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Guthrie's departure leaves top of O's rotation even more unsettled

The Orioles' trade of right-handed pitcher Jeremy Guthrie leaves a significant void in the top of the club's starting rotation just a dozen days before pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Sarasota, but the move continues to fulfill new executive vice president Dan Duquette's offseason priorities geared at improving the Orioles pitching staff as a whole.

The arrival of right-handed starter Jason Hammel, 29, and reliever Matt Lindstrom, 31, from Colorado won't dazzle fans who might rather have high-end prospects than two additional pieces to the current pitching staff puzzle.

While Guthrie would have been a free agent after this season, the Orioles control the rights of both newcomers through the 2013 season (and the Orioles aren't locked in with either for the second year either if they don't perform well). Duquette said Monday that the Orioles weren't offered prospects in floating Guthrie, which suggests the market on the veteran pitcher wasn't very high.

The move leaves several questions, and none likely more asked Monday than this: Who will pitch for the Orioles on Opening Day on April 6?

With four years of major league tenure, Hammel arrives in Baltimore and automatically becomes the Orioles' most-experienced starting pitcher. While Duquette said Hammel will ultimately replace Guthrie's innings, that doesn't make him the favorite to pitch Opening Day. Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta and newcomer Yei-Win Chen are among those who will have opportunities to win that role.

Hunter showed flashes of brilliance after the Orioles acquired him in a deadline deal with Texas. Arrieta won 10 games last season before he was shelved with elbow problems in August. Chen, an international signee from Taiwan, is a highly-regarded lefty 26-year-old.

"Right now we have a lot of people who have the potential to pitch high in the rotation and they better take that potential and run with it," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.

The lean, 6-foot-6 Hammel, who came up in the pitching-rich Tampa Bay organization, has thrown at least 170 innings in each of the last three seasons in Colorado. He began last season with five quality starts in his first six outings, starting the season 3-1, but was relegated to the bullpen in mid-August before excelling in a pair of spot September starts.

Filling the No. 1 spot in the rotation is just the beginning. It tells the Orioles' young pitchers — as well as the newcomers — that there will be competition for rotation spots across the board. More than a dozen starting rotation candidates will come to Sarasota.

"With the need for consistent innings in the rotation, I thought it would be better to bring in a number of starting pitchers and then see who the strongest pitchers are and put them in the rotation and then some of the other pitchers would be available to help us in the bullpen," Duquette told reporters Monday. "Then there's another group of pitchers who we could send down on options and continue to develop them in Triple-A. My focus was to address all three areas — to try to get more options for us for starting pitching in the big leagues, some pitchers in the bullpen who have quality stuff and then a set of reinforcements, or younger pitchers, at Triple-A that we could develop for the major league team."

Hammel and newcomer Dana Eveland are starters who are out of options, which will add to the numbers game this spring.

The Orioles have been looking to upgrade the bullpen in recent weeks and Lindstrom adds a late-inning power arm that was clocked in the mid-90s last year and has seen success as both a closer and setup man. Lindstrom had 14 holds for the Rockies last season working in a set-up role, and he's converted 76 percent (45 for 59) of his save opportunities for his career, but it's likely that Showalter will keep him in set-up situations to open the spring. However he's used, he upgrades the bullpen with another live arm to join Jim Johnson and Kevin Gregg.

Duquette said he believes both Hammel (7-13, 4.76 ERA) and Lindstrom (2-2, 3.00 in 54 IP) should improve statistically after pitching in the thin air of Coors Field, where pitchers struggle throwing breaking balls.

"When you look at the home and road records for these guys, they both pitch very, very well on the road," he said. "That was another factor in our thinking, that having met the challenge of pitching effectively in Coors Field it will better prepare them to pitch in our ballpark."

As for filling Guthrie's hole at the top of the rotation, Showalter doesn't get lost on labeling his starters as a No. 1 or No. 5. He said he has his candidates for Opening Day in mind, but he wants to see how the competition plays out.

"There are a lot of options there for us and that's a question we're going to answer down there (in Sarasota)," Showalter said. "I'm excited to see who is going to take hold of this competition and the opportunities they're going to have and who run with it.

"We're going to put the innings together to evaluate these pitchers," Showalter added. "We're going to have to make up our own games. It's going to be competitive. If they can bring what the Orioles need, they're going to have a real good opportunity to show it."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/eddieintheyard

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