With outfielder Joey Rickard's return from the disabled list before Friday night's series opener at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles regain the valuable ability to play matchups with their corner outfielders.
It particularly comes into the play this weekend, when the Orioles will face two left-handed starters against the New York Yankees. The Orioles expected to see left-handed starting pitchers in four of six games starting Friday, allowing manager Buck Showalter to use right-handed platoon batters Rickard, rookie Trey Mancini and veteran Craig Gentry in the corner outfield spots.
The return of Rickard is the first of several upcoming additions to the 25-man roster that will force the Orioles to weigh what's more valuable — having a plethora of platoon outfielders or extra arms in the bullpen.
The Orioles had already optioned left-handed reliever Paul Fry to Triple-A Norfolk, after calling him up Tuesday, to make room for Rickard. Closer Zach Britton, who has had a speedy recovery from a left forearm strain, could return from the DL as early as Sunday.
Not far behind Britton is right-hander Chris Tillman, who is in line to make his next start Tuesday. He could either return from the DL to make his regular-season debut that day at Fenway Park, but it appears he still might need one more minor league rehabilitation start.
Showalter said the moves usually take care of themselves. When the Orioles needed to activate left-hander Wade Miley from the DL to start the first Sunday of the regular season, Rickard had just injured his finger while sliding into a base.
"They're coming," Showalter said. "Most of the time, something else happens before then. But we'll try to float the other stuff back and forth. … Do I think we'll get Rickard, Tillman and Britton all back on the same club before someone else has an issue? It's questionable."
In eventually adding Britton and Tillman, the Orioles would likely lose the luxury of having flex pitchers such as Jayson Aquino and Alec Asher, who have made spot starts while also giving the club extra bullpen options.
But their return of Tillman would give the Orioles their full starting rotation for the first time this season. The club opened the season with just three starters, the result of several early days off, and needed a fifth starter just twice and don't need one again until Tuesday, the next time Tillman is in line to pitch. Aquino and Asher each filled that spot once.
"It puts us back at even," Showalter said. "It's one thing when you have to maneuver around with a different closer and this and that and different roles. But at some point you have to have that carrot that we're going to get back to another phase, back to where you wanted to be."
For now, even with the returns of Britton and Tillman, the Orioles can still maintain their platoon outfield. But they will be carrying seven outfielders — one usually slots as the designated hitter, usually Mark Trumbo. But keeping that roster alignment will be a challenge moving forward, especially if the Orioles bullpen needs an extra pitcher.
Asked if he can maintain the outfield as is throughout the year, Showalter said, "You can, if you're imaginative and we have optionable people."
The group of outfielders offers Showalter an advantage. Rickard, Mancini and Gentry share at-bats against lefties while Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim see their time against right-handers. But when one group starts, the others are available as pinch hitters or defensive replacements off the bench. Against right-handers, having Gentry and Rickard to provide speed on the bases is a dynamic the Orioles have lacked in the past. They've had a speed dynamic occasionally — Chris Dickerson and Michael Bourn have provided it — but Gentry brings both speed and plus defense.
"I think it's pretty unique," Mancini said. "I think a lot of teams kind of go with the classic approach, but all of our skill sets are different and it's pretty cool that you can kind of combine them all and kind of utilize them during a game. It's definitely something that can be used as a weapon during the game. The whole group and all the pieces, it's fun to be a part of."
At some point, however, one of the optionable outfielders — perhaps Rickard — might have to serve time in the minors to provide roster relief. Gentry is out of minor league options, so he can't be sent down without clearing waivers.
"There's one thing to have the 25-man roster at full strength, then having the organization at full strength," Showalter said. "You're not at full strength if someone's gone to somewhere else."
Even following this wave of moves, the club will be pressed again later. Bourn, who re-signed with the team on a restructured minor league deal after he opted out of his first deal in late March, is playing his first extended spring games after fracturing his finger early in spring training. Once he is ready, the club must decide whether to add him, as well as outfielder-in-training Pedro Alvarez, which would take away valuable roster flexibility because neither player can go back down to the minors without clearing waivers.