We are nineteen days away from the start of the season. That still seems like far too long of a wait, but at the very least, as we move into the latter part of Spring Training there are finally concrete signs that Opening Day is drawing closer. Starting pitchers are going longer in their outings. Players like Nick Markakis, who were held back early in camp with preexisting injuries, are starting to play. Minor Leaguers with no real shot at making the major league team are being sent to minor league camp. The games are slowly starting to feel more like “real” games rather than pure exhibitions. Perhaps the biggest sign that we are getting close is that issues that appeared so muddied just a few weeks ago are starting to come into focus. For the Orioles, that means that the pitching situation is finally beginning to shake out. Buck is still keeping things close the chest and perhaps being a bit coy when he states that guys like Alfredo Simon and Chris Tillman are still very much in the hunt for a rotation spot. The Orioles continue to give “starter innings” to close to 10 pitchers and a pitcher like Tommy Hunter, who seems like a lock for the rotation, as yet to appear in an official Spring Training game. There are also ongoing reports that the O’s are scouting Joe Blanton and other possibly-available starters. All of that hardly seems to paint a clear picture of the Opening Day rotation, right? Well, the O’s have never had a ton of transparency when it comes to these things. If you read between the lines however and use some common sense to sort things out, it becomes obvious that the Opening Day pitching staff has far less serious candidates than it did just a week or two ago.
Beginning with the starters, by my count there are eight pitchers who are still being given a starter’s workload at this point: Jason Hammel, Brian Matusz, Jake Arietta, Tommy Hunter, Wei-Yen Chen, Dana Eveland, Alfredo Simon, and Chris Tillman. Tsuyoshi Wada could also be added to this group, although he just made his Spring debut yesterday pitching two innings, so it is perhaps too early to tell how Buck will handle his workload going forward. Chris Tillman has looked good this Spring, but he had virtually no shot of making the rotation to begin with and not enough has happened to change that. He has an option and will most certainly begin the year with AAA Norfolk. Simon is another guy who needed a lot to happen to make rotation and despite pitching well, is most likely destined for the bullpen or a late Spring trade. The fact that he left last night’s game after reinjuring his groin most likely seals his fate. Wada could certainly be brought up to speed to be among the five pitchers in the starting rotation by Opening Day, but given that there are worthy candidates ahead of him, that doesn’t seem necessary. With three weeks to go and only two innings under his belt, it seems far more likely that Wada pitches a couple of innings in four or so more Spring games and starts the season in the bullpen. Wada’s status is far less certain than Simon’s and Tillman’s, but this still seems the likely outcome.
News today is that Zach Britton continues to deal with shoulder inflammation and has been scratched from his minor league start today. The O’s, for their part, continue to insist that the injury is not serious. It very well might not be, but Britton has also not yet been able to make it into a game this Spring. He will most likely start the season getting going in AAA or at worse, on the DL.
That leaves six rotation candidates: Hammel, Matusz, Arietta, Hunter, Chen, and Eveland. Hammel and Chen were virtual locks coming into the Spring and have been pitched well enough for that to still be the case. While not locks, Arietta and Hunter had rotation spots to lose and have done nothing so far that would indicate they have let those spots go. Hunter appears to be healthy and his lack of official Spring Training games is more the result of the O’s being cautious with early-Spring injuries and having to find enough innings for all of their pitchers, leaving Hunter with only minor league and simulated game experience thus far in March. That leaves one spot between Matusz and Eveland. This is where things are still at their muddiest with regards to the rotation.
Eveland was acquired during the Winter in a trade the sent two O’s minor leaguers to the Dodgers. The two players given up (Jarret Martin and Tyler Henson) were largely considered non-prospects. However, the O’s still gave up two players to acquire Eveland and owe him $750,000 this season. Matusz, meanwhile, makes less and has a minor league option (Eveland does not). Teams rarely trade two players for a pitcher make $750k only to release him prior to the start of the season. For that reason, Eveland appears to have the edge in this two-horse race. In Matusz’s favor is the fact that he has pitched better and has the higher upside. Eveland also has experience out of the bullpen and can be shifted to a reliever role relatively easily if the O’s choose that direction. If a gun were put to my head, I would probably say that Matusz ends up in the rotation and the O’s attempt to pass Eveland through waivers, but this is one spot that is still definitely still in the air.
The top half of the bullpen is pretty clear. Barring any trades, Jim Johnson, Kevin Gregg, Luis Ayala, and Pedro Stop will be in the bullpen. If not in the rotation, Wada is in the bullpen as well. The bullpen situation becomes less clear after that. Assuming the rotation is as I predicted above, that leaves Eveland, Troy Patton, Simon, Matt Lindstrom, Darren O’Day, Jason Berken, and Brad Bergeson fighting it out for the remaining two spots. Lindstrom and O’Day have seen limited action recently due to nagging injuries. The injuries do not appear that serious, there I don’t think it is unreasonable that one of them will begin the season on the DL. O’Day also has an option remaining and seems likely to start the season in AAA. Same goes for Bergy and Berken – with one option left each, they will likely begin the season with Norfolk.
The O’s have said all along that options will not be a factor in roster decisions. The thing is, what else do you expect the team to say? That performance doesn’t really matter and that decisions will be made based upon contract considerations? The reality is, these things will come into play and for the bullpen, they should come into play. Reliever performance is erratic in nature, so if the O’s can stash several experienced relievers like Berken, O’Day, and Bergeson in the minors, then they would be wise to do just that. Even after eliminating guys with options, that still gives us Lindstrom, Eveland, Patton and Simon – four guys for two spots and all four are out of minor league options. If Wada is the bullpen, it is hard to believe the O’s will go with three lefties in the pen. If so, that basically boils the final two bullpen spots down into two separate battles between lefties Patton & Eveland and righties Lindstrom and Simon.
So there’s your current Orioles’ pitching staff picture – far from crystal clear, but certainly a lot more in focus than it was a couple of weeks ago. Today is the team’s first and only off day of the Spring and I wouldn’t be surprised if news on a few cuts comes later today. If not, things should move quickly over the next week. Starters are will be stretched out to 6 innings, 80+ pitches the next time through the rotation most likely, leaving less opportunity for others to get innings in. It will be in observing who is given these innings that we will be able to see who the team is leaning towards in these few pitching battles. One thing is for sure, Dan Duquette’s plan of building a pitching staff through depth seems to be working. The O’s certainly aren’t short of options and there are some relatively strong ones at that. There are still three weeks to go, but I feel pretty good about the Orioles chances of putting together a solid pitching staff not only by Opening Day, but one that has the necessary depth to effectively get the team through a long season.