Somewhere on a back field at the Orioles Spring Training complex in Sarasota, I like to imagine Steve Tolleson and Scott Beerer are flipping a coin and noting that they've gotten heads now seventy-six times in a row. It's making them question everything. Were they even real before Spring Training began? Will they still exist when they've been long forgotten, like the Eider Torreses of days gone by? They flip the coin again. Heads.
Meanwhile, on the main stage the Orioles roster is taking form. A few specific roles are up for grabs, but day by day the picture becomes clearer. With just nine days left until the Opening Day roster must be finalized, where exactly does everyone stand?
Not much to report here. We knew heading into camp that the starting nine were going to be Robert Andino, Wilson Betemit, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Mark Reynolds, and Matt Wieters. There have been trade rumors surrounding Reynolds, but it's very unlikely that he's going anywhere before the season starts. Nobody got seriously hurt, and Brian Roberts has not yet recovered from his concussion problems, so the starting nine is exactly who we thought it would be.
Taylor Teagarden was one of the Orioles' premier moves this past offseason, but he's dealt with back issues and has played just twice this spring. The last time he caught was back on March 6. Ronny Paulino didn't arrive in camp until three weeks after pitchers and catchers reported because of visa issues, has emerged as the de facto backup in Teagarden's absence. If Teagarden makes a roaring comeback and avoids the disabled list, the job is still his, as he is out of minor league options and Paulino is on a minor league contract.
This was never much of a battle, though neither Endy Chavez nor Jai Miller can be optioned to the minor leagues this year. Chavez is by far the more accomplished player and stronger defender, and has even been looked at as a possible platoon/leadoff option by manager Buck Showalter.
It's kind of difficult to really separate Matt Antonelli and Ryan Flaherty. Flaherty is a Rule V guy who the Chicago Cubs reportedly would like to have back, and he hasn't embarrassed himself too badly this Spring, drawing rave reviews from basically everyone. But then, it's Spring Training. Everyone is getting rave reviews. Antonelli can go to the minors this year, so Flaherty has the obvious advantage here.
Last Man on the Bench
If the Orioles choose to carry four bench players instead of thirteen pitchers, they have a couple of options. Nick Johnson is probably the front-runner at this point because of his immense on-base potential and the Orioles need for a DH compliment to Wilson Betemit's platoon bat. The aforementioned Matt Antonelli and Jai Miller (who can't be easily sent to AAA Norfolk) both provide intriguing options, too, and with more long-term potential than Johnson.
It strikes me that the Orioles' rumored shopping of Mark Reynolds is as much an indicator that they would like to keep more than one of these guys on their 25 man roster as it is anything else. This is probably as interesting a decision as remains in the 2012 camp.
Two months ago we had a bulk of unreliable candidates. Now things look pretty set with Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Wei-Yin Chen having basically sewn up their spots in the rotation. The Opening Day starter is a ceremonial position, and these three are the most mentioned names for the task. Arrieta, with the sexiest stuff (i.e. velocity) of the three and the homegrown history, and who pitched 2011's home opener, would seem to be the favorite. The last two rotation spots are still up for grabs amongst the following candidates:
Hunter had been dealing with back issues earlier this month but has finally gotten into the major league exhibition games. As he does not have a minor league option remaining and the Orioles view him as a potential innings-eater starter, he's been a strong favorite for the rotation since camp opened. Now that he's healthy and pitching - he went five innings in his first contest on Wednesday - he's basically written into the rotation.
Matusz has gotten great reviews from media-scouts and seen a well-observed improvement in his velocity this spring. Still, he's had a few underwhelming outings now, including his most recent start on Sunday against the Phillies, and after his disastrous 2011 it was likely the Orioles' plan to have him start the season at AAA Norfolk. He has run with his opportunity this spring and is probably the frontrunner for the last spot in the rotation, but he hasn't slammed the door on Tsuyoshi Wada and Chris Tillman.
Wada was a star starting pitcher in Japan and signed to be a starter by the Orioles, but seems to have fallen back of the pack in the competition for a spot in the rotation. In his favor is the fact that Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman both can be sent to the minor leagues this year while he cannot, as well as his pedigree in Nippon Professional Baseball. Against him is underwhelming reviews of his outings (and indeed, of his stuff even from Japan) and a serious lack of innings this Spring, as he has dealt with elbow issues. As silly as it ends up being, his next outing could be make or break for his chances at being a starter in the first leg of the season.
A few springs ago, I was very excited about Chris Tillman, and rather irked by the idea that he was in an open battle for a rotational spot with David Hernandez. Hernandez won the competition and was given eight starts, during which time he pitched to a 5.81 ERA with more walks than strikeouts. Tillman eventually got eleven starts that year and was equally dreadful.
The point is, Spring Training battles are often as pointless as the stats they are built on. Tillman, with a minor league option remaining, is very much a darkhorse candidate but in the Orioles rotation there's little beyond opportunity. He's had an encouraging Spring from a scouting perspective and perhaps has earned himself a new opportunity in the majors...but it would take a miracle for it come early in the season.
Seventeen men enter, seven men leave. There are four groups of guys that could potentially end up in the bullpen on Opening Day:
Jim Johnson and Kevin Gregg are competing for the closer role. Johnson has the leg up there, but his spring has featured bad issues (the new oblique strain!) and poor in-game performance. Troy Patton, Pedro Strop, and Luis Ayala are all not options to go to minor league camp, and it's highly unlikely that the Orioles release them, so they're in, too. This leaves one or two spots, depending on if the O's decide to keep a four man bench or not.
One of the more surprising developments this spring was Chris Tillman - who can be optioned to AAA Norfolk - being sent out in a straight relief outing, airing out his fastball up to the upper-mid ninties and striking out three straight batters. Manager Buck Showalter says it amounted to basically an experiment and that the Orioles like Tillman as a starter, but it was intriguing, no?
Dana Eveland, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Alfredo Simon are each out of minor league options (though Eveland has a chance at passing through waivers and getting moved off the 40 man roster). They were once in the starter field but between injuries (Simon's groin, Wada's elbow) and ineffectiveness (Eveland's pitching) they both have moved strictly into the relief field. Simon could start the season on the DL, while Wada and Eveland are leading contenders for a bullpen spot simply by the grace of their contracts.
Let's not forget Armando Galarraga, though he is almost certainly going to AAA Norfolk to be starting pitching depth on his minor league contract.
If the Orioles decide to keep Wada and Eveland in the bullpen (and, presumably, Hunter and Matusz in the rotation), and go with a four man bench, all of these guys are going to the minor leagues:
Zach Phillips, Matt Lindstrom, Jason Berken, Brad Bergesen (thanks for the catch, j o incandenza), and Darren O'Day all have minor league options, but interestingly seemed like relatively strong bullpen candidates at the start of Spring Training. I'm not entirely sure who would be displaced if one of these guys were to make the Opening Day roster (Luis Ayala, maybe?), unless injuries strike. Regardless, expect all of these guys to show up in Baltimore, if not on Opening Day, then at some point in the season. This corps of guys is pretty much exactly what the Orioles wanted in Norfolk, as GM Dan Duquette's stated goal was to build pitching depth.
Dontrelle Willis and Pat Neshek are specialist candidates on minor league contracts, and are almost certain to head to Norfolk to act as depth.
* * * * *
So there you have it. Spring Training is rolling to a stop, and there are two or three interesting battles for roster spots: on the bench, at the back of the rotation, and in the bullpen.