There's no point in understating the importance of Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez's final spring start, which he makes Tuesday against the Atlanta Braves at Ed Smith Stadium.
Simply put, there are only a few possible outcomes: Gonzalez can pitch well enough to silence the loud questions about him in this trying spring and save his rotation spot, he can fail to distinguish himself and find himself out of the picture, or perhaps even worse, take the mound already too far behind to catch up to up-and-coming right-handers Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson.
There was a good bit of context to suggest Monday that just as important as what Wright and Wilson did to kick off the final week of March in the Orioles' win over the Boston Red Sox would be how Gonzalez matched it. Gonzalez enters his spring sendoff with a 12.56 ERA 2.37 WHIP in 14 1/3 innings. Opponents are batting .424 off him, and he's allowed five home runs.
He's had the opportunity to follow strong outings from Wright and Wilson before. In the wake of Gonzalez' six-run, five-out start on March 13 against the Minnesota Twins. Wilson worked 3 1/3 innings of two-hit, shutout ball against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 15, prompting manager Buck Showalter to insist there was competition for rotation spots. Wright started two days later against the Minnesota Twins, and allowed four hits in five shutout innings.
Then it was Gonzalez's turn to respond, and he fared well enough to quiet some speculation about his job with four innings of four-hit, two-run ball on March 18 against the New York Yankees.
Now, he gets to try and respond again. In Gonzalez' most recent start, he allowed four runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings in a visit to the Pittsburgh Piartes. Wright completed five innings against a full-strength Red Sox lineup Monday, allowing four hits and one run in a performance Showalter heaped praise on. Wilson, who is pitching every fourth day in what would be considered long relief stints, allowed two hits in two scoreless innings behind him.
Showalter said both were candidates for rotation spots, and said specifically that Wilson's role would depend on how long it took Kevin Gausman to recover from the right shoulder tendinitis that's landing him on the disabled list to open the season.
Most of the pitchers who have been optioned already to be starters in Triple-A, like Odrisamer Despaigne, didn't work as starters in the spring like Wright did. Between Wright and Wilson, Wright's raw stuff might play better, whereas Wilson is more consistent and malleable in different roles.
That Wright has been tested as a starter and in these small samples this spring been up to the challenge, he could be best prepared to step into the starting rotation earlier. And if Wilson's fate depends mostly on Gausman, it could be safe to assume Wright's might depend on Gonzalez.
Both have better paper results too, though we know how meaningless those are. Wilson has a 2.51 ERA in 14 1/3 innings, and Wright has a 4.79 ERA in 20 2/3 innings.
Given some of the roster implications, it's possible that Showalter will ride it out with Gonzalez and see if he can turn it around the way he did with Bud Norris last spring. A good start would end the parallels with Norris' 2015 right away. A poor one might make another option more appealing until he gets his feet back under him.
Either way, however Gonzalez performs will be one of the main things to watch Tueday. And considering that when talking about hot-hitting outfielder Nolan Reimold, Showalter said a few good games at the end of spring doesn't impact a player's outlook, it's unclear what Gonzalez needs to do to impact his own one way or another, but it will probably impact the Orioles' rotation in a major way.