With several recent pitching additions, Orioles rotation still evolving

SARASOTA, Fla. — If this winter has taught the Orioles, their staff and their players anything, it's that they need to be ready to adjust.

The roster will shuffle. Don't think too hard about projections because you can't do anything about the constantly swinging door at Ed Smith Stadium.

And that's been the prevailing vibe in the home clubhouse over the past two days once it became public that the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays were among the finalists to sign free-agent right-hander Ervin Santana.

It would muddle a rotation picture that has gotten increasingly cloudy since spring training began.

"I think everybody privately kind of handicaps things as is, But 'as is' can change every day," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There is no such thing as a surplus of pitching, especially starting pitching."

When the Orioles entered spring training in February, the rotation looked pretty set, with right-hander Chris Tillman, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, and right-handers Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris holding the top four spots, respectively, and a group of candidates — left-handers Zach Britton, T.J. McFarland, Brian Matusz and right-handers Kevin Gausman and Steve Johnson — battling for the final one.

Then, the Orioles signed Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon. They followed that move by giving the largest free-agent contract to a pitcher in team history — a four-year, $50 million deal to Ubaldo Jimenez.

Once the dust settled, the club took a $3 million chance on left-hander Johan Santana, a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner. And then, this week, they began contemplating the Santana Daily Double.

On Saturday, Showalter briefly addressed his team about those rumors.

"We talked about that [Saturday] in the scrum heap. And this is not the first time," he said. "Johan Santana's here, Ubaldo showed up here, Yoon showed up here. It's the way of the world. I think our guys are focused on what they have to do and let things work out."

Jimenez is definitely in the rotation; Yoon will likely start in the minor leagues, but he could receive major league consideration in the early part of the regular season. The club would like to have a sense of how well Johan Santana has recovered from shoulder surgery by around June. And Ervin Santana, who has won 105 games and posted a career 4.19 ERA in nine seasons, would, at the least, be a strong presence in the middle of the rotation.

There suddenly are plenty of options — and plenty of scenarios for fans and media to discuss.

However, Showalter said he believes his players are concentrating more on getting ready; the "what happens if" game should intensify soon.

"Quite frankly, we are not there yet in spring training. In about a week, somewhere between [March] 16th and the 20th, guys will go, 'OK, it's getting down [toward the end].' Things start changing in a lot of ways."

For his part, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette is tight-roping the issue of adding another starting pitcher. On one hand, he said he is happy with his current crop; on the other hand, a steady rotation is a trait shared by most contenders.

"Well, pitching depth is important to any ballclub," Duquette said. "We've got to look and see where we can add, where it makes sense. That's what we've done. We've added some veterans, and we're continuing to develop the players we have."

When asked specifically about Ervin Santana and whether he believes there is validity to reports that the Orioles are a finalist for the 31-year-old right-hander, Duquette shrugged.

"I don't really know. I really don't," he said. "I really don't know what's real and what's not real in that case."

Just the idea of adding another starter — whether it's Santana or someone else — has fueled speculation as to which Orioles pitcher would get pushed out of the rotation.

Could Norris, who has an impressive slider-fastball combo, be moved to the back-end of the bullpen and be a closer candidate?

There are some in the organization who believe he could handle the role, though he's made just three relief appearances in his 130 games in the major leagues (one was as a rookie and the other two came last year in emergency, extra-inning appearances). Norris also could be a trade candidate if he's not in the rotation.

To his credit, Norris is focusing on his current job as an Orioles starter. He has struck out six batters in five scoreless innings this spring.

"From the business standpoint, we all have to be cognizant of what's going on," Norris said. "And the more I play, the more I understand the business side of it and all the rest.

"[Ervin Santana] still doesn't have a job, so obviously I wish him well. That affects us a little bit, but the only thing I can control is going out there and pitching and doing my work here for Baltimore and preparing for a season. So, as far as where I am in the rotation, that's not necessarily the No. 1 priority for me."

Gonzalez has put up consecutive seasons of sub-4.00 ERAs in the AL East. But he has been slowed this spring, first by back spasms and then he was limited to a three-batter stint Friday after being hit on the left leg by a liner. Since he has pitched in the bullpen before, he could potentially be moved there if the Orioles signed Santana and Gonzalez isn't quite stretched out, innings-wise, when the season begins.

At this point, Gonzalez said he would welcome any additions that can make the team stronger. Then it's up to him and his teammates to improve their games.

"You always like to have guys with good experience that have been around. It makes me that much better and stronger as a person when I am out there," Gonzalez said. "I'll give it all I've got to perform and be at their level. … There will be a lot of talent and a lot of experience no matter who [is in the rotation]. I've just got to do that much better."



Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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