SARASOTA, Fla. — The Orioles will start playing guys in different uniforms on Monday, which means that spring training is about to get serious.
Not that a Buck Showalter camp is ever anything less than that, of course, but the start of the Grapefruit League season is really the beginning of the winnowing process that will eventually narrow the roster to 25 players for Opening Day.
There's a lot at stake — both for the team and all the bubble players —and the 30-game exhibition season will start with a turbo-charged opening day for the Orioles, who play a pair of games on Monday. They will open in the afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays at Port Charlotte and begin their home schedule in the evening at Ed Smith Stadium.
Technically, the evaluation process began when pitchers and catchers opened formal workouts in Sarasota on Feb. 19, but the players don't really begin competing against each other until they start competing in real game action. After two weeks of mundane bullpen sessions, batting practice and fielding drills, most of them can't wait.
"The last few days have been like Groundhog Day,'' said third baseman Mark Reynolds.
We'll have to wait and see what the next four weeks are going to be like, because there is uncertainty just about everywhere you look on the field. There are only three defensive positions that are currently free of any roster or injury intrigue and the pitching staff hasn't even begun to take any kind of shape.
There are still a dozen or so candidates for the starting rotation and several jobs open— or open to question —in the bullpen.
No doubt, Showalter will be evaluating on multiple platforms without prioritizing the position and pitching competitions, but the order of importance of the issues that need to be resolved this spring is not hard to figure out.
Job One: It is always thus. Every manager in baseball will spend much of his time and effort over the next month sorting out his team's starting rotation, but Showalter should get some kind of prize for the biggest combination of openings and candidates.
The Orioles have a dozen pitchers vying to be the five that open the season at the major league level, and there isn't a single slot that doesn't have a backstory. Showalter would love to pencil in young pitchers Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton, but all three are going to have to prove they're past the obstacles that rose up in front of them last year.
Right-hander Tommy Hunter is one of the highest-probability guys, but his first exhibition start was just postponed because of persistent back soreness. Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and newly acquired Jason Hammel also start out near the top of a lengthy depth chart, but Chen is an unknown quantity at this level and Hammel is coming off a rocky season in Colorado.
The Orioles can only hope there is strength in numbers, because they've got all sorts of other options, but it's going to take awhile to sift through them.
Job Two: If only the extra infield and outfield roles were mutually exclusive —and the status of two potential starters was not in question — it wouldn't be too difficult to handicap the reserve infielders and the players competing to be the platoon outfielder. But this is a case where executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has packed the roster with so many players with different skill sets that separating them at this early date is virtually impossible.
Every bench job depends on the infield and outfield variables. If Showalter can identify a utility infielder who can also help him in the outfield, that gives him even more roster and lineup flexibility. He has said repeatedly that he also needs to find out which of his utility infield candidates— Ryan Flaherty, Matt Antonelli and Ryan Adams — can play shortstop and spellJ.J. Hardy.
The situation also is impacted by the availability of injured stars Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis. If they're ready to start the season in the everyday lineup, then Robert Andino moves back into a super utility role, Nolan Reimold and Endy Chavez are the third and fourth outfielders and the club probably keeps Flaherty. But it's not going to be that easy and the competition going to go right down to the end of camp.
Job Three: Settling on the seven pitchers who will pitch out of the bullpen— and determining their roles— should be simpler, but not much. There really are only two closer candidates, Jim Johnson and Kevin Gregg, and it's possible Gregg could be traded if Johnson's back is 100 percent.
This is one area where there really does appear to be strength in numbers, with the acquisition of hard-throwing Matt Linstrom, versatile Luis Ayala, Darren O'Dayand non-roster middleman Pat Neshek. The Orioles also have Jason Berken available for a middle role and may use Japanese pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada out of the bullpen if he does not win a place in the rotation.
Showalter said he's approaching the exhibition evaluation period the same way he always does —with an open mind.
"It's another part of the progression,'' Showalter said. "We control the environment here. Now, the other teams have an impact on the environment. The thing you've got to keep in mind…there's another progression after that and that's the season. Lots of guys struggle in the spring and do fine during the season."
"The Schmuck Stops Here" appears at http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/schmuck-blog. Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.
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