Orioles believe bullpen is better

The Orioles were working last night to set up closer Grant Balfour’s physical for today in Baltimore.

Two seasons ago, the Orioles bullpen was the strength of a team that snapped a string of 14 straight losing campaigns. The club finally made the playoffs, and most of the credit could be found beyond the outfield fences - spitting sunflower shells, chewing bubble gum and waiting for the phone to ring.

The group wasn’t quite as dependable in 2013, though abbreviated starts from the rotation placed more of a burden on it.

I’ll assume that most fans like how the bullpen is shaping up for next season.

Balfour has saved 62 games in his last 67 chances over two seasons. The Orioles got him for $15 million in a two-year deal (with $500,000 deferred over the next two seasons). Jim Johnson would have cost between $10-$11 million in 2014, and he was likely gone as a free agent next winter, since the Orioles clearly had their limits in spending on a closer.

An early projection of the bullpen includes Balfour, right-handers Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb, and left-handers Brian Matusz and Troy Patton. Matusz will get another shot at re-entering the rotation, but his chances of cracking it grow slimmer if the Orioles sign a starter.

The Orioles need Matusz, O’Day and Hunter to improve their splits, and new pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti will work with them in an attempt to make it happen. Having O’Day healthy again may eliminate the problem.

One spot remains for a long reliever/swingman, and candidates include left-handers Zach Britton and T.J. McFarland, and right-handers Josh Stinson and Steve Johnson.

Britton and Stinson are out of options, which either improves their chances of making the team or could send them packing in a trade. Britton will compete for a rotation spot, and he’s got a decent chance if he has a strong spring and the Orioles don’t sign another starter.

McFarland is more likely to start for Triple-A Norfolk next season, but that’s not set in stone. The Orioles sent him to Venezuela so he could work out of the rotation. They want to take a look at him in that role.

Kevin Gausman will compete for a spot on the staff, either as a starter or long reliever, but the Orioles would rather have him pitching every five days for Norfolk than sitting in the bullpen.

Let’s not forget right-hander Brad Brach, acquired from the Padres for minor league pitcher Devin Jones. In three major league seasons, Brach has gone 3-6 with a 3.70 ERA in 109 relief appearances and averaged 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. But he’s got an option remaining and may get squeezed out of the picture in Baltimore.

The way pitchers shuttle back and forth between the Orioles and Tides, he’s likely to get the call at some point.

The 40-man roster also includes right-hander Edgmer Escalona and lefties Mike Belfiore, Kelvin De La Cruz and Chris Jones.

It’s possible that another spot opens up if executive vice president Dan Duquette includes a reliever in a trade. The Orioles still want to add a starter and a left-handed bat or two. Who’s playing left field? Who’s leading off? Who’s a part-time or full-time DH? And we only know of the in-house candidates at second base.

Anyway, yesterday brought the first really significant signing - pending a physical - since the offseason got under way. As for Duquette’s plan to reallocate resources, the Orioles have Balfour, Webb and Jemile Weeks for less than Johnson’s projected arbitration number for 2014.

The Orioles didn’t get a chance to add $2 million and match the Yankees’ offer to Brian Roberts. As I tweeted yesterday, I’ve heard that the Orioles weren’t given the opportunity to counter New York’s proposal.

Duquette spoke to Roberts’ agent last week and found out with the rest of us that the veteran second baseman had agreed to terms with the Yankees.

Guess it was time for a change. As I speculated yesterday, Roberts probably felt that the Yankees gave him a better chance to appear in his first postseason. He cleaned out his locker after the final game on Sept. 29, giving the impression that he wasn’t coming back.

Roberts hasn’t returned my calls and text messages, which is fairly typical. He’s never been the most accessible player on the team. Quite the opposite.

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