Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Last Minute Decisions

With Opening Day less than a week away, there is still competition for certain roles and even roster spots for the Baltimore Orioles. The two main questions surrounding the team are: who will be the 5th starting pitcher, and who is the starting shortstop?

The battle for the 5th starter spot, which once included pretty much everyone in camp, has been narrowed down to LHP Brian Burres and RHP Matt Albers. Whoever doesn’t get the starting spot will most likely enter the bullpen as the long reliever. Burres has made a strong argument for himself, saving his best spring outing for his last, beating the Marlins with 5 1/3 innings pitched, 6 hits allowed, 0 runs, 0 walks and 4 strikeouts. His biggest problem last year, in my opinion, was his lack of control--he had 66 walks in 121 innings. This spring he only has walked one batter in 13 innings, so that is promising, but he may end up in the bullpen anyway. Going into that last game against the Marlins, Albers was the favorite to get the starting nod, and Burres’ performance may not be enough to change that. It’s unclear how the handedness of each player will affect manager Dave Trembley’s decision.

On a related note, the Milwaukee Brewers released starting pitcher Claudio Vargas on Tuesday. I haven’t heard anything regarding Oriole interest in him, but it would be prudent to at least “kick the tires”. The Orioles are not exactly set in the starting rotation and Vargas could eat some innings for us this year. He would be a similar gamble to current O’s pitcher Steve Trachsel, only 8 years younger. It’s very possible that of the 5 guys who make the starting rotation in April, only Jeremy Guthrie and Daniel Cabrera will pitch more than 160 innings in the major leagues this year, so getting innings anywhere we can find them would be a wise move. Maybe president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail just plans on burning a lot of fuel busing our minor league pitchers in and out of town all summer.

The most glaring position battle, and one without an obvious answer, is at shortstop. Luis Hernandez was the favorite coming into the spring, but he’s playing like he doesn’t want the job. No one expected him to hit, but he’s been giving away outs like it's Christmas. The only other in-house option is Brandon Fahey, who (I never thought I’d say this) deserves to start. Well, let me rephrase that: he doesn’t deserve to be playing behind Luis “Throw-away” Hernandez. Fahey has had a good spring and I’ve heard rumors that he’s gained some weight over the off-season, so maybe he’ll be able to hit the ball as opposed to just letting the ball hit his bat.

That being said, I still expect MacPhail to be working hard to find another shortstop somewhere. It’s looking less likely that the Brian Roberts trade will be happening before Opening Day, so it probably won’t be Ronny Cedeno, the guy we all thought would be our shortstop by now. That’s a shame, because those rumored Cubs deals would have netted us not only a possible starting shortstop, but also another pitcher or two to compete for starts this year.

The bench spots are falling in place as well. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz and outfielder Jay Payton are locks. The loser of the Hernandez-Fahey competition will be the utility guy (wow, I hope we bring someone else in). That leaves one remaining spot. It belongs to Jay Gibbons only because of his contract, but he’s expected to start the year on a 15 game suspension. While he’s away, his roster spot will be taken by either outfielder Tike Redman or utility player Scott Moore. Moore has been hitting the cover off the ball this spring and is showing much more versatility than expected, seeing time at third base, first base, second base and left field. He should be the favorite, unless the O’s decide they want him to get more playing time and send him to Norfolk to get it.

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