Juicy issues for O's

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles wrapped up their workout portion of spring training yesterday with the same number of questions that existed when pitchers and catchers arrived two weeks ago.

They haven't settled on a fifth starter or a starting shortstop. They have vacancies in the bullpen and on the bench. All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts still could be traded, and one of their best pitchers, Adam Loewen, still needs to prove that he has recovered from serious elbow surgery and is ready to become a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

The Orioles will play 29 Grapefruit League games, starting today when they open their exhibition season against the Florida Marlins at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Here are some issues that will need to be addressed during that time:

Worrying about Loewen

Loewen is scheduled to start and pitch two innings today against the Marlins. He said he's 100 percent healthy, but there still has to be some trepidation from Orioles officials, who are counting on the 23-year-old to be one of the staff's anchors.

Loewen hasn't pitched since May 1 after having a screw inserted in his left elbow to help heal a stress fracture, and he has made only 25 career major league starts.

"It's been a long time, but I'm pretty comfortable," said Loewen, who has looked sharp in bullpen sessions and in live batting practice. "If I had any doubts on going out there and what to expect, I'd probably be a little bit nervous."

Loewen has recently rediscovered the touch on his curveball and said he will focus on his fastball command. Regardless of how well he pitches today, the biggest development will be how his elbow feels as he walks off the mound.

Looking for a fifth

Barring injuries, the top four members of the Orioles' rotation are set with (in no particular order) Loewen, Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera and Steve Trachsel. Manager Dave Trembley has said repeatedly that he doesn't expect the fifth spot to be filled until late in spring training. He also isn't ruling out the possibility that the No. 5 starter will come from another organization.

"There have been meetings the last two days with all the major league scouts ... [and] they've gone over our needs," Trembley said. "It could come from outside. It could be filled from here. I don't know that."

The Orioles have plenty of internal candidates, but none has had sustained success in the big leagues. That group includes Matt Albers, Brian Burres, Lance Cormier, Jon Leicester, Radhames Liz, Garrett Olson, Troy Patton and Hayden Penn.

Even if Patton avoids season-ending shoulder surgery, he's far enough behind that he's a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. Unless he's dominant, Liz is headed to the minors, and the club is looking at Cormier more as a long reliever. That leaves Albers, Burres, Leicester, Olson and Penn in a five-man race.

"I wouldn't say it's an audition," Penn said. "There are so many guys here. You can't worry about anything else but what you can do."

Penciling in 'pen

Trembley will carry a seven-man bullpen, and he said yesterday that only George Sherrill, Jamie Walker and Chad Bradford are definites. Dennis Sarfate, the hard-throwing right-hander acquired in the Miguel Tejada trade, and Randor Bierd, the Orioles' Rule 5 selection, are near locks unless they falter badly this spring.

The long reliever spot will come from the pool of pitchers competing for the fifth starter's spot. That leaves Greg Aquino, Rocky Cherry, Jim Hoey and Bob McCrory in the running for the last bullpen slot.

"I think that once we start playing games - a week or 10 days into it - it should start to become pretty clear what's going on," Trembley said.

Can L. Hernandez be a hit?

The slick-fielding Luis Hernandez has the advantage over Brandon Fahey and Freddie Bynum to replace Tejada as the starting shortstop. If Hernandez holds his own offensively this spring, the job is his. Trembley will give all three a shot early with the hopes of naming a starter by the middle of March. And club president Andy MacPhail has said the front office has identified several teams with a shortstop surplus in case the Orioles aren't satisfied with their internal options.

"I'll probably give equal time to all three of them starting out, and then one will emerge more than the others," Trembley said. The losers of the starting shortstop battle will then compete for the utility infield position, one of four available spots on the bench. Guillermo Quiroz is the favorite to win the backup catcher spot over Ben Davis and Chris Heintz.

If he isn't traded, Jay Payton will be the fourth outfielder, leaving one more spot for either Scott Moore, Tike Redman or Chris Roberson. And the Orioles will have a decision to make in mid-April when outfielder-designated hitter Jay Gibbons comes off the suspension list and needs to be placed on the 25-man roster.

B-Rob be gone?

Roberts is scheduled to start at second base and bat leadoff for the Orioles today, a mild upset considering MacPhail has engaged in trade talks with the Chicago Cubs about the two-time All-Star for months.

The Orioles will dispatch a scout to Mesa, Ariz., site of the Cubs' training facility, next week to get a closer look at some of the players the two teams have discussed. It's expected that infielder Ronny Cedeno and pitching prospect Sean Gallagher would be in the deal, but the third and/or fourth player still hasn't been decided. Both sides remain optimistic that a deal could get done.

"I don't really think much about it anymore," Roberts said. "I know a little bit about the situation, and I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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