– Heading into the final week of spring training, Orioles manager Buck Showalter was noncommittal Friday about several club issues including the team's Opening Day starter and closer.
Yet the pending 25-man roster is becoming much clearer, with only one or two bullpen spots and perhaps the fifth starter's role undecided.
One thing is certain, Showalter said: This spring's roster decisions are tougher than last year's, when injuries and lack of depth catapulted players into the majors by default.
"Oh yeah, they were tough for a different reason last year. This year, we feel like we've got quality and depth. We'll see if the season plays that out," Showalter said. "They are all tough conversations, but the real tough conversations are coming because they are all going to be able to make a real solid case for making the club."
Unless things change dramatically, Showalter said the club will go with 13 hitters and 12 pitchers. And though he wouldn't get into specifics, it looks as if his four-man bench will consist of fourth outfielder Endy Chavez, reserve catcher Ronny Paulino, utility infielder Ryan Flaherty and backup first baseman Nick Johnson, who also will share time at designated hitter with Wilson Betemit.
Paulino, who came to camp three weeks late due to visa issues, has made the team, barring a last minute trade. He was signed to a minor-league deal as system depth, but will be called into action with Taylor Teagarden sidelined at least through April 10 — and likely later — with a back issue that will land him on the 15-day disabled list. Teagarden has a tear in the ligament that supports the disk in his back and will undergo a second epidural on Monday.
The Orioles won't rule out a potential deal or two before rosters need to be set at 3 p.m. Wednesday, but the chances of finding a catcher via trade or the waiver wire seems unlikely, Showalter said.
"Very few teams are willing to part with (catchers) unless you want to pay dearly for it," Showalter said. "We traded for Teagarden (in December) because we knew what priority that had to be. But health has been a challenge for him."
Johnson and Paulino are both non-roster invitees, so two players will have to be taken off the 40-man roster to make room for them next week.
Outfielder Jai Miller is the only hitter left in camp who doesn't appear to have made the roster. Miller, who missed some time due to knee tendinitis, was hitless in 18 at-bats over an eight-game period before doubling Friday. He became expendable with the emergence of Rule 5 draftee Flaherty as an option in the outfield as well as the infield.
Miller is out of options, so he will have to clear waivers before he can be sent to Triple-A Norfolk.
The pitching staff isn't as set, but it's not far behind.
Showalter wouldn't announce his Opening Day starter, but the way the rotation is setting up, Jake Arrieta is expected to face the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards on Friday afternoon. He likely will be followed by Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel and Tommy Hunter.
The fifth starter is a little murkier, with the competition basically between Brian Matusz and Tsuyoshi Wada. Matusz allowed three runs on five hits in five innings on Friday against the Detroit Tigers.
Matusz has a 3.65 ERA in 24 2/3 innings and is considered the favorite for the fifth spot. He would be going on normal rest if he pitched Wednesday's exhibition game at Triple-A Norfolk. Matusz said Friday that he's not sure what his next his next step is.
Wada will pitch Tuesday against the State College of Florida at Ed Smith Stadium. Shelved by an elbow issue earlier this spring, Wada has thrown just five innings in major-league games in March. It wouldn't be surprising if he started the season on the disabled list, working in extended spring to build his strength.
That would leave seven spots in the bullpen, and five likely will be taken by short-inning right-handers: Jim Johnson, Kevin Gregg, Luis Ayala, Matt Lindstrom and Pedro Strop. Johnson is targeted as the closer, though Showalter wouldn't confirm that Friday.
The Orioles would be willing to absorb a portion of Gregg's $5.8 million salary in a trade but have not had any matches so far. Lindstrom is dealing with a sore hamstring and could be placed on the DL if it doesn't improve. Strop is out of options and the Orioles don't appear willing to lose him on waivers.
If those five are healthy, it leaves just two more spots among lefties Troy Patton and Zach Phillips and right-handers Pat Neshek,Darren O'Day and Chris Tillman.
Neshek, who hasn't allowed a run in 10 games and nine innings, and O'Day, who has allowed one earned run in five innings over five games, are considered one-inning pitchers, so they may not be an immediate fit for the club. Tillman, who has a 2.92 ERA in five games (12 1/3 innings), could pitch multiple innings, but the Orioles may prefer to have the 23-year-old right-hander start every fifth day at Norfolk.
Showalter said it isn't necessary for the Orioles to have a designated long reliever, if the rotation does its part.
"It depends on how deep our starting pitching is going to go. We are working hard to have a maneuverable bullpen," Showalter said. "There's so much unknown there. We feel like we'll have some people in our bullpen that can go more than one inning."
One of the more intriguing battles in camp has been between Patton, 26, and Phillips, 25, to fill a left-handed relief role. Both have pitched well in camp – Patton hasn't given up an earned run in 10 1/3 innings and Phillips has allowed just two in 12 1/3 -- and both did well last year with the Orioles.
Patton may have the upper hand because he is out of options and Phillips is not. For both to make the roster, an injury or trade likely will have to occur.
"If there is a way to keep both of us, that's awesome. We are both very good," Phillips said. "Either way I am not going to be mad. I'll be disappointed, because I feel like I had a good spring. But I can just go out there and throw when they tell me to."
Neither pitcher has been told what the future holds, but those answers are nearing.
"I haven't talked to anyone and I am not really worried about it," Phillips said. "Only a few more days in camp, and so we will find out soon."