Is the 5th Starter Spot Really Up for Grabs?

If Zach Britton continues his strong Grapefruit League performances, could he possibly bump Bud Norris from the starting rotation?

If Zach Britton continues his strong Grapefruit League performances, could he possibly bump Bud Norris from the starting rotation?

Zach Britton’s performance in the Grapefruit League thus far is clearly one of the better performances amongst Oriole players trying to make the team.  In seven innings pitched, he has allowed only five hits and two walks, while striking out seven.  Zach has allowed only one run this spring, which came in his first appearance back on February 28th.  Just as encouraging as those numbers is the fact that he has been clocked at 94-95 MPH relatively consistently with his sinker which is inducing its fair share of swings and misses.

Zach is out of options so he has known all along that he is either making the big league team or shipping off to another organization.  With his performances thus far, he seems to be pitching his way onto the Orioles’ opening day roster.

The signing of Ubaldo Jimenez seemingly gave the Birds a set starting five with the four returning starters (Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris) to go along with the newcomer in Ubaldo.  I have been operating under the assumption – as I am sure many fans have – that if Britton is to make the team it will be in a relief role unless one of the starting five were to come down with an injury.  Some credence was given to that assumption when Showalter used Britton on two day’s rest to work one-inning this past Wednesday.  It at least felt like a sign that the Orioles were getting a look at how Zack might fare in a traditional relief role.

Of course, perceptions can change quickly in Spring Training.  Buck mentioned this morning that Britton will be stretched out again, presumably starting with his appearance tomorrow versus the Yankees.  Perhaps it means very little and the Orioles simply see no harm in giving Britton more innings even if his eventual destination is the bullpen.  Normally I would go with that being the case – that Buck is just playing it safe – but I am not so sure that’s the case this time.  I think there is a solid shot that the team would consider swapping Britton in for Norris as the 5th starter to open the season.

Bud Norris' role on the Orioles might not be completely decided just yet . . .

Bud Norris' role on the Orioles might not be completely decided just yet . . .

The Orioles missed out on signing Ervin Santana earlier in the week.  It is clear that if the club had acquired the former Royal and Angel starter that Norris would have been the odd-man out of the rotation.  If the Orioles were willing to bump Norris for Santana, it stands to reason that they would be willing to bump Norris in another situation as well.  Is a strong Grapefruit League for an out-of-options Zach Britton a strong enough reason to remove Norris from the rotation?  That’s the big question.  I don’t know the answer.  Britton does have far more upside than Norris and if he is firing on all cylinders, he is likely the better starting pitching candidate.

For whatever it is worth, Norris struggled on Thursday in his start.  I don’t think that made Buck suddenly change his direction and lead him to the decision to re-stretch out Britton.  At the same time, if Bud was sort of on-the-bubble before (at least in terms of being pushed to the pen in the right situation), then certainly bad outings like the one yesterday will not help his chances of keeping his rotation spot.

I do think the Orioles have some options here and they are mauling them over.  One unconventional option they might have is to enter the 2014 regular season without an announced 5th starter.  The O’s will not need to use their 5th starter until the 6th game of the season at Detroit.  In theory, the club could list both Norris and Britton as relievers for the first few games of the 2013 season.  If one is needed in relief before game #6 – and who that would be would depend on the situation – than the other could get the call to start the 6th game.  If they wanted to be even more unconventional, they could continue to pick and choose between Norris and Britton for a while.   That’s unlikely as we would expect one of the two to distinguish themselves by then but it is a possibility (even if a remote one).

There is also the possibility of a trade involving either Britton or Norris.  At this point, I think that is unlikely.  While I am sure some teams are interested in Britton, I think he has more value to the Orioles at this point.  I also would not be quick to get rid of Norris before getting a better idea of what the team actually has in Britton.

In any event, the Orioles have a good problem on their hands with Britton pitching as well as he is.  It gives them options to consider and that is never truly a bad thing.