SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's hardly the ideal way to set up a window of opportunity, but more and more, it's starting to appear as though Orioles reliever Troy Patton's 25-game suspension at the beginning of the season will be a blessing in disguise for his team -- and at least for one of the candidates on the bubble for a spot on the pitching staff.
While Patton's absence would seem to handcuff manager Buck Showalter's ability to match up during the first weeks of the season, it may well be of more importance that someone such as Josh Stinson, Alfredo Aceves, Evan Meek and (to a lesser degree) Zach Britton has a chance to step up and claim a place on what is expected to be a 12-man staff, at least at the beginning of the season.
Showalter has said all along that players who have options left won't be discriminated against, but the mere numbers suggest it will be almost impossible not to take those options into consideration.
For instance, it is generally conceded -- though not written in stone -- that it would be almost impossible for Kevin Gausman to pitch his way into the starting rotation. The Orioles have finally reached the point where mediocrity is not enough to earn a spot, and it will take an injury or someone pitching himself out of the rotation before someone such as Gausman becomes a factor.
And spring training will not be a long enough period for any of the projected starters to pitch their way out of the rotation. Behind Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris are reasonably secure at this point -- with Britton first in line should anyone falter or fall victim to injury. Britton and Stinson, who was impressive out of the bullpen late last year, are out of options and almost certain to begin the season in the big leagues -- either with the Orioles or another major league team.
Aceves agreed to a minor league deal with the Orioles specifically because they promised him an opportunity to compete for a starting role -- a realistic possibility before the Orioles reached agreement with Jimenez. Aceves was impressive during his first outing, but one inning is hardly a good enough indication, and the fact that he has only a minor league contract gives the Orioles time to make a decision.
Besides those listed in the starting rotation, you can ink the names of Darren O'Day, Ryan Webb, Brian Matusz (still holding out hopes of returning to starter status) and Tommy Hunter onto the roster.
The Orioles gave Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon a three-year contract, and it was generally conceded he would claim a spot either as a starter or reliever, but right now, he'd have to be considered a long shot to make the team out of spring training. The Orioles have the right to option Yoon to the minor leagues in 2014, but they didn't sign him with the idea of paying him about $2 million per year to play for Triple-A Norfolk. If he's deemed major league ready, he'll find his way onto the roster.
Putting Britton, who could inherit Patton's role for the first month, and Stinson into the picture along with Yoon, that's 12 total pitchers -- without Patton.
Gausman, Steve Johnson and T.J. McFarland, all of whom spent at least part of 2013 with the Orioles, all have options left, as does ranking phenom Dylan Bundy, who will be ready to pitch in June, but currently is not even in the overall picture.
There was speculation in this corner earlier that Dan Duquette's master plan to replace the draft choices he lost by signing Jimenez and Nelson Cruz will come in the form of trades. It is still possible that he could make multiple moves before the Orioles head north. If they can't find a way to keep Britton and Stinson, at least one trade would be necessary, because neither would pass through waivers for a return to the minor leagues.
Of course, there is also the possibility of injury, and history tells us that teams rarely break camp with all five starters on the active list. It remains to be seen how Gonzalez will deal with back issues that have plagued him in the past, and whether Chen's problems from a year ago are in his rearview mirror. There has been some speculation that Norris, obtained last year to help with an aborted late-season push, has appeal on the trade front -- the kind of development that would open a door for Britton or Gausman.
It's still not clear whether Norris is better suited as a starter, his preference, or out of the bullpen, possibly even as a closer down the road.
At this point, it's difficult to pinpoint how the five starters rank, but Norris and Gonzalez would appear to be jockeying for the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, with Britton and Gausman hovering in the picture.
Basically, the Orioles have 25 games to sort it all out -- and they can thank Patton's suspension for the extended look. The irony, of course, would be if the Orioles found out that Patton was most expendable, and therefore part of a trade that is almost inevitable.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.