SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles’ clouded roster picture became a lot clearer Wednesday with a couple obvious proclamations, one health setback and a top prospect heading to Double-A.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter announced his rotation for the opening series of the regular season at the Tampa Bay Rays next week. There were no surprises.
Right-hander Jason Hammel — who emerged as the team’s top starter in last year’s first half before dealing with a knee issue that eventually required surgery — will make the first Opening Day start of his career Tuesday.
“It’s an honor. Very excited,” said Hammel, who was 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts in 2012. “Basically what it means is I get to be the one to get us off on the right foot. I don’t take that lightly. Very confident to come out and win there.”
Tillman will pitch Friday against the State College of Florida, because it is not an official Grapefruit League game. Because of abdomen soreness, Tillman has not pitched against a major league team since March 3. The club hopes he is pain-free and strong enough to be able to pitch deep into a game. If he exhibits those attributes, he’ll start April 5 at Camden Yards.
If not, Tillman may begin the season on the disabled list, and, because he hasn’t pitched in a major league game for weeks, the transaction would be backdated. In that scenario, he would be eligible to come off the DL to pitch the fifth game of the season April 6.
Showalter still has not declared who will be the fifth starter, but the candidates are dwindling.
Tommy Hunter, who never started a game in Grapefruit League action, was told he made the 25-man roster Wednesday as a member of the bullpen.
Steve Johnson, a legitimate fifth starter candidate, is dealing with a strained lat muscle and will be shut down for the remainder of the spring. He was scheduled to start Thursday in an exhibition against the Rays, but instead someone from minor league camp likely will get that call.
Because Johnson can’t pitch right now and could land on the disabled list if his condition lingers, he has been informally removed from the rotation competition.
“We are going to slow down Steve,” Showalter said. “[With] some of the stuff he’s kind of doing to test it and whatever, it’s still there. So you probably won’t see him pitch again this spring.”
When asked if Johnson could be placed on the 15-day DL, Showalter said, “Potentially. Let’s just see the next couple days.”
Kevin Gausman, the club’s first pick in the 2012 draft who had stayed in camp and impressed the Orioles with his ability and maturity, was reassigned to the minor league side Wednesday. He will begin the season at Double-A Bowie, providing an impressive 1-2 punch with the club’s 2011 top pick, Dylan Bundy.
The Orioles have not yet made a decision involving Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland, but if he makes the team it would be in the bullpen.
Therefore, there are only three candidates still standing for the fifth starter’s job — and right-hander Jake Arrieta is the overwhelming favorite to beat out Brian Matusz and Jair Jurrjens. But Showalter said he has not told Arrieta, Matusz or Jurrjens whether they have made the roster.
The expectation is that Matusz will begin the season in the Orioles’ bullpen and Jurrjens will start at Triple-A.
All along, Hammel has been expected to get the Opening Day nod; he just needed to show that the problems with his knee were behind him.
“There were a lot of decisions for him to make last year, whether to have surgery or not and the whole idea was for him to come back and pitch for us, and pitch into the postseason,” Showalter said. “That was what his whole offseason was about, was being a guy we can depend on every fifth day. In some cases every sixth day.”
Hammel made his final spring tune-up Wednesday in a minor league game against Rays Class-A hitters. He allowed three runs on three hits and three walks while striking out six in five innings pitched.
He initially struggled through a 23-pitch first inning that ended after two outs — the minor league games are tailored to a big leaguer’s needs when he is in the game — but Hammel overwhelmed hitters with his fastball-slider-curveball combo as his innings progressed.
Hammel’s turn usually fell against American League East teams in the second half of March, and Showalter prefers that his primary starting pitchers not face those big league teams, so Hammel hasn’t pitched in a major league game since March 7.
“I was able to work on stuff today better than my last time out,” Hammel said. “I thought the slider was very good today. The curveball was better. I threw enough pitches to keep the stamina right where it is.”
Hammel, 30, was acquired by the Orioles in Feb 2012 as part of the trade that sent Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies. He was drafted by Tampa Bay and made his debut in April 2006 for the Rays against the Orioles.
Seven years later, he’ll be starting Opening Day for the Orioles against the Rays, who traded him away in 2009.
Does that make the honor even more special for him?
“Honestly, I didn’t really think about that. I think if it would have happened maybe two or three years ago when more of the guys I still knew were there then, yeah,” Hammel said. “It’s crazy how baseball comes full circle. I don’t if it [shows] what they’re missing out on … It doesn’t even matter. But it’s nice to be given that opportunity and have them have a front row seat for it.”