What does the Jair Jurrjens addition do to the chances of guys like Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton making the team? Also, is Jurrjens participating in the World Baseball Classic or not?
-- Don C., Elkridge, Md.
Jurrjens adds more competition to an already deep pool of rotation candidates, and it's fair to say that, if healthy, his presence could certainly change the role of the aforementioned trio and where it ends up in April. The way things look right now, there appears to be one rotation spot up for grabs behind Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. I wouldn't say Gonzalez and Tillman have locked up spots already, but, barring a bad spring or injury, they should be in line to take a pair of rotation spots on the Opening Day roster.
Steve Johnson pitched himself into consideration last year, and Matusz, Arrieta and Britton will also be competing with Tommy Hunter and Rule 5 Draft pick T.J. McFarland this spring. Top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman will also be in camp, and both are considered not far off from the big leagues. The rehab of Tsuyoshi Wada will also be closely monitored, and he could be a factor not long after the season's start.
The bottom line is there's a lot of competition, but Matusz, Arrieta -- last year's Opening Day starter -- and Britton have all shown flashes of being able to succeed as Major League starters. It's on them to prove that again this spring and show they can consistently help the big league club. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has been a very vocal advocate of earning your keep and not handing out jobs for guys to try to develop in the Majors. It's about winning games, and the O's will go with whoever gives them the best chance to do so. As Tillman mentioned recently at FanFest, the competition is what gets guys psyched up for spring and should push all the rotation candidates to be at their best in camp.
With that in mind, Jurrjens would miss part of Spring Training if he does pitch in the World Baseball Classic. His name was on the provisional roster for the Netherlands, but being with a new club and the opportunity to make an impression -- and compete for a rotation spot -- could change his mind. It's a decision up to each individual player (Gonzalez turned down a spot), although most clubs prefer to not have their pitchers participate and instead progress through Spring Training slowly to get ready for the grind of a full season.
At Jim Palmer's statue unveiling last year, he mentioned that he thought Jim Johnson should be given the chance to start and that he even saw him as becoming a starter akin to Roy Halladay. Do you think that the Orioles will eventually give Jim the chance to start or are both parties happy for him to continue closing?
-- Dan G., Baltimore
This question never really goes away, and Johnson, who has been asked about this for years, will be the first to tell you that.
The short answer here is no. Johnson is the Orioles' All-Star closer, and it's not every day you find guys capable of 50-plus saves pitching in the American League East. It's a testament to how good the right-hander's stuff is, with four-plus pitches, that keeps this debate going among O's fans. But as I noted in the first question, Baltimore already has a crowded rotation picture, and there's hope it will only get better as the season progresses with the pending arrivals of Wada, Bundy and Gausman.
Showalter likes to say, "Be careful robbing Peter to pay Paul," and if you took Johnson out of the closer role, how many regular-season games would the Orioles potentially have lost last season? He excelled on the road in some hostile environments, and the strength of the team's bullpen was one of the main reasons Baltimore was able to reach its first postseason in 15 years.
You also have to consider the health factor -- Johnson has had prior arm and back injuries -- and how having him available to pitch multiple games in a row is more beneficial, and easier for Showalter to manage, than if he pitched once every five days. Johnson has become a leader in the clubhouse and has proven he has the ability, physically and mentally, to handle the ninth-inning duties. Moving him to the rotation isn't happening this year or any time in the foreseeable future.
Are we going to get a 25-homer hitter in the middle of the lineup? Mark Reynolds was a Yankees killer last year.
-- Dave, Elkton, Md.
I answered this in my last Inbox, and the verdict is the same: Barring any unforeseen last-minute move, the Orioles are going to Spring Training without the middle-of-the-order bat they wanted to add this winter.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette made it pretty clear at the news conference announcing his extension that the club looked at numerous trade options but it wasn't willing to part with young pitching. Instead, the O's, who non-tendered Reynolds and allowed him to become a free agent, will move forward with a lineup that hinges on the continued development of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis. Jones figures to be the cleanup hitter more often than not, and having a healthy Nolan Reimold, Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts -- or any combination of the three -- should help keep the lineup balanced. But how the offense will fare, and if it will be able to support the pitching staff enough for Baltimore to remain competitive, remains to be seen.
Who will be the Opening Day pitcher for the Orioles?
-- Koby J., Landover, Md
My early pick would be Hammel. Chen could also got the nod here, but Hammel was the team's best starter when he was healthy, and he said recently his right knee feels good and that he has no restrictions.
"I feel 100 percent right now," he said at the O's movie premiere event earlier this month. "I'm very optimistic. I was a little scared after the season because things were still stiff. Finally, I was able to rest. I think that was the big key. You can't really heal if you don't have time to rest. It took about two weeks for the swelling and any fluid to subside, and then it was just a slow, gradual building back into a lifting process.
"As of right now, I'm doing normal workouts like I was doing before the injury, so I feel real good."