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Orioles¿ starting pitching depth dangerously thin

I'm not exactly breaking news with the above statement, but two things that Buck Showalter said last night served as a sobering reminder that if the Orioles lose another pitcher to injury or illness in the next couple of weeks, they are in a whole lot of trouble.

One, Showalter said that if Chris Tillman was unable to make his next start, which was originally scheduled for tonight, the club was prepared to hold back Triple-A Norfolk's starter on Friday night and promote him to the big leagues in Tillman's place. It's a moot point now because the rainout allowed the club to skip Tillman, who has been dealing with groin soreness, and push back his next start to next weekend. But of course, we noted anyway that the Tides' starter last night was left-hander Mike Ballard. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Ballard, who had some nice outings this spring, but he is a 27-year-old who last year went 6-8 with a 5.09 ERA in 29 appearances for Oklahoma City, the Texas Rangers' Triple-A affiliate. He technically didn't get a big league invite to spring training, though he spent most of his time at Twin Lakes Park. In three starts for Norfolk, including one last night, Ballard has a 4.85 ERA and has allowed 15 hits and seven walks in 13 innings. Batters are also hitting .300 against him. And one more thing: he would have been making his big league debut against the Yankees on Saturday if Tillman couldn't go.

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Two, Showalter brought up the fact that Alfredo Simon has had two outings in extended spring and is scheduled for a three-inning stint in his next appearance. He noted that the Orioles are stretching Simon out to try to create some starting pitching depth. There's no question that Simon has the stuff to get big league hitters out, though consistency on the mound is obviously the question. There is also the issue that up until about seven weeks ago, Simon remained jailed in Dominican Republic as the chief suspect in a fatal shooting on New Year's Day. At the time, Oriole officials were essentially saying that they weren't counting on Simon at all during the 2011 season. Now, he could wind up being a key call-up if the Orioles need a starter.

Brian Matusz's return from a left intercostal strain could force either Tillman or Brad Bergesen to the bullpen, thus creating some depth. However, Matusz won't throw off the mound until next Tuesday at the earliest and even the most optimistic expectations don't have him making his 2011 big league debut for about three more weeks. Justin Duchscherer (left hip strain) also is now on the 60-day disabled list, meaning he won't be even eligible to come off until one of the final days of May. Another potential fill-in, Chris Jakubauskas, is also on the disabled list with a groin injury.

What does that leave in the mean time if one of the Oriole starters happen to get injured or continue to struggle in Tillman and Bergesen's case? Beyond Ballard, I'm not really sure.

Veteran Ryan Drese has a 9.37 ERA in three starts for Norfolk, and has allowed 27 hits and five walks in 16 1/3 innings. The other Norfolk starters are Chorye Spoone (6.75 ERA), Rick VandenHurk (8.16 ERA) and Steve Johnson (10.57 ERA). Double-A Bowie's rotation also lacks a potential big league replacement.

Showalter is fond of talking about all the "What Ifs" and making sure the club has contingency plans for pretty much anything. I'm sure they do in this case. I'm just not sure what it is if they happen to lose another starter in the next couple of weeks.

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