Orioles key bench battles shaping up

There's nothing sexy about bench players. Heading into the season, discussions concerning fourth outfielders and utility men don't register very high on the hype-o-meter, but in baseball the last few players to fill out a 25-man roster are crucial pieces to the puzzle. Over the course of a 162-game season, nagging injuries, slumps and lineup changes will expose teams who lack depth.

As the number of players in Orioles camp dwindled to 47 this week, battles for the final bench spots are heating up.

Manager Buck Showalter will have to make some difficult decisions soon, as some of the candidates for those spots like utility infielder Ryan Flaherty and outfielder Jai Miller are putting up some of the best numbers in camp.

As of now, we can assume the O's will carry a four-man bench. One spot obviously will be backup catcher Taylor Teagarden, who has a herniated disk in his back. If he's not ready to go opening day, it's assumed Ronny Paulino would fill the role backing up Matt Wieters.

The Birds will likely go with the standard four outfielders. Veteran outfielder Endy Chavez, who the Orioles signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal this winter, is expected to head north as the team's fourth outfielder. He's had a solid spring going 8-for-19 (.421).

Flaherty, the team's Rule 5 pick, is believed to be the frontrunner for the Orioles' utility man spot. His five RBIs are second on the club this spring. He can play almost anywhere, although shortstop has been a struggle. Flaherty committed two errors there and was late covering second on a stolen base attempt in a game this week. That doesn't mean he can't get more comfortable there, but his experience has been limited.

Showalter originally said the ability to play short would be a deciding factor, but that no longer seems to be the case. On days when starting shortstop J.J. Hardy isn't in the lineup, Robert Andino could move from second to short and Flaherty could play second base.

Matt Antonelli and Steve Tolleson are also fighting for a utility spot. Antonelli is on the O's 40-man roster, Tolleson is not. Both have had decent springs with Tolleson putting up better numbers at the plate (.308 vs. Antonelli's .286).

Ultimately, two of the three (Flaherty, Antonelli, Tolleson) could make the team.

One of the toughest decisions Showalter will have to make concerns Miller, who can play all three outfield positions and has been raking at the plate this week. He leads the team in RBIs and had a big game Tuesday. Working against Miller, however, is his high strikeout numbers (12), as well as the fact that he's out of options.

Showalter has said the amount of options a player has will only come into play as a tiebreaker when shaping the final roster.

In the end, Showalter will have to decide if he can afford to have an outfielder as his fourth bench player rather than a second utility man. Another option for that fourth bench spot could be a Nick Johnson type who can back up Chris Davis at first and/or be a left-handed designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Johnson is not on the O's 40-man roster, so that could come into play.

There still are 22 more days until opening day. That's a lot of time for these decisions to sort themselves out. But-if the potential bench players continue to play the way they have in the first two weeks of exhibition games, some very difficult decisions will have to be made.