We're just a dozen games into the season, and you get the sense the Orioles are already encountering the sound-the-alarm, calling-all-cars types of problems they'd hoped to avoid. At the least, they hoped they wouldn't have to cross this creaky, unstable bridge for another month or two.

Forget the four-game losing streak they carry into today's season-finale at Boston. If you subscribe to the idea that this season isn't really about this season (does that make sense?), then you'll just have to accept a losing streak here and there.


No, we're talking about their pitching. Of course.

Here, check out this photo:

Lousy rotation does O's prospects few favors

From the left, that's Troy Patton, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta and David Hernandez. That's the future. And Andy MacPhail wisely hid the Orioles' future down on the farm -- give them some seasoning, no need to rush them -- and I think most fans understand this approach. But are you starting to think that MacPhail has done a lousy job of shielding them, of insuring they can even remain in the minors as long as necessary?

With three roster spots up for grabs this spring, nearly three dozen pitchers were in camp at Fort Lauderdale. The Orioles settled on Alfredo Simon, Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson. The trio's primary job was to occupy a steady roster spot, take the mound every fifth day and allow the younger pitchers to spend as much time in the minors as possible.

One suspect pitcher, you can understand. Two shaky pitchers, well, it's not ideal. But to have three-fifths of your rotation occupied by such giant question marks always looked like a recipe for disaster. The group was never properly equipped. The task was too tall. And here we are, just two weeks into the season, and the Orioles are already forced to dip into their system.

With a 1-1 record, Hendrickson makes his third start of the season today, but Simon is already on the DL and Eaton is probably as surprised as anyone that he even has a job. (Of course, with a 6.17 team ERA, things aren't so hot across the board. In fact, thus far, no team in baseball has given up more hits, no team has a higher WHIP and no team's opponents have posted a higher slugging percentage.)

Replacing Simon in the rotation tomorrow, Brad Bergesen is expected to be called up from Triple-A Norfolk. Though he was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year a season ago, Bergesen is not a prospect on the level of Matusz, Tillman or Arrieta. Still, he's 23, has a future in the organization and if MacPhail didn't think he needed more seasoning, Bergesen would've started the year with the big-league club.

The scary part is, what happens next? What happens if Eaton gets knocked around again? If Brian Bass doesn't calm down? If the arms in the bullpen are tired before April's finished? Or if injury claims someone else?

What do the Orioles do then?

Not that the Orioles are going to call up Matusz any day -- he barely made his third professional start yesterday -- but the big-league pitchers should be providing a time cushion. The front office should be able to plan Eaton's good-bye party without gingerly dancing around its prospects.

MacPhail's doing so many right things in rebuilding this organization. You really have to applaud his patience and his resolve. I especially like that he doesn't want to rush young players to the majors. But it's not looking like he's given himself a lot of options with the collection of pitchers on the 25-man roster.

Photo: Doug Kapustin / Sun