Much has been made – yes, by me as well as others – on the Orioles’ vacant fifth starter spot. It really is one of the only interesting battles in camp.
The way I see it, Jake Arrieta has made the team and the rotation with a good spring. But there is a possibility that Arrieta isn’t the fifth starter.
There’s an outside shot he could be the fourth starter. Or even the third starter.
I know, it’s confusing. Stay with me.
The Orioles would like to keep 23-year-old lefty T.J. McFarland, but he must stay on the roster all season or be offered back to the Cleveland Indians.
McFarland, though he is starting for the first time this spring today and has done it throughout his career in the minors, fits best right now as a reliever on the big league roster. It’s so much easier to pick his spots there.
The bullpen, however, is currently set with seven relievers. As we reported Sunday, the Orioles are contacting teams about potentially dealing veteran right-hander Luis Ayala, who had a 2.64 ERA in 75 games last year. Tommy Hunter could absorb Ayala’s innings if he is traded. That would create the needed space for McFarland. And the juggling could stop. (By the way, three lefty relievers in the bullpen would be fine, especially since none is a true left-on-left guy.
But there are other ways to keep McFarland if no trade of Ayala is made.
One is to send either Arrieta or Brian Matusz to the minors. At this point, though, Arrieta in the rotation with Matusz in the bullpen makes the Orioles better. And the goal is to take the best team north. So rule out that one for now.
The other possibility is if the Orioles have to put a pitcher on the disabled list. The only real candidate is Chris Tillman, who hasn’t pitched in a Grapefruit League game since March 3 due to abdomen soreness.
Tillman seems pain free and has been pitching in minor league games, building up his strength. He’s up to four innings and 60-plus pitches after Sunday’s outing at Twin Lakes Park. The sense is he will be fine for the first week of the season.
But if he were to be placed on the DL, that would open up a spot for McFarland. And, really, a fifth starter is needed only once – on April 5 – in the first 19 days of the season. Perhaps Matusz could take that one, and then head back to the 'pen after that.
The next time the fifth starter is needed is April 21. By then the Orioles should have a better feel of their club (and McFarland). Someone could be sent down to make room for a Tillman (or an Arrieta/Matusz if they were demoted in the one scenario).
One other thing to consider: It’s possible Tillman or Arrieta could pitch the third game of the season – an afternoon contest at the Tampa Bay Rays. That would allow the never frazzled Miguel Gonzalez to pitch the home opener at Camden Yards on Friday, April 5.
Because there is an off day April 9, Gonzalez could come back on regular rest as the No. 3 starter and the other guy could get six days’ rest and pitch as the No. 4 on April 11.
The only problem, of course, is that after the Orioles leave Tropicana Field they play 18 consecutive games outdoors on the East Coast in April. Hard to imagine there isn’t one rainout scenario in that schedule – which could mess with the rotation order.
Hope that clears things up (I know it doesn’t). We should have a much clearer picture by this time next week when roster are set.