Battle for fifth starter's spot 'wide open'

Trembley says no one is favorite among Tillman, Hernandez, Berken

March 17, 2010|By Dan Connolly |

SARASOTA, Fla. — The battle for the fifth spot in the Orioles' rotation is not only still up for grabs, but it also might not be decided until the final week of camp.

Although it was widely presumed that 21-year-old right-hander Chris Tillman is the clear favorite, Orioles manager Dave Trembley said Wednesday, "Right now, no one is."

Pitching coach Rick Kranitz added that the competition, which includes right-handers David Hernandez, 24, and Jason Berken, 26, is "wide open. It is not a done deal."

With 17 more game days remaining in the Grapefruit League season, there is the potential for each pitcher to start three more times. Trembley said he expects to make his decision based on the pitchers' body of work and not on one or two spring outings.

"I think I said in the offseason before I came to camp that the right thing to do was the fair thing to do," Trembley said. "I thought it was unfair to just say, 'It's Tillman's.' That's no disrespect to Tillman. That's not slighting him, and that's not trying to say anything good or bad about Berken or Hernandez.

"There are still games to be played here, and we have it slotted so those guys are going to get opportunities to start here, and then we'll see what's best for them, but more importantly, what's best for the team."

Barring injuries, the rest of the rotation is seemingly set, with Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen expected to be in the top four spots.

If Hernandez or Berken, who allowed three runs in three innings in his first start of the spring Wednesday, doesn't win the fifth starter's job, each will be considered for a bullpen spot. Tillman, however, is strictly viewed as a starter -- either in Baltimore or at Triple-A Norfolk.

"I don't think [a relief role] is right for Tillman," Trembley said. "Tillman is 21 years old. I think it is way too early to start looking at him as a bullpen guy."

Considered one of baseball's better young pitching prospects, Tillman has made three appearances, including two starts, and has the lowest spring ERA of the trio at 3.86. But he had a rough outing Monday, allowing four hits, three walks and two runs in 2 2/3 innings of relief. Most alarming, he threw only 29 of his 59 pitches for strikes.

"You are trying to work your butt off and try to work on things at the same time; it is tough," said Tillman, who was 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 big league starts in 2009. "I came into spring last year pretty much knowing it was not my spot and I could pretty much do what I wanted to do. But this year, it's a whole new ballgame."

Still, Tillman said he is confident that, by the end of spring, he will have shown he should be part of the 25-man roster.

"Things are going well," he said. "Obviously, it could be better. I threw too many pitches the other day. But I am working on things. They are looking for results right now, but I am working on things and I feel like I will be ready."

Kranitz said he doesn't believe Tillman has gone backward, rather the others have taken a step forward.

Hernandez, who was 4-10 with a 5.42 ERA in 20 games with the Orioles in 2009, dropped his spring ERA to 4.50 with a strong performance against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, throwing 3 2/3 scoreless innings.

He has walked one batter and struck out 14 in 10 innings, further thrusting himself into the roster mix.

"David has thrown the ball very well. He is throwing that slider for strikes, which is something he didn't do last year," Kranitz said. "I think all three have pluses, and we'll just see how it plays out."

Berken, who was 6-12 with a 6.54 ERA in 24 starts in 2009, pitched well in his first two innings Wednesday against a Toronto Blue Jays team that featured one guaranteed starter, but an error and a few well-placed hits hurt him in the third. Overall, he was pleased with his performance.

"I look at it as regardless of what my role is or what my spot is or what I am competing for, I have to go out there and pitch well. I don't look at it as, 'I have to beat so and so,' or whatever," he said. "I don't put any extra thought into it. Chris, Dave and I are all good friends. We are all pulling for each other."

Because Tillman is the youngest and most heralded of the group, the club likely will be particularly careful in deciding where he starts the season.

"I feel like I can be ready for Opening Day," he said. "But if they don't feel that's the right thing, then obviously they can make that decision. But I am going to work towards it and go from there."

Honestly, Tillman said, he is motivated by not knowing what will happen.

"I don't want to back off at all and leave the door open. I feel like it is my job to work for it. I think that is going to push me that much harder," he said. "I want the best for all of them. But at the same time, it is a competition, and it's good to have these guys push me along and me push them along."

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