SARASOTA, Fla. — The evaluation process that will determine the makeup of the Orioles' 25-man major league roster started two weeks ago, but it will heat up considerably when the team opens the Grapefruit League exhibition season Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates at nearby McKechnie Field in Bradenton.
There hasn't been a lot of attrition yet, even though the future of rotation candidate Justin Duchscherer was thrown into doubt by hip soreness Saturday, so there will be some real competition for several roles and even some intrigue over how the final roster will shake out.
So, what's the biggest decision facing manager Buck Showalter as right-hander Brad Bergesen prepares to take the first turn in the spring rotation Monday and the Orioles get ready to debut the newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium on Tuesday?
"I don't know about the biggest,'' Showalter said, "but I know we have to make some decisions in the rotation, down in the bullpen for two or three spots, and, depending on how you look at it, an extra infielder and an extra outfielder. It's pretty cut and dried right now. Something could happen — whether an injury or trade — that changes the way we look at it, but there is a little competition at each spot."
Here's an look at where the Orioles stand at each of those spots:
Starting rotation: Showalter estimates that there are nine pitchers in the running for the five spots in the regular-season rotation, but that's something of an oversimplification. Four starters — Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen — are pretty much set if they stay healthy all spring and don't unravel on the mound.
If you allow for something unexpected to happen over the next four weeks, there might be a couple of openings. If Duchscherer is not able to remain in the hunt, the next pitcher on the depth chart is 22-year-old Chris Tillman, who was moved into Duchscherer's slot for Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater.
Tillman has been back and forth between the major and minor leagues over the past couple of years, so he would figure to be eager to make a good impression early in camp, but he said Sunday that he's not focused on his chances of making the team.
"I just want to go out there and do my thing, especially the first outing of spring training,'' he said. "You just want to get back to the feeling with a hitter in the box trying to win. I just need to get myself back on a routine right now, get a routine established. That [the rotation numbers game] is the last thing I'm going to worry about."
Top minor league prospect is Zach Britton isn't likely to show up in Baltimore until early summer, which leaves Rick VandenHurk and nonroster invitee Ryan Drese as the pitchers available in a late-spring pinch.
The bullpen: This is another area where most of the picture is fairly clear. Showalter might still be calculating whether Kevin Gregg or Koji Uehara should be the closer. He will need to decide how to match up with Michael Gonzalez, Jim Johnson and either Gregg or Uehara in the eighth inning. He'll have to wait and see how middleman Jason Berken feels after a month of testing his rehabilitated shoulder. But all those pitchers figure to be in the bullpen if they perform well this spring.
Barring a roster-altering deal, there are two jobs open, and one of them will probably go to a versatile left-hander — either Mark Hendrickson or Clay Rapada. The final right-handed role could be filled by VandenHurk, free-agent addition Jeremy Accardo, veteran David Riske or Rule 5 draft pick Adrian Rosario.
Showalter has given only one clue about his preference for the middle roles. On several occasions, he has said, "you can't have seven one-inning pitchers."
Left field and beyond: The outfield competition changed dramatically when the Orioles signed potential Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero to be the full-time designated hitter. That moved Luke Scott to the top of the depth chart in left field and intensified the competition between Nolan Reimold and Felix Pie for the fourth outfielder role.
Showalter said Sunday that it is possible that he could go with five outfielders, depending on the versatility of the reserve infielders who emerge over the next month, but Pie and Reimold can take nothing for granted, especially with switch-hitting veteran Randy Winn also in the mix.
"I've got to prove last year wasn't the kind of player that I am,'' Reimold said. "I don't think it is. I know it's not. I came into camp prepared and ready to play this year."
This competition could be affected by a late-spring trade, especially if Winn — who homered in Sunday's intrasquad game — continues to impress the coaching staff.