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Analyzing the Orioles' uncertain rotation as Opening Day nears

SARASOTA, FLA. — Heading into spring training, some uncertainty clouded the Orioles' rotation. The club had six starters for five spots, but one was expected to shake loose before Opening Day on April 6.

With eight days remaining before games count, the rotation is still in limbo. Orioles manager Buck Showalter knows what he wants to do, but he's not sharing it with the media or his players. Even he acknowledges that things could change between now and the season opener.

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Although nothing is official, some assumptions can be made: Chris Tillman will make his second Opening Day start. Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez will start, in some order, in Game 2 and Game 3 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

Despite a rocky spring, 15-game winner Bud Norris will start one of the first two home games against the Toronto Blue Jays. It could be the opener on April 10 or the next evening's.

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Maybe the primary rotation storyline to follow this week is what happens with promising and young right-hander Kevin Gausman and frustrating but talented veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez.

Gausman, 24, pitched out of the bullpen Thursday, creating speculation that the former first-round pick, and maybe the Orioles' most talented pitcher, would begin the year in relief. But Gausman is making another Grapefruit League start on Tuesday, while Jimenez is throwing Sunday in a split-squad game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

That's intriguing because Showalter doesn't normally like having starters face teams late in the spring that they'll have to pitch against early in the regular season. And the Blue Jays are the Orioles' first home opponent.

So the back end of the rotation still seems muddled. The best guess is that Jimenez, who struggled last year to live up to a huge free-agent deal, will not start the home opener. So he could start Game 5 or be in the bullpen. Gausman, theoretically, could start the home opener, Game 5 or pitch in relief.

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Here's a look at the six potential rotation candidates and how they could line up:

Tillman: Soon, the 26-year-old will be announced as the Opening Day starter. It just wouldn't make sense any other way. He had the assignment last year, kick-starting a season in which he was 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA in a team-high 207 1/3 innings. He also has been solid in his career at Tropicana Field, going 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA in five starts there. And he has given up just three runs in 11 1/3 Grapefruit League innings this spring (2.38 ERA).

Chen: He's the only left-hander of the group, and Showalter already has said that Chen would start at some point in the first road series. That's understandable, since he has been particularly strong at Tropicana Field, with a 2.79 ERA in seven starts there, his best road ERA in the AL East.

Whether he pitches the second or third game probably has more to do with how Showalter wants to break up his right-handed starters down the road than anything with Chen. He has been good this spring, too, with a 2.03 ERA in four starts.

Gonzalez: The best guess is that he also will make his season debut in Tampa, in either the second or third game. That might be considered a reach, since he has been on the bubble this spring and has turned in solid but unspectacular results (4.26 ERA in 12 2/3 innings).

Because he has pitched at least one game out of the bullpen in each of the past three seasons and because he still has a minor league option remaining, it was easy to speculate that Gonzalez would be the most painless removal from the rotation.

But remember, he was maybe the Orioles' best starter in the second half of 2014 (6-4, 2.19 ERA in 11 starts) and pitched well in his one postseason start (one earned run in 5 2/3 innings) despite a long layoff. Plus, he has been very good at Tropicana Field in five career games (3-1, 2.64 ERA).

Norris: If Jimenez begins the season in the rotation, and that appears likely, expect Norris to start the home opener April 10. (If Gausman is in the rotation, it's possible Norris could be pushed back to the fifth game to allow the club's phenom to kick off the season at home.)

Norris has struggled this spring, giving up at least one home run and at least three earned runs in each of his five starts. But he was exceptionally consistent last year, posting a 15-8 record and a 3.65 ERA in 28 starts. He has no fear, either, so he'd embrace pitching in the home opener.

Also, by having Norris not pitch until the second series, his first two starts would be at Camden Yards, where he excelled in 2014 (8-2, 2.44 ERA in 13 starts). The second one will be against the New York Yankees, against whom he went 4-0 last season.

Jimenez: The argument is that he's not one of the club's five best starters and should not be in the rotation. But the fact is that he is a major league starter (and one owed nearly $39 million over the next three years), and the belief is that with his control struggles and lack of one dominant pitch, he's not an ideal fit for the bullpen.

In addition, the Orioles really need to see what they have in Jimenez before they close the book on him, and that's best viewed in the rotation. Furthermore, the fifth starter could have his spot skipped multiple times in April because of when days off fall. A veteran like Jimenez can probably deal with a longer pitching layoff than a youngster like Gausman.

There still seems to be some sentiment within the organization about putting Jimenez in the bullpen as a long reliever, but it would be a surprise if they didn't give him another chance to prove himself in the rotation this year after a rough 2014 (6-9, 4.81 ERA).

After a slow start this spring (six earned runs in his first 3 1/3 innings), Jimenez has settled down in his past three outings, allowing five earned runs in 14 innings (3.21 ERA) while walking only one batter.

Gausman: The good news for Gausman is that it looks like the shuttle to Triple-A Norfolk won't get going in early April. The club would like to keep him on the 25-man roster despite his having minor league options remaining.

Because the hard-throwing right-hander has had some success in the bullpen and can overpower batters for an inning or two, he probably fits better in relief than any other current starter. And so his ability and versatility could, in a sense, cost him an early-season rotation spot.

The former first-round pick obviously wants to start, but at 24, he is going with the flow. There's little doubt he'll be in the club's rotation at some point in 2015, but maybe not in April, especially with the fifth starter potentially getting inconsistent work in the season's first month.

This decision apparently isn't set. There is some internal discussion about keeping him in the rotation, but ultimately, an initial relief gig wouldn't be surprising. And there's always a possibility that he could be demoted to Norfolk to start every fifth day, but that seems unlikely at this point. He has a 4.50 ERA in four Grapefruit League innings, but also allowed just one run in seven innings in a B game and a minor league game.

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