SARASOTA, Fla. – To the uninitiated, the process of elimination that will turn a group of 29 pitchers of all shapes and sizes into the Orioles' 12-man regular season pitching staff probably seems simple enough.
The guys who stay healthy and pitch the best during the Grapefruit League exhibition season — which starts with a pair of split-squad games on Monday — figure to go north for the regular season opener on April 6.
If only it were really that easy, it would just be a matter of constructing an innings chart and turning the pitchers loose to sink or swim over the next four weeks. The scheduling part is important, of course, but the evaluation process and the conditioning progression are surprisingly complex and subject to change at just about any moment.
"I think the first thing you do is you start looking at the schedule for the regular season and, having an idea of what your rotation is going to be, you work backwards trying to get guys as close to a schedule as you can working into the season,'' said pitching coach Rick Adair. "As far as the bullpen, you look at the veteran guys and try to map their program out for the first half of spring training so they don't work too much.
"That allows all the guys who are invited to camp — the younger guys — to get innings in early. It's kind of the format of how you plan this thing out, and then you have to factor in the injuries. It's a juggling act every day."
Think about it. The variables at play as the Orioles embark on the exhibition schedule make it hard to confidently project anyone into a specific slot in the starting rotation. The Orioles had to baby Zach Britton at the outset because of lingering shoulder soreness and wonder just how well both Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz would rebound after difficult 2011 seasons. Both seem to be doing well, but now Tommy Hunter has been scratched from Tuesday's scheduled start against the Red Sox with a sore back .
The funny thing is, everybody has been buzzing about how many pitchers the Orioles brought into camp, but they're going to need help from the minor league side to get through the first two days of the exhibition season.
"We're looking at 22 or 23 guys right now,'' Adair said. "We're actually a little short, plus we have a split-squad day, so we've got to cover 18 innings Day One."
The bullpen is an even more complicated proposition, since the relievers have to be prepared for specific roles and some of those roles won't be defined for several weeks. The closer and setup situations will probably take care of themselves — with veterans Jim Johnson, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom and Luis Ayala all likely to make the club — but the giant pitching roster and the number of players who are out of options could make it very tough to sort out the middle and long roles.
"We anticipate if a guy is going to have to make this club out of the bullpen and give us length, obviously we're going to stretch these guys out early and then we can back them off to where we need them,'' Adair said. "You project out what a guy can do from a maximum innings standpoint, and then obviously you have your one-inning guys."
Right-hander Alfredo Simon, who will start Monday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays, is a good example of what the coaching staff and front office is up against. He's out of options, which means he has to make the club or be passed through waivers and possibly lost to another team. He probably is not a preferred option for the rotation, but he's likely to get plenty of work so that he can be ready to fill any role on the Orioles pitching staff or — the front office hopes — make himself more marketable to other clubs before the final roster cuts.
There are several other bubble guys who fall into the same category, which could make for some real roster intrigue during the final week of spring training.
"You have to take that into account,'' Adair said. "Obviously, it is a factor. If it comes down to a situation where a guy who is out of options versus a guy who has options and you want to keep them both, then the decision is made for you. But when you get down to the last 10 days, there are contract issues and status issues that come into play."