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Orioles will have much less flexibility in their bullpen unless they make big changes

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The Orioles have brought back so many of last year's relievers that they could have a seven-man bullpen that accounts for over 80% of the relief innings pitched in 2014. If they do that, though, they will have almost zero flexibility with players who can be optioned.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

One thing you can usually count on in a given team's spring training is at least a few roster spot battles. That's the case for most teams, anyway, if not the Orioles, who seem to be bound and determined to bring back as many players from last year's 96-win division champions as possible. That may not prove to be a bad strategy to pursue, although it does serve to make the already-uneventful motions of spring training even less significant as to the composition of the 2015 team.

With so many pitchers in camp, it looks at first glance like there might be an open competition for a couple of bullpen spots. However, the Orioles have returned so many pitchers from what was already a solid unit last season that there may not be any openings after all.

Most of the time, a major league team carries a seven-man bullpen to go with a five-man starting rotation. Last year's Orioles bullpen threw a total of 507.2 innings in the regular season. There are seven returnees from last season: Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, T.J. McFarland, Darren O'Day, and Ryan Webb. Those pitchers combined to throw over 80% of the innings out of the bullpen last year. It's not out of the question that the team could return that same bullpen without any newcomers except as an injury replacement or temporary roster addition.

The Orioles do have some newcomers who could force their way into the picture. They have a pair of Rule 5 picks in Logan Verrett and Jason Garcia who must either make the team and stick all season or be offered back to the Mets or Red Sox, respectively. They added Oliver Drake, Eddie Gamboa, and Wesley Wright on major-league contracts. Drake and Gamboa can be optioned to the minor leagues, but the left-handed Wright is a player who will have to either make the big league squad or be designated for assignment.

If they do decide to bring back all of last year's bullpen veterans, one big difference compared to last year is that they won't be able to freely option anyone except for McFarland. That rest of that set of relievers either has sufficient service time to refuse a minor league assignment or has had all of his options used up in previous years.

Players riding on a shuttle from Norfolk to Baltimore and back has been one of the hallmarks of the tenure of Dan Duquette. He'll be constrained in this way with the bullpen this season unless there is an unfortunate injury, a surprise trade, or a release.

Even if we make the assumption that long man McFarland will be optioned to Norfolk in favor of Rule 5 pick Verrett, who looks to profile as a long reliever, they still wouldn't have any flexibility with Verrett. He's still got to remain on the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Mets for only $25,000.

On top of that, let's suppose that the Orioles find a team that wants to take on Matusz and decide to keep Wright instead. This only even seems like a possibility because of Wright getting a guaranteed salary of $1.7 million. Matusz's name did come up in offseason trade talks. Still, why give that to a player who doesn't even look likely to make the roster? That gives them no extra flexibility either, even if it happens. Wright has had all of his options used up in past seasons.

Those figure to be the two most likely possible shifts in bullpen composition and neither one would provide Duquette with a player who can be optioned to Norfolk for a couple of weeks when he's been pressed into service for multiple innings in extra innings on consecutive days.

There's also the possibility that whichever of the six starting pitchers in competition doesn't make the Opening Day rotation could end up in the bullpen. Of these, only Kevin Gausman and Miguel Gonzalez can be sent to the minor leagues. Gausman belongs neither in the bullpen nor the minors, although with the most options remaining he is nonetheless the most likely to end up there. That is a disappointing possibility to contemplate.

If Gonzalez was sent to the minors, that would also make it tough to argue the Orioles have their best pitchers on the major league roster. In any case, with either Gausman or Gonzalez getting possibly sent to the minors, it still adds no bullpen flexibility if they option one of those guys in favor of keeping together last year's relief corps.

Duquette might well have had nightmares all offseason considering this possibility. What will he have to do if he can't be optioning an expendable reliever every two days? He might just be sitting in his office, twitching nervously at every 13-inning game or three-inning start. No wonder he wanted to flee to Toronto. That was a joke just there.

Realistically, if the Orioles want to have an optionable player in their regular bullpen, that's probably going to mean parting ways with either Brach or Webb. Is that really worth so much to them? You need reliable guys in middle relief too. Brach's 3.18 ERA in 62.1 innings wasn't lighting the world on fire, but it beats the heck out of having to rely more on players plucked off of the merry-go-round of failure like Evan Meek or Preston Guilmet.

Brach is still a pre-arbitration player. That might give him value to another team, but it also gives him value to the Orioles. He has had a year of relative success in Baltimore, is inexpensive and under team control for four more seasons.

Webb, who clocked in at a 3.83 ERA, was a bit more of a disappointment, especially on a two-year contract. On the other hand, his ERA vastly underperformed his Fielding Independent Pitching (3.83 vs. 2.95 FIP) when in his career they are very close together. Was a .310 BABIP that generated a ground ball rate of only 48.7% bad luck, or was he making bad pitches to get those outcomes? His career ground ball rate is 56.1%, a big improvement over what we saw in an Orioles uniform.

It's not outrageous to think Duquette could come to view Webb as a sunk cost, such as if the Orioles were really, really impressed with, say, Drake, who could ride the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle when needed throughout the years, or if they wanted to try to stash Rule 5 pick Garcia, who hasn't pitched above High-A before.

While that wouldn't afford them much flexibility this year, a Rule 5 pick who sticks does represent a player who can be optioned for each of the three seasons after that. We've seen them take advantage of that with both McFarland and Ryan Flaherty.

Whatever they end up doing, the Orioles will have to make some tough choices in setting up and maintaining their bullpen. They might choose to bring back the veterans of last year, giving them little roster flexibility and not much of a chance to develop players at the major-league level who might be able to fill the shoes of the soon-to-be free agents. They could also try to hold on to one or both Rule 5 picks no matter what, again giving them no extra minor league flexibility this year.

The only way they can get the flexibility we've seen them use in the past is if they either trade or release someone to keep a surprising player or if there's an injury that opens up a spot, and even then, depending on who they plug in, they still might not get much flexibility after all.

One wild card as far as the makeup of the Opening Day roster is the Chris Davis suspension. They could keep an extra reliever for one day and option or even DFA him when they have to add Davis back to the 25- and 40-man rosters for the team's second game.

Hopefully the problem of what to do with too many healthy and good pitchers is one that the Orioles end up having to face as spring training draws to a close.