ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Manager Johnny Oates won't give any hints, but it's becoming obvious that he has a lot of flexibility in determining the final makeup of the Orioles' 25-man roster.
It was originally thought that carrying 11 pitchers wouldn't leave room for rookie outfielder Sherman Obando. But that no longer appears to be the case, and Obando looks to be a virtual lock to go to Baltimore.
And if Oates decides to go with 10 pitchers, especially early in the season, he'll have room for another outfielder, most likely Luis Mercedes or Jack Voigt.
"I'm going to leave it open," Oates said yesterday when asked if he was more, or less, inclined to open the season with 11 pitchers. "At this point, I'm not inclined one way or another.
"I'm not anticipating anything. I like the makeup of the three right-handers in the bullpen [Gregg Olson, Alan Mills and Todd Frohwirth]," said Oates. "And I'm going to wait and see on the left-handers. I don't know which ones are going to be on the club yet."
The leaders in that category are Jim Poole and rookie Brad Pennington, who Oates said has "done everything he needed to do to impress people."
Mike Flanagan, who made his first appearance of the spring last night, is another candidate for one of the left-hander's roles. But the veteran's late start could prove too much of an obstacle to overcome.
Oates said that the chances of Obando's making the club did not depend on the size of the pitching staff. "There are a number of ways we could go with 11 pitchers," he said.
The fact that Mark McLemore has demonstrated an ability to play the outfield, as well as the infield, could be a factor. With Harold Reynolds a fixture at second base, the Orioles will be making fewer moves in the infield than they have in the past. That will free McLemore, and enable Oates to carry as few as five outfielders if necessary, including Obando.
Mercedes and Voigt can be optioned, so the Orioles don't have to worry about losing either. The same is not true of Obando, a Rule V draft selection from the New York Yankees.
He cannot be sent to the minor leagues without clearing waivers -- and then being offered back to the Yankees for half the $50,000 draft price. The Orioles know they would lose a 6-foot-4 right-handed slugger who has what many think is tremendous potential.
With less than three weeks remaining before Opening Day, every move the Orioles make will have implications on the makeup of the 25-man roster. The first squad cut will be made today, but it will be of little significance. The tougher decisions will come in about two weeks.
General manager Roland Hemond said he is preparing for the options open to the Orioles. "It's still pretty quiet," Hemond said of possible trades before the final cut. "But we're at the point where you review the club just about every other day.
"You don't want to make judgments too fast on some of these players [who cannot be sent to the minor leagues]," said Hemond. Without guaranteeing Obando would remain on the roster, Hemond acknowledged that he has drawn a lot of attention from other clubs.
"He catches people's eyes," said Hemond. "That's why we drafted him. I'd have to say we've been very impressed with him."
So, too, have several major-league scouts who have been following the Orioles. Privately, they say there is no chance that Obando would clear waivers. So, it is likely the Orioles will keep him.
They were faced with a similar situation last year with Darrell Sherman, but his qualifications pale in comparison to Obando's. When Brady Anderson blossomed as an every-day player to team with Mike Devereaux, Sherman's main asset, speed, was of little consequence, even though the Orioles drafted him in an effort to improve their team speed. Fast outfielders are much more plentiful than potential 20-25 home run hitters, as is the case with Obando.
Mercedes has been the forgotten man, primarily because of a slightly sprained ankle. He is scheduled to play in today's game against the Detroit Tigers and it would appear he has some catching up to do in order to avoid a return to Rochester.
"We haven't forgotten about him," said Hemond. "You can't judge a player because he's been out for a week with an injury. You don't forget what he can do."
The most interesting decision facing the Orioles involves the competition for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Mark Williamson, who could return to his job in the bullpen, is the leading candidate off spring training performances thus far.
Fernando Valenzuela has added some spice to the competition with two scoreless outings. The other logical candidate is Anthony Telford, and he could present the most difficult decision.
Telford is out of options and, barring a trade, the Orioles probably would lose him on waivers if he isn't on the 25-man roster. Going with 11 pitchers would allow the Orioles to keep either Telford or Valenzuela. But it appears the only way they could keep both would be to option Pennington to Triple-A, leaving Poole as the only left-handed reliever.
There is, of course, always the possibility that somebody will start the season on the disabled list. So far, the Orioles don't have any candidates, but the track record says it's a strong possibility.
The only certainty is that the Orioles won't lack for competition among the pitchers during the last two weeks in Florida.