FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Rich Hill emerged from his first bullpen session in about two weeks shaking hands and smiling after what he called a "very positive day."
Hill, whom the Orioles acquired from the Chicago Cubs this offseason and envisioned occupying a middle spot in their rotation, threw 26 pitches, just about all fastballs, in a side session and reported no discomfort in his left elbow, which has prevented him from pitching in any Grapefruit League games.
But the questions remain about whether Hill will be healthy and fit enough to join a rotation that has only two spots settled three weeks before the Orioles open the season against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards.
"There is a doubt," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "We're three weeks away. This particular time, I like to get guys about 25 innings. ... You have to be able to log some innings to get out there and know he's going to be able to perform. The last thing I want to do is put him out there before he is ready to go. ... I thought [today] was great. For the first time, he came out and threw the ball very well. It was very good, very encouraging for me."
Hill has no such reservations about his readiness, saying there is "no doubt" that he'll be fine for the start of the regular season.
"I really feel good right now," Hill said. "There's just enough time in spring training where I can get the innings in. As good as I feel today, I feel like I can go out and pitch."
Hill, however, is running out of time. He's expected to throw another side session tomorrow, which will be a day off for the rest of the Orioles. That Hill and Kranitz are reporting to Fort Lauderdale Stadium during the one scheduled day off of the seven-week spring training camp shows how much of a priority getting the left-hander ready for the season has become.
If Hill gets through the side session, which will include throwing all his pitches and not just his fastball, he'll pitch batting practice Thursday or Friday. That means if he continues to experience no soreness in his elbow, Hill won't make his Orioles Grapefruit League debut before Sunday. That leaves him only two weeks to get ready for the regular season.
At this point, the reality is that if Hill makes the Opening Day rotation, he'll probably have to pitch out of the fifth spot. Because the Orioles have a day off after their season opener, they have the luxury of skipping the No. 5 spot in the rotation the first time around, giving Hill a little more time to build his arm strength.
"I think he'd have to start out throwing three innings right off the bat," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "But today was a positive day. We got him up on the mound, so now we can go to the next step and then do it again."
Hill's murky status mirrors the rest of the rotation's. Only Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara are locks, and both are currently not pitching with the Orioles. Guthrie is with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, and Uehara is shut down with a strained left hamstring.
The rotation competition has been whittled down slightly because of injuries to Brad Hennessey and John Parrish, the demotion of Troy Patton and the Orioles' preference to have Matt Albers pitching out of the bullpen. However, there are as many as 10 pitchers vying for three spots if you include Brian Bass and Mark Hendrickson, who team officials have said are probably better suited for bullpen roles.
Other pitchers being considered after Hill are Danys Baez, Brad Bergesen, Adam Eaton, Radhames Liz, David Pauley and Chris Waters. Bergesen, the Orioles' Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season, was considered a long shot for the rotation when spring training began, but he has made a solid case for a spot with a 3.09 ERA in three starts.
However, beyond him, none of the candidates has separated himself.
"I am not disappointed," Trembley said. "We came into camp with opportunities and competition. We certainly have given opportunities. What they do with those opportunities is largely up to them. There is still time for guys to show that. I don't think you can honestly and realistically expect that each and every time somebody goes out there they are going to be perfect. I think you have to judge the entire body of work and not just one or two times they go out there."
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail also said it's far too early to judge the rotation competition.
"We have three weeks, and I think we should take advantage of it and not try to jump to any conclusions and just let these guys go out and pitch," MacPhail said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.