SARASOTA, Fla. — The battle to be the Orioles' reserve catcher -- which for weeks was assumed to be veteran Chad Moeller's to lose -- has been seized by the unheralded Craig Tatum.
Claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds in November, Tatum, 27, has batted just .227 in 22 spring at-bats, but gained the advantage with his strong arm and defensive prowess.
"I think [defense] is the only consideration," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said about choosing Tatum to be phenom Matt Wieters' backup. "His ability to catch and throw. I think it is pretty obvious."
Drafted in the third round by Cincinnati out of Mississippi State in 2004, Tatum spent five seasons in the minors before playing 26 games for the Reds in 2009.
His gain comes at the expense of Moeller, a nonroster invitee who caught 30 games for the Orioles last year in his 10th big league season and was having a strong spring, hitting .300 with two homers in 20 at-bats.
"I felt like I had a good spring and things had gone really well here last year and that's why I signed back," said Moeller, 35. "I was shocked and disappointed. I thought they were looking for a veteran presence for Wieters and the young pitchers."
The Orioles are not officially announcing the move until they canvass the rest of the league to see if anyone would give Moeller a big league job. If that possibility exists, a deal would be worked out, said Andy MacPhail, the club's president of baseball operations. If not, Moeller could retire, accept the Triple-A assignment or ask for his release so he could play in another organization's minor leagues. It's unclear whether the Orioles would grant that request.
"I would very much like to have him stay in the organization. I think he does a real good job handling the staff," MacPhail said. "He's a good influence. ... But at the same time, if he gets a major league opportunity, he should take it by all means."
Moeller is not considering retiring, but isn't sure whether he'll play in the Orioles' minors.
"That's going to be something I'm going to have to figure out," Moeller said. "I don't know at this point."
Last year, Moeller made the team out of spring training but was demoted when Wieters debuted May 29. He stayed in Triple-A until August, when Gregg Zaun was traded. In his Orioles' tenure, Moeller forged a bond with many of the club's younger core, and whispers of his pending reassignment privately frustrated several players.
"They didn't like the move last year when we did it and Chad worked his way back up to the big leagues," MacPhail said. "That's certainly a possibility going forward."
Pie excited for Opening Day start
The Orioles informed left-handed hitting Felix Pie he would be the Opening Day left fielder against Tampa Bay right-hander James Shields, meaning Nolan Reimold will be on the bench Tuesday.
"It's exciting because everybody knows what happened last year in the first half," said Pie, who hit .157 in his first 24 games last season and batted .297 thereafter. "But I learned from it. I've been more consistent and I'm more relaxed. I'm happy."
Trembley said Pie, who is batting .393 this spring, has improved dramatically this year and has earned the start against Shields.
"This is not a slight on Reimold, but this is the right thing for Reimold," Trembley said. "He is not 100 percent. You think I am going to go ask him to bust his butt on turf?"
Reimold, who was last year's primary left fielder before getting injured, said he knows the club still has concerns about his surgically repaired left Achilles.
"They have my best interests at heart, that's what [Trembley] told me. Not to read anything into it," said Reimold, who is hitting .231 this spring. "I won't."
The Orioles cut eight players Tuesday, trimming their spring roster to 30 players.
Pitchers Chris Tillman and Alberto Castillo and infielder Justin Turner were optioned to Norfolk while catcher Adam Donachie and outfielder Jeff Salazar were reassigned to minor league camp. Pitchers Ross Wolf and Alfredo Simon and infielder Scott Moore also were reassigned to the minor leagues, but they will stay with the team for the remainder of the spring. Trembley said informing the players about not making the team was heartbreaking.
"It is the toughest part of the job," Trembley said. "You love them, you absolutely love them, and to tell them that they are not breaking with us and [knowing] I am responsible for maybe putting out the light of a dream they have. It's damn tough."
Around the horn
Outfielder Joey Gathright, who was with Norfolk for much of last season, has agreed to a minor league deal after being released Monday by the Toronto Blue Jays. Gathright, 28, batted .167 in 42 at-bats with the Blue Jays this spring. ... Minor leaguers Jake Arrieta and Steve Johnson will split duties in the major league game Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays. ... Kevin Millwood, the club's Opening Day starter, will pitch a minor league game Thursday and Jeremy Guthrie will pitch with the minor leaguers Friday.