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With spring training just over a week away, it’s clear that it won’t be easy to crack the Orioles’ bullpen. In the past, manager Brandon Hyde often had to struggle to come up with a representative bullpen. That’s no longer the case.
Some familiar and accomplished names are vying for a spot in the bullpen, and they’re not assured of trotting down the orange carpet on March 28th when the Orioles open the season against the Los Angeles Angels.
Keegan Akin has been with the organization since 2016, and he’s pitched parts of the last four seasons with the Orioles. In 2022, he had a 2.36 earned-run average and a 0.881 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in the first half of the season before things went south in the second half.
In 2023, Akin was 2-2 with a 6.85 ERA in 24 games before missing the entire second half with a back injury, one that he insists has healed.
“I fought it here and there and then it kind of got out of hand,” Akin said during last month’s Birdland Caravan. “We [explored] just about every option we could without going under the knife. I wanted to avoid that. Thankfully, we got it healed up, got it taken care of, and now we’re on to 2024.”
This coming season, Akin, who has one option remaining, will face stiff competition in his attempt to contribute to the Orioles.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Akin said. “We’ve got a lot of good arms. A lot of good arms coming back. I think everybody’s returning this year. I looked at it coming into spring like I do every year. I’m not on the team until they tell me. I’ve got to pitch my way on the team, and I’ve had that mindset the past couple of years. Nothing changed this year.”
Another left-hander who’s also pitched in parts of four seasons with the Orioles is Bruce Zimmermann, who came to the organization in July 2018 in a trade from Atlanta.
Zimmermann said he’s healed from offseason sports hernia surgery, and, like Akin, has been throwing in Sarasota since mid-January.
Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez are two left-handers whose performances have given them a place in this season’s bullpen, and Zimmermann will try to fight his way on to the team.
“It’s nothing that we’re not used to in this game,” Zimmermann said. “If you’re on a team when you’re not competing hard every year, it’s probably not a team that’s getting better. Really excited to get started in spring training, toe the rubber against all those guys. I’ve been competing against all these guys for the past four or five years coming up from the minors. I’m really excited to see where they’re at. Competition breeds excellence.”
Yet another left-hander, Nick Vespi, probably would be a bullpen mainstay on most major league teams. His numbers at Triple-A Norfolk the last two seasons have been excellent (6-1, 1.37 with 15 saves), but that hasn’t earned him a regular place in the Orioles’ bullpen.
“I think I’m still in the same position I was the past few years. I’m going to fight for a spot,” Vespi said. “If I don’t get a spot, I’ll keep fighting throughout the season for my opportunity to be there.”
Vespi was 6-0 with a 4.17 ERA and a save in 34 games in 2022 and 2023 with the Orioles.
“It’s going to be helpful in the long run,” he said. “I’m going through these ups and downs. The awesome part if I go down to Norfolk and we continue to win ballgames. Whether I’m in the big leagues or down in Triple-A, we’re winning, and that’s why I play this game.”
Cole Irvin no longer has any options, and with last week’s acquisition of former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, he’s more likely to move to the bullpen, although he could be a starter if there’s an injury or two.
“I’m building up as a starter,” Irvin said. “I’m going to do a couple of up/downs before I show up to camp, 45, 50 pitches. Nothing too crazy. I’m not going to be completely built out. I know that there’s a lot of expectations on our rotation, and good expectations. We had a great year last year as a staff. We’ve got a lot to build on. Mix some things up in the arsenal. Things are coming out really good, and I’m excited to get to camp.”
In between stints at Norfolk, Irvin started 12 times and relieved 12 times.
“I think I had enough experience last year in the bullpen, eating innings out of there, just whenever my number’s called, I’ll be ready,” he said.
Zimmermann, an Ellicott City native, started the Orioles’ home opener in 2022 but has just nine relief appearances for the team since June 15, 2022. He has one option remaining.
“This spring, it’s going to be the best product on the field,” Zimmermann said. “Hopefully, I’m considered in that group, and I’m contributing on Opening Day because there’s nothing like Opening Day and missing it last year, after this surgery made me strive to get back to that because there’s something about it, starting the season off with the team, putting a good foot forward in 2024 to really make another run at it this year.”
Right-hander Mike Baumann had an excellent first four months with the Orioles but despite a 10-1 record with a 3.76 ERA in 60 games, spent most of the last six weeks of the season in Norfolk and wasn’t on the roster for the Division Series.
Because he’s without an option, Baumann is likely to start the season with the Orioles.
“There’s a lot of great arms,” Baumann said of the bullpen. “I understand that this game owes you nothing. You’ve got to keep plugging, keep working. It’s go time for everyone in this clubhouse. We have one thing on our mind, one end goal.
“We’re all going to do what we can to push each other and bring each other up. There are only a certain amount of spots. We’re all going to try to bring the best out of each other, keep pushing forward.”
RAVENS LINKS FROM BALTIMORESPORTS.COM