SARASOTA, FLA. — Half of their Grapefruit League schedule now completed, the Orioles seem to be no closer to finding answers on two of their most pressing questions entering spring training one month ago: starting pitching and their corner-outfield spots.
The former, thought to be solved by the signing of Yovani Gallardo and the return of four rotation members from 2015, was cast back into doubt by manager Buck Showalter on Tuesday amid struggles from his projected starting five and impressive outings from those considered depth at this time last month.
The latter has some clarity with Mark Trumbo on track to be the everyday right fielder, but the struggles of South Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim have made left field harder to handicap.
Showalter, his players and the front office now must balance the performances they've seen and the underlying statistics with what will come before camp breaks on March 31, and hope that five starting pitchers and at least two corner outfielders are ready to contribute by then.
"Spring training is a huge fooler," Showalter said. "It's tough, man. If you don't reach back to your experience about evaluating people in spring training, it will fool you. There's a lot of negative and positive momentum from one game. You've got to take a deep breath, and sometimes, talk everybody off the mountain in the van coming back."
It's clear, however, that Showalter is taking some precautions based on what has happened through 17 games to ensure those two positions aren't still uncertain when the season begins. On the pitching side, Showalter declared the competition for a rotation spot was on to an extent "people don't quite understand" after an impressive outing from Tyler Wilson and subpar starts by his other starters, including Miguel Gonzalez. The staff's ERA fell to 6.86 after the 9-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday.
Despite being a longtime contributor to the rotation, Gonzalez is coming off an underwhelming 2015 where he struggled with injuries, and has allowed 14 runs in 5 2/3 spring innings. He said there was no need for Showalter to say publicly that someone's rotation spot could be in jeopardy.
"We all know that, but he knows what he's doing out there," Gonzalez said. "He wants us to do well. Right now, we're struggling a little bit, but that's what we're here for. This is spring training. … We all know that we're capable of doing it — every single guy here has the talent, and has done it before. So, we're not worried about it."
Gonzalez said he feels healthy, which is what's most important to him after missing time with groin, then elbow and shoulder injuries last season. Every pitcher, he said, has "got to ride that roller coaster" throughout the season, but he trusts he'll figure it out by the time the season starts.
Showalter was asked if people were wrong to assume that the group of Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kevin Gausman, Gallardo and Gonzalez comprised the projected starting five.
"You were led to believe it, and rightfully so," Showalter said. "But I think I look at the word competition differently. On paper? Yeah. But we have options we can go [with]. I mean, you watch a guy like Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, [Ordrisamer] Despaigne, and [Vance] Worley throw. … We're trying to win."
Wilson was declared a candidate for the rotation when his 3 1/3 scoreless innings Tuesday brought his spring ERA to 2.89 in 9 1/3 innings (four appearances). Worley and Wright both pitch Thursday, for the first time since that declaration was made.
Worley, who pitches in Fort Myers against the Boston Red Sox, has two scoreless two-inning outings in three tries and a 4.50 ERA. Wright has made three starts entering the night game Thursday in Sarasota, and is coming off allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings against the New York Yankees.
"I don't think it's changed anything in either [mine or Tyler's] minds," Wright said. "We came out here trying to do our best, and we're still here in camp — I think the longest either one of us has lasted in camp. I'm just trying to show them I deserve a chance."
All indications are he'll get one. The same can be said of any number of players in the conversation to be the team's primary left fielder. Many thought Kim would man that spot, and he has had every opportunity. But even with two singles Wednesday, his 0-for-23 start has put him in a difficult position this spring.
Nolan Reimold, another player who's in that mix, has four hits in 27 spring at-bats and said it has been a "slow start," without many indicators that success is imminent.
"I've had good spring trainings where I started the year bad, bad spring trainings where I started good," Reimold said. " If you're feeling good the last week of spring training, you've had a good spring training."
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The questions in left field, however, have led to plenty of others getting opportunities. Outfielder Joey Rickard, the team's Rule 5 draft pick, has played mostly center field but has a chance to see time at both corner-outfield spots if he makes the club.
Other outfielders remaining in camp include Jimmy Paredes, Dariel Alvarez, Alfredo Marte, Xavier Avery and L.J. Hoes. Marte has earned good reviews from Showalter, while Paredes has been out with a wrist injury for nearly two weeks.
But without anyone truly emerging at the spot, the Orioles debuted prospect Christian Walker in left field Tuesday. A first baseman by trade, he hit his third home run of the spring as a defensive replacement Wednesday against Pittsburgh and is one of the hottest hitters in the Grapefruit League.
That they made the move sooner than they'd hope is viewed on the outside as dissatisfaction with the rest of the options, but Showalter disagrees.
"We like the options here, and we'll see where left field is at the end of the day," he said.