Pittsburgh Pirates

Spring training | Even without Andrew Miller, the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen keeps rolling

SARASOTA ­-- The bunch in the Orioles' spring training clubhouse is different than the group that inhabited the home locker room at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during the 2014 postseason, and it's not just because of the team's spring invites.

Two starting position players from Baltimore's run to the American League Championship Series are gone in Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, plus the top relief pitcher from the O's postseason push. Andrew Miller, who took over setup duties after coming to Baltimore in a deadline deal with the Red Sox, cemented his star status during October, when he struck out eight batters in 7 1/3 scoreless innings.

For a team whose success largely hinged on its late-inning mastery, Miller was arguably the most important player.

"For two months," Zach Britton is quick to qualify.

As good as Miller was for the O's, he was only an Oriole for two months before joining the New York Yankees during the offseason.

Miller's new team was at Ed Smith Stadium on Tuesday for spring training, although the high-profile reliever didn't make the trip. The Orioles defeated the Yankees 3-1.

"We had, what, an eight-game lead in first place?" Britton went on to say. "We had a good bullpen and Andrew's good, but it's not just one guy. I think we were one of the better bullpens in the game without him, and he just made us better. But someone will step up and fill in."

That typically has been Baltimore's plan. The O's don't designate major resources to the bullpen with manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette opting to sign undervalued players who are either coming off down years or haven't gotten a legitimate chance elsewhere.

"We're going to use guys in the minors," Britton said, "and if you're in Triple-A with us, you're going to have a chance to pitch in the big leagues."

In some ways, Britton was one of those Baltimore success stories himself.

Britton entered 2014 without a clearly defined role for the O's. He was underachieving as a starter and mostly with the Major League team to be a situational lefty out of the bullpen. When Tommy Hunter floundered at the start of the season, Britton ascended to the closer role, where he became one of the AL's best.

It's almost an expectation now for the Orioles that someone will overachieve and transform from a no-name, fringe major leaguer into a major contributor.

Baltimore manager Buck Showalter is hopeful that Jason Garcia can be the O's next breakout arm. The 22-year-old Rule 5 Draft pick from the Red Sox has never pitched above Single-A, but pitched his third and fourth innings of the spring on Tuesday and worked out of a two-on, no-out jam to remain unblemished.

"It's the first time he's got a bunch of bells and whistles, and the crowd, and he's facing the better part of the lineup, and he's playing a team that some people think is noteworthy," Showalter said. "He defended himself well."

After this season, though, Baltimore's bullpen situation will only grow murkier. Darren O'Day, now the top setup man in front of Britton, will be a free agent after this season and a 2015 similar to last year would make the sidearmer one of the more coveted relief arms on the market.

And when the time comes for the O's to figure out the future, they will have a tough decision. Do they make the decision most expect, even if it means parting with a bullpen staple and fan favorite?

"I feel like if you're going to spend money, there are certain guys that you spend the money on," Britton said, mentioning O'Day's name in particular. "This is definitely the type of organization that's gonna give guys opportunities that's a little cheaper and see what they can do. It's worked in the past, so why not run with it? But I think there comes a point where you've got to spend money on some guys that have been there."