With only a week to go until the start of the 2013 season for the Orioles, it’s time to revisit the five questions that were posed at the start of spring training.
Some questions have been answered while others still hold cloudy solutions as manager Buck Showalter and his club finish up the Grapefruit League before traveling to St. Petersburg to open the season against the Tampa Bay Rays next Tuesday.
Here’s what I was pondering nearly six weeks ago as Baltimore was coming off its first playoff appearance in 15 years:
1. Can Nolan Reimold stay healthy and be the impact bat the Orioles failed to acquire in the offseason?
A sore throwing shoulder limited Reimold to the designated hitter spot for a large portion of the spring, but he returned to the outfield last week and does not appear to be feeling any lingering effects.
In 41 spring at-bats, the 29-year-old is hitting .244 with four home runs and eight runs batted in. Reimold appears to have regained all strength lost in the aftermath of the spinal fusion surgery he underwent last summer and should be in line to begin the season on the 25-man roster and in the starting lineup.
Considering the Orioles didn’t add an impact bat in the offseason and right fielder Nick Markakis is still recovering from a small herniation in his neck, Reimold must stay healthy to give the lineup a boost from a year ago.
This question ultimately won’t be answered until the Orioles head north and begin the season, but the good news is that Reimold has been healthy enough to play in 14 Grapefruit League games, which is only two fewer than the number he played in the entire 2012 season. And he’s shown to be the same power hitter he was prior to the neck injury.
2. What will the starting rotation look like when the Orioles come north to Baltimore?
Nothing has changed dramatically in the makeup of the starting rotation from what was projected at the start of spring training, but there are plenty of question marks based on what we’ve seen in Sarasota.
The good news is Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez are still projected to hold the top three spots in the rotation, but all come with questions. Hammel hasn’t shown any lingering effects from last year’s knee surgery and is in line to be the club’s Opening Day starter, but he’s also appeared in just three Grapefruit League games, allowing five earned runs in nine innings of work and not displaying the same command with the two-seam fastball that he did last year.
Chen was roughed up by the Phillies over the weekend and has allowed seven earned runs in 7 2/3 innings in three big-league outings. Meanwhile, Gonzalez has seen the least amount of action as he’s made just two spring appearances covering four innings (one earned run).
All have received regular work by pitching in minor-league camp and simulated games, but you do wonder if the top of the Baltimore rotation is adequately prepared to face big-league hitters beginning in a week. Then again, Showalter could simply be hiding his top starters to prevent American League foes from getting a good look at them in Florida.
The rotation becomes foggier after that as Chris Tillman would appear to be ready to take the No. 4 spot in the rotation, but abdominal soreness has limited him to 4 1/3 innings of Grapefruit League action. A four-inning stint at the Orioles’ Twin Lakes facility on Sunday indicates Tillman is ready to begin the season in the starting rotation and not on the disabled list.
Jake Arrieta appears to have the clear edge for the final spot in the rotation as he holds a sparkling 1.56 earned run average in 17 1/3 spring innings covering five appearances. Originally scheduled to start against the Twins on Tuesday, Arrieta was pulled to instead pitch at the Orioles’ minor-league facility, another indicator that he will be the fifth starter when you remember Minnesota visits Camden Yards for the first home series of the season late next week.
Brian Matusz appeared to fall behind Arrieta after struggling in his start on Sunday, but the Orioles must think carefully on what to do with the 26-year-old left-hander. There is clear incentive to shift him to the bullpen role in which he thrived late last season, but this also comes with the understanding that pushing him to a short-relief role means it may be difficult to move him back into the starting rotation from a conditioning and health standpoint later in the season. Moving a starter to the bullpen is one thing, but asking a relief pitcher to suddenly stretch himself out in the middle of the season is begging for an injury to occur.
Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland and Steve Johnson remain in the hunt, but it appears both pitchers would be more likely to earn a bullpen job as a long reliever if they’re to make the club. Because the Orioles don’t want to risk losing the 23-year-old McFarland, they will likely try to stash the lefty sinkerballer in the bullpen for as long as they can, meaning it’s a good possibility that Johnson begins the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
After a rough start to the spring, Jair Jurrjens has rebounded nicely — pitching five shutout innings in his latest outing — and appears he’ll be among the first pitchers on call at Norfolk early in the season. He and Zach Britton will be nice insurance policies at the Triple-A level for now.
3. Who will step up to play second base?