The bullpen was one of the Baltimore Orioles' unquestioned strong suits the past two years.
As the 2014 season approaches, the relief corps looks to be Baltimore's biggest question mark.
The Orioles used the offseason to fill holes in their offense and rotation while keeping the core of the game's best defense intact. The bullpen, however, lost more quality than it gained.
Right-hander Tommy Hunter, a failed starter turned power reliever, could cinch up the closer's role in spring training. He was handed the job after the Orioles sent two-time 50-save closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A's in a December deal.
Trading Johnson isn't necessarily a death blow to the bullpen, though. Despite racking up 101 saves the past two years, there were puzzling stretches of inconsistency. Johnson blew a league-worst nine saves in 2013.
If Hunter locks up the closer's spot, he would have right-hander Darren O'Day as his primary setup man. O'Day would work in the sixth and seventh innings, too, based upon matchups. The club also added former Marlins right-hander Ryan Webb to work in middle and late relief, alongside O'Day.
Brian Matusz is the leading lefty, and with Troy Patton set to begin the year with a 25-game suspension, there is a potential opening for another left-hander. Zach Britton, who is out of options, would have to pitch his way off the team.
There is a group of journeymen and former starters who could make the club to work in long relief, including right-handers Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson and Alfredo Aceves. Lefty T.J. McFarland could open the year in the minors after spending all of 2013 on the major league roster as a Rule 5 selection.
Baltimore isn't alone among American League East teams in retooling its relief corps, though. The Yankees and Rays also have new faces at the back end of games in 2014, and Boston will have right-hander Koji Uehara in place for a full season for the first time.
--LHP Johan Santana signed a minor league contract that included an invitation to spring training. The two-time Cy Young Award-winner is coming off two shoulder procedures in the past three seasons and isn't ready to compete for a roster spot in spring camp. In a workout prior to signing, his fastball topped out in the low-80s, according to reports. The Orioles view adding Santana as a no-risk deal. They hope Santana can build up arm strength in the spring and possibly contend for a bullpen or spot-starting role in the summer.
--RHP Edgmer Escalona was shut down for at least three weeks due to inflammation in his pitching shoulder, the Orioles announced March 4. The offseason acquisition, who is on the 40-man roster and competing for a relief role, was touched up for five runs in his spring debut. He was pitching with discomfort early in camp, and the setback will make his roster hopes an uphill climb.
--RHP Suk-min Yoon was still without a visa as the club entered its second week of spring games. He was slated to travel to Canada to obtain the visa, which is required before he can begin competing for a roster spot.
--RHP Darren O'Day is working on adding a change up in spring training. The submarine pitcher rarely throws the off-speed pitch. He is getting an assist from former Orioles submarine hurler Todd Frohwirth in camp, The Sun reported.
--RHP Kevin Gausman is trying out prescription glasses to combat farsightedness, MASNsports.com reported. Looking down causes him blurred vision and headaches, according to the report. Gausman has an outside shot of cracking the roster, but he stands a better chance of starting the season in the Triple-A Norfolk rotation.
--RHP Miguel Gonzalez (back tightness) was throwing again in early March after he was held back on the first few days in Sarasota, Fla.
--OF Quintin Berry (back spasms) returned to action after being sidelined early in camp. He is a non-roster roster player in the Orioles' camp.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I see him as a starter right now. With necessity, you never know. I think he'd stand up better physically that way." -- Manager Buck Showalter, on the role a healthy LHP Johan Santana may have with the Orioles.
RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
Suk-min Yoon signed a three-year deal right before the opening of camp -- and just before Jimenez agreed to a four-year deal. The signings virtually lock down the rotation, barring an injury. If Gonzalez (lower back tightness) is rested early, Yoon and a handful of others -- non-roster RHP Alfredo Aceves, as well as returning LHPs Zach Britton and T.J. McFarland -- will be in line for the fifth starter spot. Otherwise, they'll filter into a long relief competition. Tillman likely takes the ball on opening day. Look for RHP Kevin Gausman to challenge for a spot in camp, but open the season at Triple-A Norfolk, awaiting a mid-season call-up. RHP Dylan Bundy (elbow surgery) is working toward a June return.
RHP Tommy Hunter
RHP Darren O'Day
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Ryan Webb
RHP Josh Stinson or RHP Steve Johnson
RHP Alfredo Aceves or RHP Suk-min Yoon
LHP Zach Britton or LHP T.J. McFarland
The relief corps will be without All-Star closer Jim Johnson after he was dealt to Oakland, so the main storyline for the group in camp will be Hunter, who is the probable choice to take over. Beyond that, the club will be without LHP Troy Patton (suspended for 25 games) to open the season. That almost guarantees Matusz, who was slated to work as a starter early in camp, will stay in the bullpen rather than jump to the rotation. A series of long relievers/spot starters, including Aceves, Stinson, Yoon, Steve Johnson and lefties like Britton, McFarland and Mike Belfiore, will battle for the final three spots. Aside from Belfiore, that group is also in contention for a spot in the rotation. RHPs Edgmer Escalona and Brad Brach, and LHPs Chris Jones and Kelvin De La Cruz are on the 40-man roster, but may be long-shots.
1. RF Nick Markakis
2. 3B Manny Machado
3. CF Adam Jones
4. 1B Chris Davis
5. DH Nelson Cruz
6. SS J.J. Hardy
7. C Matt Wieters
8. LF David Lough or Nolan Reimold
9. 2B Ryan Flaherty
Cruz's arrival removes the uncertainty surrounding the designated hitter slot. Delmon Young and Henry Urrutia go from a platoon at designated hitter to competing for bench roles. Left field and second base could wind up as platoons, and third base is a question mark to start the season as Machado recovers from offseason knee surgery. Otherwise, the spots are locked up. Flaherty should emerge as the regular second baseman if he is not needed at third. A logjam of players are primed to compete for playing time in left field and as a pinch hitter. Markakis is the favorite to bat leadoff, barring another acquisition.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Kevin Gausman has a shot to lock up a rotation spot in spring training, but in order to ease him in and to enable some players without options to stick with the organization, he's likely headed for Triple-A Norfolk. He should be a factor in Baltimore by early summer after making some appearances in relief in 2013. 2B Jonathan Schoop is in a similar spot -- he could force the club's hand with a great spring. But the Orioles are more likely to go with INF Ryan Flaherty and a host of others first, while Schoop brushes up at Norfolk. Schoop's bat may force the issue. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, one of the top prospects in the system, will be in camp early, but is likely headed for Double-A Bowie or Triple-A Norfolk.
--INF Alexi Casilla (sore right hamstring) was nearing a return after making progress on his right hamstring as of March 5. He was slated to hit outdoors after doing pool running. Casilla sat out after feeling tightness in his hamstring while taking ground balls in late February.
--OF Henry Urrutia (sore right shoulder) was limited defensively as of March 5. He was building up arm strength in a throwing-progression plan.
--RHP Edgmer Escalona (right shoulder inflammation) was shut down March 4, and he will be out until late March.
--1B Chris Marrero (oblique soreness) began taking dry cuts but was still sidelined as of March 5.
--3B Manny Machado (left knee surgery in October 2013) participated only in light baseball activities early in camp. He will be re-examined March 18.
--RHP Dylan Bundy (Tommy John surgery in June 2013) aims to return by late June. If he gives the Orioles any major league innings this season, it would be a bonus.
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