The Orioles have a bit of a debacle on their hands.
Baltimore made one thing clear before Tuesday’s Opening Day contest against Tampa Bay: right-hander Chris Tillman would be the No. 5 starter in the rotation when he returns from the disabled list later this week.
Prior to the announcement, the Orioles rotation was a battle for the final slot, as a set group featuring Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Tillman, and Miguel Gonzalez had solidified its names on the final depth chart. After Tillman suffered a left abdominal strain in March, though, the squad decided to place the 24-year old on the 15-day DL and hand him the fifth spot in the rotation. Right-hander Jake Arrieta, who went 1-0 with a 1.56 ERA and 16 strikeouts during Spring Training, was awarded the fourth slot.
"It is what it is," Tillman told MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko in March. "I was hurt. I did miss enough time to not get ready for one of the early games. I don't disagree with it."
When Minnesota arrives in Baltimore on Saturday, Tillman will find himself back on the mound in Camden Yards. The young starter went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts for the Orioles during their run to the postseason in 2012.
With Tillman’s arrival arises a new issue for the Birds.
Prior to Saturday’s contest against the Twins, Orioles manager Buck Showalter will have a decision to make regarding the makeup of the team’s 25-man roster. Someone will find himself traveling back to the farm system over the weekend. The question is who.
Several names have been tossed around, as left-handed utility man Ryan Flaherty and southpaw reliever T.J. McFarland are two prime candidates to be sent down Saturday.
Flaherty, who was the Orioles’ Rule 5 pick in 2011, showed flashes of home run power both last season and during 2013 Spring Training, and he can play every position in the infield except for catcher. He hit .216 with three homers in Grapefruit League play, and many suspect he could see some time in the outfield or at DH to give Baltimore defensive versatility and another left-handed bat in the lineup.
With infielder Alexi Casilla also on the roster, though, Flaherty is a more reasonable choice to take a visit to Triple-A Norfolk. The Orioles would like to keep their young infielder getting regular at-bats, and being sent down would be a prime opportunity to do so.
McFarland, like Flaherty was last season, was Baltimore’s Rule 5 pick in 2012. He appeared in eight Spring Training contests, posting a 4.70 ERA, a save and 10 strikeouts in 15.1 innings pitched. The odds of McFarland being sent down are unlikely, as the Orioles will look to hold on to their young southpaw.
As is the case with any Rule 5 selection, if he is removed from the roster, then he must be offered back to the team from which he came. McFarland, a former member of the Cleveland organization, should stick around as a long reliever in Baltimore even with Tillman on the roster.
So then the final speculation arises: is there a trade brewing?
Some suspect that relievers Tommy Hunter or Luis Ayala could be on the block.
Ayala went 5-5 with a 2.64 ERA in 2012, and Hunter worked as both a starter and reliever, going 7-8 with a 5.45 ERA. The Orioles exercised their $1 million option on Ayala during the offseason, and the organization has made it clear that they are willing to deal the 35-year old.
The 26-year-old Hunter is a different story. The right-hander began the 2012 campaign as a member of the Orioles’ rotation before spending time in the minors. After his call-up, he became a spot-starter and reliever for the club, and an increase in his velocity made him an effective arm in the later innings for the Birds. With this being said, Hunter is a notorious fly-ball pitcher, and that has never bided well for anyone in Camden Yards.
Of the core pitchers currently existing on the Baltimore staff, Hunter is likely the most expendable.
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