The battle to win a spot in the Orioles' Opening Day bullpen will come down to the wire.
With the O's on the brink of naming the 25 players who will be part of their season-opening roster, several pitchers remain in camp with a chance of claiming a relief job for the Birds.
The competition thus far has been fierce, so much so that right-hander Brad Brach's impressive spring -- a 2.16 ERA and eight strikeouts in 8.1 innings -- wasn't good enough for him to make the cut. The Orioles optioned Brach, 27, to Triple-A Norfolk March 25, leaving 40 players in camp.
At the moment, six of the Orioles' Opening Day bullpen spots seem to be accounted for, barring injury. Tommy Hunter will likely serve as the closer, supported by setup men Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz and Ryan Webb. Lefty Zach Britton and right-hander Josh Stinson, both of whom are out of options, have each put up outstanding numbers during spring training to all but assuredly claim bullpen spots as well.
The Orioles are expected to break camp with seven relievers, which means that one bullpen spot remains up for grabs. Five candidates are left. Which one has the best odds of claiming the final spot? Let's run through the list, from least likely to most likely.
RHP KEVIN GAUSMAN: 1 percent
Gausman, who most publications consider to be the Orioles' top prospect, may well play a significant role for the Birds this year. But it's unlikely he'll do so as a reliever. Indications are that the Orioles plan to have Gausman work exclusively as a starting pitcher this year rather than bouncing to and from the bullpen, as he did in 2013. Gausman could be an ace in the making, and relegating him to the bullpen would be a waste of his talents and could hinder his development. Gausman is almost certainly ticketed for Norfolk's rotation to begin the season.
LHP T.J. MCFARLAND: 10 percent
McFarland, as a Rule 5 draft pick, spent the entire 2013 season in the Orioles' bullpen as a long reliever. But the Orioles have indicated that they view McFarland as a future starter, which likely means he -- like Gausman -- will begin 2014 in the Tides' rotation to hone his craft. The Orioles' plans could change, though, if they decide they need a reliever who can work multiple innings. McFarland served that role well in 2013 and could be asked to do so again.
RHP STEVE JOHNSON: 15 percent
Johnson has the ability to eat innings out of the bullpen, and he could be a candidate for long reliever if the Birds decide they need one. Johnson hasn't pitched particularly well this spring, allowing six runs in nine innings, although he has nine strikeouts as well. The fact that Johnson has options remaining could work against him. The Birds might prefer to stash him with Norfolk to start the year so they don't risk losing an out-of-options hurler. Johnson could end up riding the Norfolk-to-Baltimore shuttle several times this season. (UPDATE: Steve Johnson was eliminated from the bullpen competition March 26, when the Orioles cut him and three more players from spring camp.)
RHP ALFREDO ACEVES: 30 percent
Coming into spring training, I pegged Aceves as the top non-roster candidate to claim a spot in the Orioles' Opening Day bullpen. His live arm and his years of experience pitching in the American League East for the Yankees and Red Sox made him a strong contender. Aceves damaged his case somewhat with a few rough outings early this spring, though he has since rattled off three scoreless appearances in a row and has a 4.50 ERA overall. Aceves' trump card in the competition is that his contract includes an out clause at the end of March, so if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster, he has the choice to leave the organization. Will the Orioles be willing to let Aceves walk away?
RHP EVAN MEEK: 40 percent
Right now, I have Meek as the leading candidate to grab the final bullpen slot. Meek has a strong pedigree -- he's a former All-Star for the Pirates -- and after injuries ravaged his career the last two years, he has shown signs of regaining his previous form. Meek's stuff has looked sharp during his six appearances this spring, and he has allowed two base runners in seven innings. In terms of his performance, Meek has been the most impressive of these five candidates this spring. But Meek is signed to a minor league contract, so if the O's decide they aren't totally sold on his health, they could send him to Norfolk for a longer look.
You might have noticed that the percentages for these five pitchers don't quite add up to 100. I'm leaving a little bit of wiggle room in case the O's make a last-second trade for another reliever or go with a completely unexpected candidate. But if I had to choose right now, I'd bet on Meek earning the final bullpen slot, with Aceves not far behind.