Johnson destined for rotation

There’s no baseball tonight, which means I’m going to drag my tired and battered body onto the tennis courts this morning and subject it to the stifling heat and my inconsistent backhand for at least two sets. I’ll stop once the dehydration chills set in.

Not the initial chills, but the steady, unrelenting ones that have me digging my medical card out of my wallet.

The Orioles’ rotation has produced three quality starts in the last four games, which is enough to conjure up images of the 1971 staff. OK, not really, but the bar is set so low these days, I’m easily impressed.

We’re not quite sure what it will look like on Aug. 1. Jeremy Guthrie is attracting interest outside the organization. Brian Matusz, Zach Britton and Chris Tillman are in the minors. And Jim Johnson is poised to change roles again.

We touched on this topic yesterday. Manager Buck Showalter confirmed that Johnson could make a few starts before the season ends. He dismissed the idea that Johnson is too valuable coming out of the bullpen to step into the rotation.

I need to be reintroduced to Johnson as a starting pitcher.

I watched in horror as he came up from Double-A Bowie to make his only major league start on July 29, 2008. He allowed 13 baserunners in three innings against the White Sox - eight runs, nine hits, three walks, one hit batter - in a 13-11 loss and returned to the Eastern League the next day. I also witnessed some extremely unimpressive outings in spring training, causing me to turn to my colleagues in Fort Lauderdale and blurt out, “This guy was the organization’s minor league Pitcher of the Year?”

Yes, he was, after he went 12-9 with a 3.49 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 159 2/3 innings at Single-A Frederick in 2005.

The Orioles converted him to a late-inning reliever in 2008, and he responded by posting a 2.23 ERA in 54 appearances. Former teammates sat in the opposing dugout and barely recognized him, and not because Johnson changed his hairstyle.

So here we are, debating whether Johnson should go back to starting. I’ve long argued that he’s too valuable as a seventh and eighth inning reliever, ignoring that he’s got three plus pitches and could plug one of those gaping holes in the rotation.

I figured that the Orioles might do a little experimenting with Johnson in spring training, but Showalter wants the right-hander to know his role in 2012 before he packs up his belongings Sept. 28. Johnson isn’t stretched out enough to handle a normal starter’s workload, but the Orioles will let him make that steady climb.

“J.J.’s capable of it,” Showalter told me yesterday while taping his pregame segment on 1090 AM. “I don’t pigeonhole guys because they did certain things at certain stages in their careers that they’re never going to be able to do again. We’ll look and see what’s best for the organization and what best fits J.J. It’s something that’s obviously been discussed over time. He’s valuable in the role that he’s serving right now and we realize that he’s capable of doing other things, too. But that’s something down the road.

“If we’re going to do something like that, it would probably behoove us to have him do some of it before we leave and go into the offseason. But with the trading deadline, a lot of things can affect that decision - what happens with Zach Britton, for instance. But it’s something that J.J. and I have talked about to get his feelings on it. It’s something that has been in discussion, but I don’t think there’s a definitive time yet. We’ll kind of see where the chairs are after things get done moving at the end of the month.”

The Britton reference alludes to the club shutting him down at some point in September, not dealing him at the non-waiver deadline. Just so there’s no confusion.

I’d say the odds are pretty good that Johnson will make a few starts during the final month, even if they’re abbreviated. And he could go into spring training next year as one of the five projected starters.

This isn’t like the Chuck McElroy experiment, when the Orioles took a late-inning lefty reliever and squeezed a few starts out of him. Johnson is more qualified.

Speaking of Tillman, he gave up four straight two-out hits in the first inning that led to four runs last night in Triple-A Norfolk’s 4-3 loss to Toledo. He’s 3-3 with a 4.17 ERA.

Tillman settled down and retired 11 straight batters before surrendering a one-out single in the sixth inning. He was charged with four runs (three earned) and nine hits in six innings, with one walk and four strikeouts.

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