Ready or not, the Orioles will open the regular season in less than a week and embark on an uncertain journey that will either validate or repudiate one of the most active and expensive offseason rebuilding projects in franchise history.
The past six weeks were supposed to provide a clearer view of the strengths and weaknesses of a club that spent big money to maintain and upgrade the offensive lineup and also added veteran free-agent starter Yovani Gallardo to a thin starting rotation. Instead, spring training has highlighted some of the big questions facing the Orioles while not providing many real answers.
There are some things we know for sure. The Orioles have the potential to put a lot of new home run markers on Eutaw Street this season, they'll play solid defense, and again should be among the best in the business at closing out the eighth and ninth innings. The rest is as up in the air as a Chris Davis moon shot.
Starters get off to struggling start: The starting rotation got off to a rocky start during the Grapefruit League exhibition season, but that's why they play all those games that don't count. Three starters — including Gallardo, who was signed well after the start of training camp — entered Tuesday with double-digit ERAs, and top young pitcher Kevin Gausman will open the season on the disabled list after receiving a cortisone injection in his shoulder.
This cannot be how they drew it up on the whiteboard last winter, but the rotation has been a sore subject since the club sagged last summer and failed to produce much of an encore to its runaway American League East title the year before.
The front office spent most of the offseason trying to wrap up contract negotiations with Davis on his team-record deal and was pretty much on the outside looking in on the market for a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Orioles were fortunate to get a solid guy such as Gallardo in late February, but he has scuffled through three exhibition starts, most recently giving up seven earned runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday.
Ubaldo Jimenez got torched in his first exhibition start and has spent the rest of the spring trying to whittle an ERA that was a cartoonish 162.00 after he got just one out in the Orioles preseason home opener. He was doing a pretty good job of that until he failed to get through the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.
Chris Tillman spent the early part of spring training battling a hip flexor injury and was kept out of sight for a while, pitching in minor league games. But manager Buck Showalter saw enough of him to name him the opening day starter for the third straight time.
The biggest mystery all spring has been Miguel Gonzalez, who struggled to stay healthy last year and has been struggling this spring to hold his place in the rotation.
He entered Tuesday night's start against the Atlanta Braves needing a solid performance to quell speculation that Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson might climb over him on the depth chart and delivered a strong five-inning outing that should keep him on track for an opening-week start.
Outfield questions: The Orioles' big-swinging offense sputtered early and the club didn't win an exhibition game for the first two weeks, but run-production never figured to be a challenge for this team, especially after the club capped its offseason free-agent quest with the bargain signing of Pedro Alvarez. But that still left Showalter and the coaching staff to sort out the corner outfield situation.
It appears Mark Trumbo, who leads the team with five Grapefruit League home runs and features a very strong outfield arm, will play regularly in right. The left-field situation became clearer after the club announced Tuesday evening that Hyun Soo Kim is not going to open the season on the major league roster, but that news comes as rumors swirl that the Orioles could be interested in another veteran outfielder.
The roster spot left open while Gausman is on the disabled list might have allowed the Orioles to keep Kim, Nolan Reimold and impressive Rule 5 draft pick Joey Rickard on the bench through the first week or so of the regular season if Showalter were willing to go with a seven-man bullpen, but baseball operations chief Dan Duquette decided it was time to back out of the Kim experiment.
There were no easy options. Reimold has gotten hot at just the right time to solidify his place on the roster and the Orioles obviously want to keep Rickard, who has been one of the most productive and consistent players in camp from the start.
Both seemed to be far more ready for prime time than Kim, who rebounded from his long exhibition hitting drought, but would not have been in the conversation this long if the Orioles had not committed $7 million to him without the option of sending him to the minor leagues.
When Kim was strangely absent from the Orioles lineup for several games, it seemed the Orioles were nearing a decision, though it still is not clear whether Kim will be released outright, returned to the Korean Baseball Organization or accept a minor league assignment.
The Orioles will head north in just a couple of days and, just maybe, bring a little more clarity with them.