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Mailbag: Nice problem to have

Mailbag: Nice problem to have

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What will happen come Spring Training and the Orioles have closers George Sherrill and Chris Ray healthy? Does one change his role in the bullpen?
-- Ryan R., Ocean City, Md.

Well, the Orioles won't have to change anyone's role so much as balance the opportunities between two capable arms. Sherrill spent most of his career as a situational southpaw and setup man, and Ray worked the eighth inning before he became a closer. With both in camp, the Orioles will be doubly as strong in the late innings.

The one thing they can't do, according to Sherrill, is split the save situations down the middle. The left-hander said it doesn't matter whether he or Ray is the dedicated closer as long as one of them has the job to himself. Otherwise, you have both of them wondering who gets the call in the ninth, which could interrupt their mental-preparation habits.

It's unclear whether manager Dave Trembley shares that concern, but one thing is certain: There will be plenty of late-inning opportunities for both arms no matter which way the Orioles go in the ninth inning. Baltimore has struggled to close down games in recent years and may finally see its bullpen gaining some much-needed clarity.

Barring a trade, the Orioles will be able to tailor their bullpen to their opponent's batting order. Sherrill can face left-handed batters and Ray can face lineups that tilt to the right, and Jim Johnson can work the seventh before them. Trembley has options, and the Orioles may be able to shorten the game like their rivals in Boston and New York.

I read a question in the mailbag in which someone asked if Nick Markakis should get a contract extention now. What about Jeremy Guthrie? He is our ace, and we don't want a repeat of Mike Mussina.
-- Dustin F., Baltimore

Guthrie, who will turn 30 shortly after the season starts, is Baltimore's unquestioned ace and the only sure thing in the rotation. But that doesn't mean it would be smart to extend his contract immediately. The right-hander still has just two years of service time and won't be up for free agency until after the 2012 season, giving the Orioles plenty of time.

Pitching is such a volatile part of the game, and teams often wind up paying guys to rehab injuries. Guthrie has been healthy and stable for the Orioles the last two seasons, but extending him now might carry an element of risk with it. After all, he's already under contractual control and likely won't even see arbitration until after next season.

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Most teams try to extend their players after they complete their third or fourth season, and that's usually with a player they can control for their prime without breaking the bank. In this case, Guthrie will be 33 years old shortly after he qualifies for free agency, which means that Baltimore may get his best years without the benefit of an extension.

If the former first-round Draft pick has another strong season, you might see the Orioles begin to sniff around the concept of an extension. Either way, the comparison to Mussina isn't really apt. Baltimore's former ace didn't get to free agency until he had been in the league nearly 10 seasons, and even at that point, he was younger than Guthrie will be in 2012.

If you had to project the Orioles' starting staff coming out of Spring Training now, who would you project?
-- Patrick M., Baltimore

As noted in the prior answer, Guthrie is the only sure thing. Baltimore will likely sniff around free agency for a couple veteran arms to complement him, which makes this answer fairly complicated. The Orioles saw their rotation dissolve into a tryout camp down the September stretch, and that's something they don't want to see repeated next season.

Baltimore got to show prospects like Radhames Liz and Garrett Olson a lot of rope in 2008, but neither stepped forward to secure a rotation slot. Troy Patton and Matt Albers both suffered shoulder injuries that kept them out of the starting mix, and Daniel Cabrera and Brian Burres spent another year showing that the Orioles may need to go another direction.

Cabrera, who has gotten several chances, may be the staff's main X-factor. Baltimore will face a crucial decision on his status when it comes to arbitration time and may elect not to offer him a contract. In my opinion -- and keep in mind it's way too early to have a good feel for this -- Cabrera will probably be back for his final season before free agency.

If you take Guthrie and Cabrera and add two free agent arms, that leaves one early-season slot for Liz, Olson, Patton or Albers. And whomever doesn't fit in the rotation can pitch out of the bullpen or provide depth at Triple-A Norfolk. Pitching is so volatile even on a proven staff, and the Orioles need to hedge their bets by stacking safety in numbers.

Is southpaw Patton going to be ready for next year? And will he be a starter when he returns or will he be put in the bullpen?
-- Jacob C., Richmond, Va.

Patton should be ready, but there's no way to tell how well he'll come back from shoulder surgery, which is the ultimate peril for any pitcher. Albers came down with virtually the same injury as Patton -- a SLAP tear in the labrum of his pitching shoulder -- but elected to rehabilitate it instead of undergoing an operation, providing an interesting contrast.

The Orioles will watch both of them carefully in Spring Training but won't be able to count on either one logging a huge amount of innings. The shoulder is the most fragile of joints and baseball medicine hasn't progressed to the point that it has with the elbow, where multiple players undergo surgery every winter and come back virtually good as new after rehab.

Quite frankly, the Orioles don't really know what to expect from Patton and Albers, but both are young enough to have a chance to overcome their injuries via their respective methods. Baltimore traded for Patton knowing full well that he might have to spend the year rehabbing but still liked his potential enough to pull the trigger on the deal.

If neither one is able to assume the burden of a rotation slot, the Orioles may elect to try them out of the bullpen, lessening the strain on their arms but introducing the challenge of pitching more often. Albers and Patton represent 40 percent of the return for Miguel Tejada, and it's fair to say that Baltimore remains unsure what it got in that trade.

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

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