"Never trust a reliever" is an old adage in baseball, and it's one that Dan Duquette has taken to heart. 2015 is just the latest year where Duquette has stockpiled relief arms, choosing to let folks sink or swim in spring training, and build up some depth in the system for the slog of a major league season. The unusual twist this year is that two of the guys competing in camp are Rule 5 picks, who cannot be stashed in the minors, which makes the Opening Day decisions that much more interesting.
Considering the way I described the battle above, it may be strange to see that the Orioles have four absolute locks for their seven (or eight?) bullpen spots. But nonetheless, it's almost impossible, barring injury, to imagine that the Orioles don't open their season with Zach Britton as closer, and Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day as his top setup men. It's probably easier for the fans to imagine a bullpen without Brian Matusz, but I nonetheless list him here because if the Orioles planned to cut bait with him, they wouldn't have tendered him a contract this offseason. If he isn't traded, expect to see him suit up on Opening Day.
So the Orioles really have a slew of guys in camp competing for the last three slots in the bullpen. In general, two of those slots are for short relievers and one is to be the long man in the 'pen. Below, I handicap the contenders in the order of likelihood as I'd view them.
After being acquired from the Padres before the 2014 season, Brad Brach had the best season of his career for the Orioles. Used in a variety of fairly low-leverage roles, including some long appearances for the first time in his career, Brach put up a decent 3.18 ERA with a solid 1.171 WHIP. His strikeouts were off a bit from his career line, but his walks were even further down. To top all of that off, Brach is out of minor league options. He's not quite a lock, but he's the next closest thing.
When the Orioles acquired Ryan Webb last year, it was viewed as a positive signing, a cheap groundballer who could replace the departed Jim Johnson. And while Webb certainly outperformed Johnson's implosive 2014, he wasn't the guy the Orioles thought they were getting. He struggled for extended periods and even got shuffled off of the 25-man roster and demoted in August. The season ended with a pedestrian 3.83 ERA and 1.257 WHIP for Webb, although if you look around the edges, there were good signs in his walk rate and BABIP. Webb is struggling with a knee injury in spring training, but the Orioles are on the hook for almost $3 million for Webb's services in 2015, and probably want to see what they can get out of that.
Wesley Wright is one of this year's newcomers. When the Orioles snagged him after he was non-tendered by the Cubs, many assumed or hoped that the new lefty reliever presaged a Brian Matusz trade. But here we are, three weeks from Opening Day, with both Matusz and Wright in camp. Wright is tough against lefties, and unlike Matusz, passable against right-handed batters as well. But if the Orioles hang on to Matusz, it gets harder for Wright to find his way into a crowded bullpen picture if the team hangs on to its Rule 5 picks.
The first of those Rule 5 picks is Logan Verrett, who profiles as more of a long arm (perhaps even a future starter). Taken from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft, Verrett spent last year in AAA, logging a 4.33 ERA in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, in 28 starts. Verrett's primary competition for the swing man spot would be T.J. McFarland, who I would have listed much higher on this list, but who the Orioles are reportedly planning to send to AAA to develop as a starter following his impressive 2014. Otherwise, Verrett would mainly be displaced by one of the Orioles' six starters, mainly if Ubaldo Jimenez is the odd man out of the starting rotation (since Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman could just be sent to AAA). Verrett must be kept on the active roster for all of 2015, or be returned to the Mets.
The other Rule 5 pick in camp is Jason Garcia, and while he's received rave reviews for his raw stuff, he's never pitched above high-A ball. He would be a long shot to make the roster, considering again that he'd have to stick there all year if the team wants to hold on to him. After Garcia, you move on to longer shots, like AAA farmhand Tyler Wilson, or Steve Johnson, back in the fold on a minor league deal, and even the ageless wonder Mark Hendrickson, back in camp for what seems like the eighth time.
There's always a chance the Orioles open the season with an eight-man bullpen, rather than the standard seven, if they choose to do a little bit of roster manipulation, perhaps stashing a fifth starter in AAA until he's needed in mid-April because of the team's early off days. But eventually, the dust will settle, and the Orioles will most likely be choosing between Webb and Wright, and possibly deciding whether they can protect Verrett for the whole season or would be better off recalling McFarland, or letting Jimenez work on his form in low-leverage mop-up duty. Part of never trusting relievers is never having too many relievers, but the Orioles have put themselves in an interesting position by not giving themselves as much roster flexibility as you'd usually expect from Duquette.