With right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez returning from the disabled list to start Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Orioles must make a difficult roster decision in order to clear room for him.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said before Friday's game that either a reliever or starter could be sent to the minor leagues in order to clear 25-man space for Jimenez's return, but that decision won't be made until he sees how the team's pitching comes out of tonight's game.
"I'm going to take in all the information from tonight's game too," Showalter said. "They know where we're leaning and we'll solidify it after tonight."
Sending down reliever T.J. McFarland would be the obvious move, but McFarland has great value as a left-handed long-relief option that can follow a right-handed starter and turn around the opposing lineup. And even though the Orioles starting pitching has been strong, Showalter is hesitant to lose a bullpen arm because he knows how quickly that can change.
And there aren't many optionable bullpen arms -- McFarland and right-hander Brad Brach are the only ones who can be sent to the minors -- and Brach has emerged as a key multiple-inning reliever.
"There's no clear cut [answer], not that there ever is," Showalter said. "I think we'll see where we are with the bullpen at the end of the night and know that you're a day away from that regardless of who is pitching. We've been spoiled with a very high level of starting pitching here for a while, but you don't assume that's going to continue to happen, especially against the likes of the Cardinals and Yankees. We'll try to keep our flexibility as much as we can."
The Orioles could also option a starting pitcher, even though a player sent to the minors must remain there for 10 days – barring a return as part of a DL move – before being recalled. If a starter is optioned before Saturday's game, he wouldn't be able to return until August 19 at the Chicago White Sox.
If the Orioles to option a starter, they could send right-hander Miguel Gonzalez – who started Thursday -- to the minor leagues and might miss just one start and be able to return on August 19 if he's given an extra day of rest each time. Right-hander Chris Tillman, who starts tonight, has no minor league options so he can't be sent down.
"It's not like we're three months away from [roster expending in] September," Showalter said. "We also have, with the off day and the 10-day rule, you could have someone miss just one start in 10 days.
There's a lot of different ways to look at it. I think everybody [knows it's tough]. It's just like when we sent Ryan Webb out. That was tough. You know how bullpens are. When you think everybody is rested and ready to go, you're one game away from not having that. One of the strengths has been being able to keep our bullpen healthy."
Showalter did reveal that the team is leaning toward starting right-hander Kevin Gausman on Sunday, as I suggested this morning. That would slot right-hander Bud Norris for Monday's series opener against the Yankees.
He added he'd like to keep the rotation on a regular routine as much as possible down the stretch.
"This time of the year, taking starters and yo-yoing them back and forth – push your work day back or don't take your work day [is dangerous]," he said. "You're in the buIlpen, no you're not. Now this guy's in there. That's in dangerous water too."
-- Catcher Caleb Joseph, who has homered in four straight games, left before the game to attend to what Showalter called a "family medical issue." He remained in town and could still be available for tonight's game.
That leaves the Orioles with just starting Todd Hundley – who is starting tonight at catcher – but Showalter said Steve Pearce and Ryan Flaherty could be available to catch in an emergency. Both worked on catching in spring training.
-- The Orioles are just 1-5 against the Cardinals, going 1-2 in St. Louis in 2003 and suffering a three-game series sweep here in 2011. The Orioles are 7-4 in interleague play this season.
Here are the starting lineups for both teams:
Nick Markakis RF
Manny Machado 3B
Adam Jones CF
Nelson Cruz DH
Chris Davis 1B
J.J. Hardy SS
Ryan Flaherty 2B
David Lough LF
Nick Hundley C
Chris Tillman RHP
Matt Carpenter 3B
Kolten Wong 2B
Matt Holliday DH
Matt Adams 1B
Jhonny Peralta SS
Oscar Taveras RF
A.J. Pierzynski C
Jon Jay LF
Peter Bourjos CF
Justin Masterson RHP