SARASOTA, Fla. — — Orioles manager Dave Trembley insists that it's purely coincidental. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz, however, smiles knowingly.
Whether the Orioles' bullpen alignment this spring has been purposefully scripted or not depends on whom you believe. However, it sure seems like every time Dennis Sarfate pitches, it's right before Matt Albers or right after Cla Meredith. Every time Will Ohman pitches, Kam Mickolio enters the game next.
The candidates for the Orioles' two or three bullpen vacancies have certainly gotten a close look at their competition, and Kranitz hopes that they're all paying attention.
"Guys need to pitch with some urgency. They really do," Kranitz said. "That's what it's all about when the bell rings. You have to pitch like it may be your last game. Obviously, things will start to shake out in the next few weeks and we'll have a better idea. But yeah, having competition is big, and I think we're seeing some of the results of guys who know they're in a fight to make this club."
Aside from the endless speculation on whether Brian Roberts will be ready for Opening Day, the bullpen competition is the only drama remaining in the Orioles' camp, and Kranitz and Trembley are prepared to make some tough decisions.
"I think each and every time a guy goes out there, it's important," Trembley said. "I've liked what I've seen. I think it will go late in camp before the final decisions are made."
The way Kranitz sees it, four of the seven bullpen spots are set: closer Mike Gonzalez, setup men Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara, and long man Mark Hendrickson. That leaves three spots undecided and no shortage of candidates to fill them.
Albers, Meredith, Mickolio and Sarfate are competing for right-handed setup roles, while Ohman and Alberto Castillo are vying for the situational lefty spot. Starters Jason Berken, David Hernandez and Alfredo Simon are the prime candidates if Trembley decides to take another long man.
"Obviously, I have ideas on what the club needs, but we want them to fight it out and see what happens," Kranitz said. "The organization is better when you have to make the hard decisions."
Most of the competitors are off to great starts. Meredith has faced eight batters and retired them all. Albers has allowed just two hits in 4 1/3 scoreless innings, while Ohman has fanned five in three scoreless innings. Though he has been somewhat inconsistent in three outings, Mickolio has been praised all spring, with Trembley essentially saying that a spot is his to lose.
"Knowing there is somewhat of an arms race, there is obviously some added motivation to go out there, get your outs and do your job," said Meredith, who had a 3.77 ERA in 29 appearances last season after he was acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for infielder Oscar Salazar. "Personally, I've never been to a camp where I walked in and didn't think I had something to improve. I know guys come in and they are working on this, working on that. I try and get outs, straight up."
Meredith said that he doesn't think the situation with the Orioles' bullpen is any different from what's going on around the league right now.
"I think every team, every camp, every year," he said. "How many teams do you know that know their entire bullpen right now? If you know your entire bullpen, you're either really good or you don't have too many guys" to choose from.
Albers and Sarfate have made the Orioles' Opening Day bullpen the past two seasons but need to have strong springs to head north with the club this year. Both said their mind-sets haven't changed from previous springs.
"The guys in the bullpen, those are probably my best friends on the team, and I think we all understand that we're all in the same boat," Albers said. "It's kind of the nature of the beast that you're competing with some of your friends. I understand that. You watch what they do, but I just try to keep focused on what I'm trying to do."
Said Sarfate: "My focus has been on getting prepared for the season as well as making sure my pitches are where I want them to be. I feel like I'm right there. I have to leave all the other stuff up to them. They make the decisions."
Whoever constitutes the seven-man bullpen, Trembley and Kranitz are confident that it will be a much-improved unit from the group that had a 4.83 ERA last season, second-worst in the American League. Kranitz acknowledged that last year's bullpen had too many one-inning pitchers, and he and Trembley had to protect several of the relievers, such as Sarfate, Chris Ray and Danys Baez, who were coming off surgeries.
"Our bullpen is the strongest it's been since I've been here," Sarfate said. "It's going to be tough to make this team. But I'm here doing my thing every day and hopefully it pays off."
Seeking seats in the bullpen