PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -It seemed like a simple enough equation when the Orioles opened spring training. Manager Dave Trembley could whittle the major league pitching staff down to 12 by Opening Day or keep an extra pitcher and go with only three extra position players on the bench.
Three weeks into camp, there's nothing simple about it. The pitching situation is far from shaking out, and there are plenty of viable utility players trying to force their way into the coaching staff's consciousness.
Take yesterday's game. The Orioles lineup was packed with bench players for the game against the New York Mets at Tradition Field, and four of them hammered the ball off Mets starter Brandon Knight as the Orioles took a three-run lead in the first inning. Ryan Freel opened the game with a long ground-rule double. Lou Montanez drove him in with a double. Ty Wigginton hit a long home run to left. And Oscar Salazar singled.
Of course, it's not an open competition for all the noncatching position roles. Freel and Wigginton are locks to make the team if they stay healthy all spring, so - even if the club breaks camp with a 12-man pitching staff - there really is only one job available for a group of position candidates that includes Montanez, Salazar, Scott Moore, Chris Gomez, Jolbert Cabrera and Donnie Murphy. Remove the extra outfielders from consideration and the picture becomes a little clearer, as the key that opens that final spot on the roster will be the ability to play effectively at shortstop if starter Cesar Izturis gets banged up or needs a day off.
"I need somebody to cover for Izturis," Trembley said. "How comfortable we are with that person says a lot, and what are your starting pitchers going to be like? I can't afford to have guys who go three innings. Then you have to have an eight-man bullpen."
Trembley has been complimentary toward most of the position candidates, but he is quick to point out that the decision really doesn't come down to who plays the best this spring and deserves the last place on the 25-man Opening Day roster. The only reason to go with a short bench is to compensate for a deficiency on the pitching staff.
"If you go with 13 pitchers, I think you are trying to cover for your starters," he said. "I don't think you need to cover for [Jeremy] Guthrie or Koji [Uehara], but the other three, until they are determined, we have to be prepared to go with 13 pitchers. ... That's why we're anxious to see some of these guys out there on the hill that haven't been out there. They'll make that decision for us."
There's no doubt Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz hoped to have more answers by now. They have eliminated a couple of injured pitchers - Brad Hennessey and John Parrish - as candidates, but they still don't really know what they have in Rich Hill, newly signed Adam Eaton or potential swingman Mark Hendrickson.
"You're really at the mercy of your starting rotation," Kranitz said, "because if they're able to go long and eat innings, you need 12 and in some instances, possibly 11. But I would say 12 [is ideal]. We're going to look at it real hard and see. We're so up in the air on a rotation right now. I think that will really come down to the end when things start to fall into place on who is going to be in the rotation. I'll say within two weeks we'll have a real good idea of what we're going to do."
The roster crunch on the position side is actually a strength. The Orioles brought Gomez, Cabrera and Moore into camp because all of them can play just about anywhere in the infield. If the club goes with a 13-man pitching staff, however, there isn't room for any of them. Trembley has even tried reserve catcher Robby Hammock in the outfield and at first base to see whether he can squeeze some additional versatility onto the bench.
"I'm trying to move Gomez around," Trembley said. "I want to get Cabrera some time at first base. There is some flexibility in camp if you need to go 13 instead of 12. The pieces are there for us."
Though Trembley insists going with 13 pitchers is a real possibility, it seems likely the team will start the season with 12 because the Orioles have the option of using minor league designates for the final weekend of exhibition games and have days off before and after Opening Day.
"The eighth guy [in the bullpen] really never gets used," closer George Sherrill said. "I guess it's good to have it just in case, but [Triple-A] Norfolk is not too far. You can just bring somebody right up. I think they'll go with seven, but it's their call. We'll just see what they give us."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article