SARASOTA, Fla. — Last year, near the end of the season, left-hander Danny Coulombe looked around the bullpen.

“He was like, ‘Damn, we started with a certain group of guys, and by the end of the season there’s maybe four of us who are still left up here,’ ” Yennier Cano recalled through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, who translated the interview.

Cano was one of those midseason additions. So was right-hander Jacob Webb. Coulombe, even, was added on the eve of opening day. The bullpen is an ever-rotating construct. The Orioles know that eight relievers will make the opening day roster, and they also know those eight will not be the hurlers used out of the bullpen all season.

It worked last year. Baltimore’s relievers combined for a 3.55 ERA, and the club used 31 pitchers overall in that 101-win campaign.

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For Baltimore’s bullpen to have another successful year, it will take depth, health and some luck.

“It’s exciting to be part of this ballclub because we were in first place last year, and I think we’re even better this year,” left-hander Nick Vespi said. “It would be an honor to make opening day and it would be an honor to pitch innings in the big leagues this year, and I think everyone has that same mindset.”

The competition this spring for those eight bullpen places has been fierce. With a week remaining in spring training, this is the outlook for the team’s relievers.

Baltimore Orioles closer Craig Kimbrel (46) poses for a portrait at Ed Smith Stadium. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The locks

RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Yennier Cano, LHP Danny Coulombe

When the Orioles entered spring training a year ago, none of these three pitchers were on their radar as integral pieces. That’s how bullpens tend to develop. Baltimore made a splash in free agency to sign right-hander Craig Kimbrel as a replacement for injured closer Félix Bautista, and the contract value (one year, $13 million) alone makes Kimbrel a lock.

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His recent spring training outings have confirmed that status. After allowing five runs in his first two appearances, Kimbrel has thrown three scoreless innings.

Cano and Coulombe quickly became key players in high-leverage positions last year. Cano earned an All-Star nomination for his 2.11 ERA; Coulombe pitched to a 2.81 ERA. Both will once again handle large loads this season and entered camp with those expectations.

“We’re a talented group of guys,” Cano said. “That [playoff] experience is going to be great for us, and I think I’m really confident in what we have.”

Baltimore Orioles reliever Mike Baumann (53) pitches during the team’s home opener against the Boston Red Sox on Feb. 24. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The frontrunners

RHP Dillon Tate, RHP Mike Baumann, LHP Cionel Pérez, LHP Keegan Akin, RHP Jacob Webb

These five pitchers are the likeliest options to round out the opening day bullpen, and two of them (right-handers Dillon Tate and Mike Baumann) have an argument in their favor to be considered locks.

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Tate missed all of last season due to injury but has returned in crisp form, with a biting sinker that is back to its full potential. In six innings, Tate has yet to allow a run.

Baumann is also entering a critical season — he’s out of minor-league options — but his spring performances practically guarantee him a place on the roster. With the help of a new splitter, Baumann has tossed 5⅔ scoreless frames with just one hit against him.

“The overall stuff has just picked up from last year,” Hyde said. “There’s a little bit more rhythm in his delivery.”

Meanwhile, left-hander Keegan Akin has surged in camp. He missed a large part of the 2023 season with a back injury, and even when he played, Akin felt hampered. In 23⅔ innings last year, Akin held a 6.85 ERA.

This spring, Akin’s fastball velocity has returned. With it, his secondary offerings (slider and changeup) are more deceptive. He has pitched 7⅓ scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts.

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“This is the best I’ve seen him, honestly,” Hyde said. “The way he can keep his velocity, how quick his arm is, the secondary stuff is really, really improved. He’s had a really good camp.”

While left-hander Cionel Pérez took a step back in 2023 compared to the heights of his 2022 campaign (3.54 ERA vs. 1.40 ERA), Pérez remains a likely option to land in the bullpen. He’s out of minor-league options, which limits his flexibility. And even though Perez’s spring training results (six runs in 5⅔ innings) haven’t been as flawless as others, the Orioles have seen him at his best in big moments and will likely allot him that opportunity again.

Rounding out the group of frontrunners is Webb, a waiver addition last season who went on to allow just two runs in his first 12⅓ innings in Baltimore. In an unfortunate postseason spot, Webb bore the brunt of the Texas Rangers’ sluggers. He was charged with one run in each of his October appearances.

Like Pérez, Webb is a frontrunner because of what he’s shown in the majors for the Orioles, albeit in a smaller sample. Webb has surrendered four earned runs against in 6⅓ frames after winning an arbitration case.

Any of these options could be on a short leash, with ample depth waiting in the wings.

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Baltimore Orioles pitcher Albert Suárez (92) throws during a spring training session at Ed Smith Stadium on Feb. 22. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The hopefuls

LHP Nick Vespi, RHP Julio Teheran, LHP Bruce Zimmermann, RHP Albert Suárez, RHP Bryan Baker, LHP Andrew Suárez

When Vespi has pitched at the major league level, the results have been good. The left-hander has continued that trend in spring training this year with two earned runs against him in seven innings.

He’s one of the bubble options, competing for a place in a bullpen that has been hard to maintain in recent seasons. Part of the reason Vespi might be on an outside track compared to others is that he still has an option available; the added flexibility doesn’t preclude him from pitching major league innings, but few other relievers have options remaining.

The same goes for left-hander Bruce Zimmermann. With an option remaining, there’s more ease in sending him to Triple-A Norfolk to begin the season with an eye on bringing him into the fold when an injury occurs or a slump forms. Zimmermann pitched much of last season injured, but after core surgery, he feels renewed.

The Orioles aren’t necessarily looking for a long man in the bullpen, though, a role that Zimmermann and right-handers Julio Teheran and Albert Suárez could fill. The five off days within the first month of the season should keep the pitching staff relatively fresh.

Still, Teheran — a late free agent addition in camp — has shown a capability to provide starting pitching depth or long-relief ability. He has thrown 9⅓ innings with five earned runs against him. Suárez, a 34-year-old journeyman, jumped out to a great start to camp, too. He threw five scoreless innings between his first two outings before allowing eight runs in his next two games.

Suárez, however, is still intriguing because of a fastball that has new life.

“Still learning, still making adjustments,” said Suárez, who signed with the Orioles last fall and implemented mechanical tweaks during winter ball in Venezuela. “I feel like if I can establish the fastball and then I can use the secondary pitches, because the velocity is consistently high — it’s giving me a lot of confidence.”

Right-hander Bryan Baker could also return to a high-usage role. He threw 69⅔ innings in 2022 with a 3.49 ERA and 45 innings last year with a 3.60 ERA, but Baker was optioned in July and didn’t return until September. His spring has gone well, with no earned runs in six innings.

And left-hander Andrew Suárez, another veteran, could provide necessary bullpen depth throughout the season.

A good bullpen requires depth. The Orioles seem to have it, even with Bautista shelved. So despite all the focus on the opening day roster, there’s perhaps no positional group that will fluctuate more this season than the relievers.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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