When the Baltimore Orioles acquired left-hander Richard Bleier from the New York Yankees early in spring training last year, it was a transaction that didn't cause much interest.
Bleier didn't even start the season with the Orioles -- and even contemplated joining Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic. He started the season with Triple-A Norfolk, pitching in eight games before joining the Orioles May 3. But by the end of last season, Bleier had made himself into an indispensable Oriole.
With closer Zach Britton out with an injury and others pitching ineffectively, there were opportunities for Bleier. In 57 games, he threw 63.1 innings and had a 1.99 ERA.
"Richard had a really, really good season last year," pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "Numbers indicate it. His past numbers or past performances before we got him may not have indicated the success that he had last year, but he pitched really well for us last year in a variety of roles."
Bleier pitched in a multiple-inning role, as a left-handed specialist and as a set-up man.
With Britton expected to miss the first half of the 2018 season after undergoing surgery on his right Achilles tendon, Bleier is the only left-hander who has a clear path to the Opening Day roster.
"Whenever you see somebody, especially somebody you know or a teammate go down like that, it's never a good reaction," Bleier said of Britton at the Orioles' minicamp in Sarasota, Fla., earlier this month. "He's my friend and just to see him be out for half the year or whatever, it's just, personally it's tough. And then for the team, obviously the guy's one of the best closers in our league, so it's definitely a big hit for us."
Bleier provided a stylistic contrast to Britton and right-handers Brad Brach, Mychal Givens and Darren O'Day.
Brach, Givens and O'Day each averaged more than a strikeout per inning, while Bleier struck out fewer than four batters per nine innings. He also walked just 1.8 hitters per nine innings.
"I gave up runs and I gave up other people's runs and there's always room for improvement," Bleier said. "You look at anyone's year and I'm sure there's things that they can improve on and I'm the same way. If I have the same exact year I had last year, would I be happy? Absolutely. I'm sure anybody would."
What does Bleier think his role will be in 2018?
"I think I'll probably start the year as the closer now that Zach's gone," Bleier said jokingly. "No, I don't think that has any real effect on me personally. It's not good for anyone, but Brad will slide into the closer role just like last year and I'm just trying to make the team."
Bleier was a late developer. The Orioles are his fifth major league organization, and he didn't make it to the big leagues until he was 29, in May 2016. Bleier is certainly not taking his job for granted.
"I think that as long as I have options, I think, yeah, I still need to make the team," Bleier said. "I'm new to this big league stuff. I was there last year, but it's hard for me to say, 'OK, I'm just going to go to spring training to get ready for the season.' I don't know if I'll ever be like that. Just from what I've dealt with, being in the minor leagues for so long, I don't think I'll ever be a comfortable big leaguer. I'll always feel like I need to earn my spot."
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB