With Opening Day less than two weeks away, the Orioles still have some difficult decisions to make for that day's roster. The biggest decision is the make up of the pitching staff and whether to go with 12 or 13 pitchers.
With the starting rotation still a work in progress, the Orioles may elect to take the extra pitcher over a 4th bench player as a guard against overworking the bullpen in early season games.
The Orioles only have three days off in April and will play 32 games in the first 35 days of the 2009 season. Too many short outings by the starters, especially in back-to-back games would add to the workload of the bullpen.
Looking back on last season, it's easy to see why Andy MacPhail, Dave Trembley and Rick Kranitz are seriously considering having an 8th pitcher in the bullpen to spread out the innings if the five man starting rotation can't consistently get deep in games.
In the 161 games played last season, Orioles starters pitched less than 7 innings in 130 games. Here's the 2009 breakdown for the starters:
7-innings or more: 31-games
Less than 7-innings: 130-games
Less than 6-innings: 86-games
Less than 5-innings: 44-games
That left far too many innings for the bullpen. O's starters in 2008 pitched 882 innings while the relievers worked 540.
The O's are confident the back end of the bullpen will be dependable with George Sherrill, Chris Ray, and Jim Johnson and with Jamie Walker called on to face tough left handed hitters. The key is getting through the 7th inning. And needing long relief in too many back-to-back games takes its toll on the relievers.
Having a 13-man pitching staff is not ideal. It will leave the O's with only a three-man bench. But until the starting staff consistently pitches deep in games and takes a larger share of the innings, the extra reliever offers another option to spread the bullpen workload.
And if you're wondering why the O's don't promote any of their top notch starting pitching prospects to begin the season, remember Andy MacPhail's plan of patience.
The key to long term success for the Orioles is not just getting the prospects to the major leagues; it's putting them in position to succeed when they get to Baltimore.
Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and other prospects will eventually earn a big league chance with the Birds. The key isn't getting them into a major league game, it's their ability to stay and succeed in the majors. And gaining more experience in the minors is not only preferred but necessary. Regular season games, especially in the AL East are totally different from spring training games in Florida.
The Orioles expect roster turnover during the season and improvement along the way. But for now, the 13-man pitching staff looks like the way to go.