Ho-hum start to Orioles' spring training is just what the doctor ordered

Team has had no major injuries or distractions in the first half of camp

March 09, 2013|Peter Schmuck

The Orioles have passed the halfway point in spring training and there is plenty that we still don't know about them, but you have to like what has happened at the Ed Smith Stadium facility so far.

Almost nothing.

The first four weeks have been surprisingly uneventful. There have been no major injuries and no big off-the-field problems, unless you count the fact that shortstop J.J. Hardy actually lost a game of ping pong the other day. The tone has been upbeat throughout, except the part where all the players in the Orioles clubhouse keep talking about the unfinished business to need to attend to in 2013. Nothing wrong with that.

Of course, if you make any mention of this to manager Buck Showalter, he'll start looking for some wood to knock on, but even he has mentioned the spring in Brian Roberts' step and the hunger he still sees in the countenance of his other veteran players.

There has been a lot of focus on the comeback attempts by Roberts and outfielder Nolan Reimold, and it's only fair to point out that it's still way too early to tell whether either of them will be ready to play regularly when the regular season opens April 2 at Tampa Bay.

Roberts has been upbeat throughout, which is a very good sign. The early returns on Reimold have been mixed. He has shown that the strength is returning to his left shoulder after extensive neck surgery — also a very positive development — but he has been slowed by some soreness in his other arm. Both should benefit from the fact that the Grapefruit League exhibition season was elongated this year to account for the time some players will lose while participating in the World Baseball Classic.

Those extra games also have allowed the coaching staff to be much more deliberate in evaluating the long list of candidates for the starting rotation. Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair held back last year's top three starters — Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez — until the second time through the rotation to keep them on a normal spring routine. They've also taken it slow with closer Jim Johnson and setup men Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala.

The Orioles opened camp with as many as 14 candidates for the rotation, depending on who you ask, though it isn't hard to fill in the first three slots if everybody stays on track, and it'll be tough to keep Chris Tillman out of the No. 4 slot after his strong performance last summer. That means there are a lot of people fighting for the chance to be the fifth starter — and there is still an outside chance that baseball operations chief Dan Duquette ends up packaging some of the surplus arms to acquire one more veteran pitcher.

No sense restricting your oxygen intake waiting for that to happen, but Duquette has been known to pull off an unexpected trade on occasion, and he's proven over his 16 months here that he's always in the market for more pitching.

In the meantime, that competition is already taking some shape. Newcomer Jair Jurrjens has pitched three times and gotten uneven results. The Orioles would love to see him return to the form that produced two sub-3.00 ERA seasons in Atlanta, but they need to find out whether he's physically sound in time to make a decision on him before he is able to opt out of his minor league contract.

Rule 5 draftee T.J. McFarland also has gotten off to a rocky start, which is going to make it difficult for him to force his way onto the 25-man Opening Day roster, as he must stay there all year or be sent through waivers.

No pitcher has really made a huge impression during the early part of the exhibition season, because no one is working more than a few innings at a time, but that's going to change soon. The rotation candidates will start to separate themselves from the pack — for better or worse — over the next couple of weeks.

The most unusual thing about this camp is the fact that there are not any major position battles going on, unless you count the guys battling for the bench roles, which could include some designated hitter at-bats. If Roberts is ready to play regularly at second base, the only defensive position that isn't set is left field, and that's more a matter of figuring out how much time Reimold will spend there or in the DH role.

The coaching staff already seems satisfied that Chris Davis will be able to play adequate defense at first base, and Duquette brought in Alexi Casilla as insurance at second base if Roberts is not able to play regularly there.

Now, if everybody can just stay healthy for another 3 ½ more weeks.

Knock on wood.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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