WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Shortly before the Orioles dropped a 5-3 decision to the Nationals on Tuesday at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, manager Brandon Hyde was asked a hypothetical. Assuming the improvement he hopes to see from his relief corps occurs, from where exactly would it emerge?
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Shortly before the Orioles dropped a 5-3 decision to the Nationals on Tuesday at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, manager Brandon Hyde was asked a hypothetical. Assuming the improvement he hopes to see from his relief corps occurs, from where exactly would it emerge? Are the Orioles expecting steps forward from their many returnees, or from their fresher faces?
The answer, the manager essentially said, is both.
“I hope guys improve from last year’s experiences, and I hope we have guys pushing others too,” Hyde said. “I want as much competition as possible to push other people.”
Consider it a reality taking place at this very moment. Of the 10 or so Baltimore relievers showing well early in camp, around half logged significant Major League innings last season. The other half are new, from Rule 5 Draft pick Michael Rucker to now-healthy Cody Carroll to non-roster invite Eric Hanhold. And all are making good enough impressions to put themselves in the mix for roster spots.
The latest example came Tuesday, when Rucker and Carroll continued their scoreless springs by combining for three shutout innings. His fastball living at 94-96 mph per the stadium radar gun, Rucker breezed through a 1-2-3 fourth and struck out Asdrúbal Cabrera to work out of a jam in the fifth. Carroll used a strikeout and a double play to face the minimum in his only inning of work, topping out at 96.
The competition element was plain to see later, when holdovers Miguel Castro and Paul Fry logged a scoreless frame apiece. Those four have combined to allow one earned run across 14 innings this spring.
“I love to see it," Hyde said. “Love to see it. Their stuff is up, too.”
The question is: How many spots are realistically up for grabs? The Orioles’ bullpen appears surprisingly stable for a unit that struggled as much as it did a year ago, with Mychal Givens, Hunter Harvey, Richard Bleier, Shawn Armstrong, Castro and Fry seemingly assured spots. That would leave two more for some combination of David Hess, Evan Phillips, Branden Kline, Tanner Scott, Travis Lakins, Rucker and several others, with rotation candidate Brandon Bailey potentially in the mix as well.
It’s a jumbled mix, with many moving parts. Everyone on the bubble is optionable to the Minors except Rucker and Bailey, who as Rule 5 Draft picks, must be offered back to their former clubs (the Cubs and Astros, respectively) for $50,000 should they not make the Orioles. That both also come with the ability to go multiple innings could give them a leg up.
Hyde said Rucker, a converted starter who sports just two career appearances above Double-A, could be stretched out as far as four innings this spring.
“I’ve been getting adjusted really well to the level of competition, and getting a feel for my pitches and to how big league hitters react to my stuff when it's in the zone,” Rucker said. “Especially [as a reliever], I can go full bore. Usually in that scenario, I take my two or three best pitches that day and go rock n’ roll. Try to show my best stuff for as long as I can.”
From the trainer’s room
• Sidelined by a recurrence of flu-like symptoms, Trey Mancini did not travel east with the team and is not scheduled to do so Wednesday either. Though no less than six Orioles have fallen ill since camp opened, Mancini is the first to relapse. Hyde said it would not impact Mancini’s outlook for Opening Day.
• Originally scheduled to start in West Palm Beach, rotation candidate Tommy Milone instead stayed back due to what Hyde revealed was a minor left trapezius issue. The injury did not keep Milone from throwing a three-inning simulated game back at Ed Smith Stadium.
Also from the game
• Left-hander Ty Blach, who made five starts for the Orioles down the stretch last season, allowed five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings in Milone’s place opposite Max Scherzer on Tuesday. Blach’s Grapefruit League ERA sits at 8.53 as he looks to win a job in Triple-A Norfolk’s rotation.
• Yusniel Díaz’s third start of the spring marked his first in center field, a position at which he made 10 appearances last season. Many believe Díaz is better suited for a corner spot long-term, but the Orioles want to get as many looks as they can at their No. 7 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, this spring.
• They also continue to give a long look to Ryan Mountcastle in left, where their No. 4 prospect’s inexperience showed Tuesday. Rather than play it off the wall, Mountcastle overran a wind-carried Juan Soto drive that turned into a two-run double in the third.
The Orioles conclude their two-game east Florida swing with a matchup against the Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., on Wednesday. They will hand the ball to non-roster invite Wade LeBlanc, as the veteran lefty makes his latest audition for a rotation spot. He’ll be opposed by fellow southpaw Caleb Smith at Roger Dean Stadium, with first pitch slated for 1:05 p.m. ET. The game can be streamed on Gameday Audio.
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.