DUNEDIN, Fla. -- All the Orioles have to do in the final days of the exhibition season is make a few decisions. It sounds a lot easier than it will be.
"We're ready," manager Johnny Oates pronounced before yesterday's 6-4 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays here. "All we have to do is stretch the guys out a little -- let the pitchers get their innings and the hitters get their at-bats."
Getting the roster down to the 25-player limit is another matter. Oates has said he'd like to keep a third catcher, but that possibility appears remote unless the Orioles can trade Leo Gomez.
"A third catcher has a lot to do with what happens to other players," said Oates. Right-handed batter Jeff Tackett and left-handed batter Rich Gedman are competing for a role as Chris Hoiles' backup.
The way the roster is currently made up, it would appear that Oates will have difficulty making room for an extra catcher. With five outfielders (Jack Voigt and Lonnie Smith behind the regulars), six infielders (Tim Hulett and Rene Gonzales are the extras), designated hitter Harold Baines and, eventually, 11 pitchers, there would be room for only two catchers -- although an extra spot will be open until Sid Fernandez returns.
What happens if the Orioles fail to make any trades? "We have a plan," said Oates, who wouldn't divulge it. "It's not that complicated -- just don't make any assumptions."
The official addition of Smith to the roster yesterday assures his position, and Voigt is secure as a role player. That Damon Buford, who has been impressive this spring, is still in camp is indication enough that Oates is thinking seriously of keeping him on the roster.
That would give the Orioles six outfielders and dictate a reduction in the number of infielders and could put Gonzales' spot in jeopardy, especially if a deal is not made for Gomez.
That Voigt has played some at first and third base adds a bit of intrigue to the situation. When he was signed to a minor-league contract, Gonzales appeared to be a perfect fit for the Orioles, with the capability of playing all four infield positions.
But, with the Orioles having added Kevin Baez in the trade with the New York Mets for David Segui, they have added protection at shortstop -- in case an emergency develops at that position for the first time in 12 years.
Oates has never said that he's committed to six infielders and five outfielders and has said from the outset of training camp that his desire to have a third catcher would likely be decided by other factors, not the participants involved.
Other than deciding whether he has the luxury of carrying a third catcher, Oates has to decide which of four candidates will fill the last two pitching spots. He probably won't make up his mind until the exhibition season ends in Baltimore on Saturday.
"It's not a question of having somebody change my mind," said Oates. "It's just that there are a number of cases where my mind is not made up yet.
"Basically, I've got eight guys [on the pitching staff] and I've got to pick two guys from four [candidates]. And I don't know which way I'm going to go."
Although he will go with an 11-man staff after the season starts, Oates will go with 10 until Fernandez is able to come off the disabled list. Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald, Jamie Moyer, Arthur Rhodes, Alan Mills, Mark Eichhorn, Jim Poole and Lee Smith are those with secure positions.
Right-handers Mark Williamson, Mike Oquist and Mike Cook, and Brad Pennington, who has the advantage of being the only left-handed reliever besides Poole, are vying for the other two spots. All have pitched well enough this spring to warrant being on the Opening Day roster.
Oates is not without his options -- literally -- in this case. Oquist and Pennington can be optioned to the minor leagues, Williamson is signed to a Triple-A contract and if they decide to take the risk, it's likely the Orioles could get Cook through waivers, thus retaining his rights.
Personnel decisions aside, Oates expressed confidence that the Orioles are ready to start the season. "As far as fundamentals and conditioning is concerned, we've done all we had to do," he said.
"Except for a couple of setbacks [principally Fernandez] we've stayed reasonably healthy and we've had good weather, so we've gotten in all of our work. Now it's just a case of letting a couple of guys play nine innings, giving them a day off and getting started."
And, of course, determining who will be the two pitchers to fill out the staff -- and whether it's possible to make room for a third catcher.
It's time to make decisions, which means Opening Day is less than a week away. For Oates, who admittedly dreads making the final roster cuts, the easy part begins Monday.