Final makeup of Orioles' roster depends a lot on Ubaldo Jimenez

If Ubaldo Jimenez is the good Ubaldo Jimenez this spring, the Orioles might have some flexibility.

The Orioles will open training camp in less than two weeks, and it might interest you to know that the makeup of the Opening Day pitching staff hinges on the performance of one controversial figure.

Ubaldo Jimenez, whose first season in Baltimore spun so badly out of control, could determine whether there is any real competition for spots in either the starting rotation or the bullpen.

That's got to be a scary thought for Orioles fans who watched Jimenez struggle with his unusual mechanics last year and do little to justify the big, four-year contract he signed last February.

But it's really more about how the depth of the starting rotation will drive decisions executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter make about the the bullpen or a spring trade.

Jimenez isn't going anywhere — not with that untradable contract — but his performance over the course of the exhibition season will determine where he fits into the starting rotation and how Showalter will use Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman during the early part of the regular season.

The ripple effect of Jimenez's spring performance, for instance, could push Gonzalez into a sixth starter-long man role if everyone stays healthy, which would fill the bullpen's last open position.

The four late-inning guys appear to be set, and the Orioles have Ryan Webb, Brad Brach and T.J. McFarland back to compete for the middle roles, so Showalter essentially will arrive in Sarasota, Fla., with all of last year's season-opening pitching staff.

There will be a sore shoulder or two and a few prospects to speculate about, but when was the last time the Orioles had this much pitching certainty heading into spring training?

In a perfect world, of course, Jimenez would spend the exhibition season showing off his streamlined delivery and dominating hitters so completely that the Orioles might be tempted to deal a pitcher (or two) for another quality bat. There's certainly still room for someone to pump up the club's on-base percentage.

Trouble is, it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to accurately gauge Jimenez's performance in the spring.

Showalter loves to talk up guys during training camp, but he also is careful to point out the folly of reading too much into an outsized pitching performance during the exhibition season. Opposing lineups are often a combination of minor league players, comeback guys and veteran hitters who use those at-bats to make mechanical adjustments.

The pitchers with deceptive deliveries and good stuff generally do pretty well, and Jimenez is one of those guys. Whether that really will mean anything when the games start to count is another story.

What is fair to assume is that anything but a complete meltdown or an injury will earn Jimenez a place in the regular season starting rotation, which would leave the Orioles to decide whether to make Gausman a full-time starter or continue to bounce him around the way they did last season.

The latter would be a mistake. His time has come and getting him established this season will add some certainty to the 2016 rotation, which could experience significant turnover with Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen a year away from free agency.

That would leave Gonzalez to be the good soldier and move to the bullpen, which makes no statistical sense. He allowed more than three earned runs just three times in 26 starts and posted a combined 2.09 in his 13 starts after July 1 despite an uneven pitching schedule.

Based on the 2014 statistical performances of the returning starters, Jimenez should arrive in camp ranked sixth in the competitive pecking order, but it doesn't work that way. He is the highest-paid pitcher on the team and has three years remaining at an average salary of just under $13 million per year.

Showalter can talk all he wants about an open competition, but Duquette has too much money and credibility invested in Jimenez to give up on him as long as he's capable of raising his arm above his head.

That economic reality and the declining number of optionable pitchers on the staff could leave Showalter with far less roster flexibility than he had last season, which is just one more reason why the Orioles desperately need Ubaldo to get his groove back.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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