FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -It wasn't exactly the Riddle of the Sphinx, but the Orioles' starting rotation had remained a mystery until Tuesday afternoon.
The last variable was right-hander Hayden Penn, who took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fort Lauderdale Stadium with a chance to win the remaining opening, and here is what happened in a nutshell:
Penn made the rotation, but he won't be in it.
OK, so I guess the better way to phrase that is his rocky performance determined the makeup of the rotation, but at his own expense. He gave up six runs over 3 2/3 innings and fell out of consideration. Factor in manager Dave Trembley's assertions after the game that Brian Bass is being groomed for a middle-inning relief role and Brad Bergesen is not going to be rushed back next week and - drum roll, please - you have your 2009 Baltimore Orioles starting five:
* Alfredo Simon
* Adam Eaton
* Mark Hendrickson
Of course, the order of the five isn't set in stone, and I suppose you have to leave open the possibility the Orioles will acquire somebody at the last minute to push Hendrickson into the bullpen, but a field of candidates that once numbered in the double digits has been chiseled to those five. In other words, it wasn't a very good day to be Penn, who increased his ERA to 10.06 and might have given the front office license to send him through waivers and likely lose him to another pitching-poor organization.
"I've been saying all spring, I either get it done or I don't," Penn said. "I didn't today, and I didn't do it all spring. For me to say I'm not disappointed, I'd be lying in your face. I'm very disappointed. I thought I'd have a better showing, and I didn't. But the next time I get the ball, I just have to correct it."
He might not get another chance in an Orioles uniform, unless he clears waivers, but he helped Trembley make one of the final decisions regarding the rotation. Trembley had thrown down the gauntlet Monday in Port St. Lucie, telling reporters before the game against the New York Mets that Simon and Penn would essentially be pitching for their major league lives in their back-to-back starts.
Simon accepted the challenge, pitching six strong innings against the playoff-caliber Mets lineup. He gave up a run on four hits and has a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings this spring. Statistically, he has been the best pitcher in camp, though it took Trembley until Tuesday afternoon to say unequivocally that he would be in the starting rotation. Earlier in the day, he had announced Koji Uehara would start the second game of the season, but everybody had assumed that. Simon would not be denied, and you would have to think he'll fall into the third slot unless Trembley thinks there's a better matchup for the final game of the opening series against the New York Yankees. That's the way the pitching schedule lines up.
Penn might still end up in the Orioles' bullpen, but it sure didn't sound that way when Trembley was reviewing the pitcher's performance Tuesday, as well as his performance over the course of spring training and over the past couple of seasons. He believes Penn has major league talent - he has witnessed it at several levels of the organization - but apparently doesn't think it's going to be expressed in an Orioles uniform.
"Yeah, I saw it, so I know it's there, but for the opportunities and the times that he's had at the major league level, it hasn't been consistent," Trembley said. "That's not to say it won't ever be that way, but it just hasn't been for a variety of reasons."
The Orioles still figure to be reluctant to expose Penn to waivers because there almost certainly will be a team that will look at several years of scouting reports and think it can do something with him the Orioles could not. Think about how many times they've heard about how well John Maine did with the Mets after they threw him into the Kris Benson deal. Teams don't like to be wrong about young talent, so they often hang on to it too long. The Orioles have only two choices left with Penn: keep him in the major league bullpen or put him onto waivers and try to sneak him back onto the Triple-A Norfolk roster. They succeeded in getting David Pauley through after he won 14 games for the Red Sox's Triple-A club last year, so it isn't entirely out of the question.
If nothing else, Trembley should be grateful to Penn for providing some clarity to the situation.
"That's what I said," Trembley said. "The decision that's made is done by them. It's a real difficult thing. They know that each pitch and each at-bat and everything is real important to them. You know, I like Hayden Penn. I've been with him for a long time. Seen him pitch for a long time, but at this particular point in time where we're at, I'd have to say he's not going to be in the starting rotation for us. We'll take a look now and see what the bullpen situation is and go from there."
Listen to Peter Schmuck from spring training every weeknight at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM).