O's fifth-starter competition wide open

Fifth-starter competition wide open

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles have no shortage of candidates and no odds-on favorite for the one remaining vacancy in their rotation, a race that may well turn out to be the most compelling competition in camp. There may be as many as seven pitchers vying for one job, and pitching coach Rick Kranitz expects the derby to last all spring.

"We're going to open it up and give guys an opportunity. I want guys to know that they have a chance," said Kranitz, presiding over his first Spring Training as a Baltimore coach. "There's no real clear-cut favorite, and we're going to take a look at them and see. I expect them to work hard and to get outs. We'll evaluate it as the process goes."

The list of candidates seems to begin with command-and-control southpaws Garrett Olson and Troy Patton, neither of whom has extensive experience at the big league level. Right-handers Hayden Penn and Matt Albers will also be evaluated, as will prospect Radhames Liz, southpaw swingman Brian Burres and incoming free agent Lance Cormier.

Kranitz can't really handicap the field yet because he's barely seen the respective pitchers throw during the first week of Spring Training. Right now, all he has to go on is video work and statistics, neither of which will suffice to make a decision. Then again, he doesn't plan on basing his decision off results in exhibition games, complicating the process.

The wizened veteran said you can learn a lot in Spring Training, but only if you know where to look.

"You get to know the personalities, and I need to know them personally," Kranitz said. "You look at them in the eye and you kind of start to learn what they're all about. You can't just go by what you see on video. You get an idea, but it's certainly not like throwing the ball live. Also, bullpen sessions have never gotten anybody out, and they can fool you.

"Certain guys just know what they have to do to get ready. I'm concentrating more on building arm strength right now and making sure they're ready to go. I want to give them every opportunity to be ready to go."

Perhaps the one thing that connects all of the contenders is lack of success at the big league level. Penn blew through the lower rungs of Baltimore's organization before hitting a roadblock in the form of two major injuries. Liz, one of the most prized arms in the organization, blew away Double-A hitters last year, but struggled to control the ball with the Orioles.

Olson, a highly finished product who has thrived at every level except the Major Leagues, looked overwhelmed in seven starts last summer. And Patton, who has a similar repertoire, struggled at Triple-A and held his own in the Majors. Burres and Albers have had mixed results as swingmen, and Cormier has bounced between the rotation and bullpen.

Baltimore will be asking someone in that group to step forward and claim the last rotation slot, and Kranitz said that it's OK for pitchers to learn on the job in the Majors as long as they already exhibit control of their fastball.

"I don't care how hard you throw the ball," the pitching coach said. "If you can't command it, you're not going to have long-term success. Hitters will figure you out and wait. That's what good hitters do. Command is the ability to throw down in the strike zone and miss. That pitch in the middle of the thigh gets hit. That may be throwing strikes, but it isn't command."

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Penn, strangely enough, has been on the verge of breaking through for three seasons. The right-hander was tabbed to come up to the big leagues during the 2006 season, but he had an emergency appendectomy and wound up missing most of the year. Then, last season, he missed several months after undergoing surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow.

"Hayden Penn is going to get an opportunity to show what he can do," said Baltimore manager Dave Trembley. "I think with him, all he needs is to pitch but to stay healthy. He's still a relatively young guy. ... He looks a little bit better. He looks like he's gained some weight. He looks a little stronger. He's getting an opportunity for a fresh start."

Kranitz, of course, doesn't know much about prior history or what caused any of his new charges to short circuit. He does know, however, that you can't make any early judgments based on stuff and radar-gun readings alone.

"You can't just judge on Spring Training," he said. "We've got guys that were pitching in winter ball less than a month ago, and they're so much further ahead than some of these guys that came from up north and have only thrown inside. You've got to be able to separate that, but you like to judge by what the hitters' reactions are to our guys. They'll tell you a lot."

Thanks to injury and attrition, the Orioles may have the opportunity to try more than one of their arms this season. Kranitz said he puts a lot of importance on swingmen because they can start on a moment's notice or bail you out of any given game. That may mean that one arm gets the call as a starter, and a Trojan Horse replacement waits in the wings.

"I want these guys to understand that when they earn their job, somebody has to take it from them," Kranitz said. "You need to pitch like it if it's going to be your job. If somebody happens to go out for one reason or another and someone else pitches well, it's their job. To keep it, show me you want it. You have to earn your stripes. We're not giving away anything."

Burres, who's done his job quietly and sometimes seems to be a forgotten man, said he's OK with being used in whatever way the team sees fit. He admitted that it's hard to be switched between roles, but wasn't sure how it affected him. Now that there's even more competition in camp, Burres said he's eager to test himself and his stuff.

"I just try to go out there, have a good time and meet the new guys," he said. "I just try to play my best and let things happen the way they happen. I don't think of it as competing. We're all here to do our best and let the chips fall where they may."

That's the bottom line for Burres and for everyone else. Trembley admitted that the fifth-starter job may be a thick competition, but he also said that the Orioles hope to make a decision on it well before Opening Day.

"I think there is more than two or three [candidates]. And I'd like the guys to know that," Trembley said earlier in the week. "I'd like them to know that based upon what we see and what our needs are -- and how people perform and how they pitch -- it's going to lend ourselves to perhaps making a decision a little bit easier and quicker."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.