men in the bullpen stuck their without minor league options.

There's a crowd that can change that from a fluidity standpoint this year. Showalter says there are four or five pitchers still competing to replace Chris Tillman in the starting rotation early in the season — Mike Wright, Chris Lee, Gabriel Ynoa, Tyler Wilson and Jayson Aquino.

Meanwhile, Aquino (the lone overlapping pitcher), Logan Verrett, Richard Bleier, Vidal Nuno and Zach Stewart are in another category reserved for long relief.

Early in the spring, Showalter was emphatic that those two pools were separate, and the five developing starters would remain starters all year — with the other pool shuffling back and forth as long relievers. He has softened on that stance a bit.

"I'd rather, hopefully, have those guys pitching in Triple-A as our what-ifs," Showalter said. "But we're going to take the best 25 [players]. So there are some guys that are currently competing that we're thinking about as a long reliever, too. But in a perfect world, we have [Chris] Tillman healthy and those five guys will be down in Norfolk. Some things don't cooperate with us sometimes, on paper. But I'd say everybody is still in play now."

Flexibility isn't a problem with any of them. All the pitchers still have a minor league option for 2017, even the 30-year-old Stewart, who is not on the 40-man roster.

So the candidates are there, though evaluating them this spring hasn't been smooth. Seemingly every candidate for one of those long-relief spots started spring well but has scuffled of late. Bleier allowed a run in his spring debut March 1 but strung together three scoreless outings before allowing two runs on four hits in an inning Sunday against the Detroit Tigers. Nuno had two good two-inning outings before the World Baseball Classic, but was used sparingly by Mexico and has allowed four earned runs in 21/3 innings since —with his most recent outing a spot start for the ailing Wade Miley on Monday.

Stewart allowed no runs on two hits in his first 82/3 innings this spring before he allowed three earned runs in each of his past two appearances. And Logan Verrett, who pitched two shutout innings Tuesday with three strikeouts, bounced back from a tough trip to Pittsburgh's camp last week.

The 2015 Rule 5 draft pick who was re-acquired from the New York Mets this offseason believes he has made a good impression in his return to camp.

"In spring training, we kind of preach that it's about the process, it's not about the results. So my last outing in Bradenton, that was what I took away from it," Verrett said. "The process is working, and I'm feeling better than I have the past few weeks of camp. I just built on that, and today was another good outing. I don't know how many more we'll have, but with nine days left in camp, two or three I'm sure. But we'll see. I think they know what I can do, especially from what I've done in the past as well."

It creates an interesting conundrum for the pitchers competing for a starter's role. The path to major league riches is through the rotation. The path to a major league roster spot might be in the bullpen.

Wright defers to Showalter's plans on the matter, but points out that a stable role is nice, and he hopes the distinctions between the two groups "doesn't mean it limits opportunity."


The rest are just trying to do what works for them. Last year was Nuno's first season of primary relief, but he said it's "not different" knowing your role and staying in it, as opposed to going back and forth.

"Just knowing the last couple of years, you've got to be ready every day — having your body ready and getting accustomed to throwing whenever they're going to ask you to and being reliable," Nuno said. "That's the key to being up here and having a steady job. If you're reliable, and you get outs, you're going to play here for a long time."

Bleier was a career minor league starter who pitched in relief and primarily against left-handed batters last year with the New York Yankees, but added a cutter to help his left-right splits and expects he'll be built up to go long by the time the season starts.

"I think that you just have to be ready to pitch," Bleier said. "For me, it's whether I throw six pitches at a time or 40, it's still the same concept of trying to get as many people out as I can, and whenever they tell me I'm done, I'm done."


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