The bullpen was one of the pillars of success of the 2012 Orioles team, and its more middle-of-the-pack effort in 2013 was one reason why the team was not as good as it was the year before. Where the plan for 2013 seemed to be to keep as much the same from 2012 as possible, that may not still be the case for next year. MASN's Roch Kubatko reports that the team is on the hunt for at least one reliever, quoting a team official as saying they would like to acquire two while "shuffling the deck" in the bullpen.
Pursuing relievers in free agency should fill an Orioles fan with dread, based on the past decade. The signings of the trio of Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford, and Danys Baez to multi-year deals, and later Mike Gonzalez and Kevin Gregg to the same, were money-wasters at best and disasters at worst.
Still, there is a difference between signing a couple of guys to one-year deals and the messes of O's past. Luis Ayala, for instance, was a solid one-year signing for 2012. Koji Uehara, who will make less money on his two-year contract than Jim Johnson will probably make in 2014 alone, would have been a welcome addition to the bullpen before 2013, but the Orioles never seriously pursued him..
With Dan Duquette indicating towards the end of the regular season that Johnson would be returning, that leaves the closer role settled. That is one bit of relief, since if nothing else, any potential ill-advised signing or trade won't be one for some other team's overrated closer.
Seemingly any other player could find his time in Baltimore soon running out. Players with recent track records of success, like Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter, could be dangled as trade bait, or mediocre pitchers, particularly lefties, could find they are no longer needed. In particular, Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland, now that he no longer has the requirement of being on the roster, is likely to spend time in Norfolk, rather than being a constant in the 2014 bullpen.
Kubatko notes that both Hunter and Brian Matusz, "assuming he isn't dealt", will be working out as starters in spring training. We all know how those will end, because we watched the previous two seasons of them. Is there a wink-and-nudge meaning to bringing up Matusz's name and the trade market?
Duquette has shown he is not sentimental about holding on to the cavalry of Andy MacPhail's tenure. If he thinks he has enough other candidates for lefty relievers that he won't need to have the second-year arbitration eligible Matusz, and some other team wants to offer something for Matusz, he might pull the trigger on a trade. Perhaps another organization still likes the pedigree that led to Matusz being drafted fourth overall in 2008.
Troy Patton could be just as easily expendable if a team came asking, or if no one comes asking, he could be non-tendered rather than offered second-year arbitration money.
The moves made could simply be to save a couple million dollars by swapping one essentially spare part reliever for a cheaper spare part reliever. For a team that's never acted like it's made of money and has other, greater needs, that could be something that isn't big but might make a difference. An inexpensive, cobbled-together bullpen can still be a great bullpen, as the 2012 O's showed. If the Orioles have reason to believe that players like Zach Britton or Josh Stinson could perform the same for less, there is value, if not much, to the team in playing them instead of existing relievers.
Of course, it could all just be empty November smoke. Every team is linked to speculation and ideas of what they might try to do that they never end up doing. All the shuffling in the world won't make a new card appear in the deck.