02/06/09 5:03 PM EST
O's well stocked for Spring Training
Trades, thrifty shopping has helped club increase depth
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
The starting rotation remains an area in need of renovation, but the Orioles have filled their void at shortstop and crafted perhaps their deepest bench in years. Baltimore will have incentive to go with a 12-man pitching staff, because if it doesn't, it will likely have to take a worthy veteran player and release or expose them to waivers.
That's news for the Orioles, who have often found themselves flat-footed with an ill-fitting bench. Three years ago, shortstop Brandon Fahey wound up playing more than 50 games in the outfield after having never played there in the Minors. Last year, Baltimore staged a year-long audition for a starting shortstop that never turned up a winner.
This year, neither one of those crises will be repeated. Cesar Izturis was signed to a two-year contract to take over the shortstop job, and by trading for left fielder Felix Pie, Baltimore was able to slot incumbent Luke Scott in as designated hitter. That, in turn, enabled the Orioles to fully commit to Aubrey Huff as the full-time first baseman.
Baltimore complemented all those pieces with the recent acquisition of veteran Ty Wigginton, a quality offensive reserve who can play at second base and both the infield and outfield corners. Wigginton is expected to flit around the diamond and play virtually everywhere, and his bat will likely get him into the lineup around three or four times a week.
On any given day, that could mean a day off for Pie, Huff, Scott, third baseman Melvin Mora or second baseman Brian Roberts. That kind of piece, a great tool for manager Dave Trembley, also helps frame the rest of the bench.
Baltimore will have a backup catcher to take up one of the few remaining slots and will also likely need someone who can play shortstop in a pinch. Veterans Chris Gomez and Jolbert Cabrera are on hand to battle for the utility slot, but the Orioles may elect to use Wigginton's presence to avoid going with a straight defensive reserve.
Ryan Freel, who came over from the Reds in the trade for Ramon Hernandez, may also increase the team's flexibility. Freel can play all three outfield slots and second and third base, but having Wigginton could render him redundant. If the Orioles keep Freel, they'd have to choose between foregoing the utilityman or an eighth reliever.
There are definite advantages to keeping Freel around that will likely go into the decision-making process. First of all, if the Orioles cut him, they're still responsible for his salary. Freel also provides speed, a strong contributor against left-handed pitching and a competitive streak that will influence the rest of his teammates.
Now, compare that potential bench to the reserves from last year. Baltimore carried several light-hitting infielders, chief among them Fahey, Freddie Bynum and Alex Cintron. The Orioles also auditioned Oscar Salazar and Lou Montanez late last season, and both players are still on hand to compete for a job or provide depth at Triple-A Norfolk.
That list doesn't even include Scott Moore, who had a red-hot Spring Training last year and earned an early-season reserve spot with the Orioles. Moore went on to have an uninspiring season for Norfolk, but Baltimore still thinks he has a future as a reserve infielder and will take a long look at his progress during Grapefruit League play.
And it doesn't end there: Top prospect Matt Wieters is expected to join the parent club at some point before the All-Star break, which will effectively turn first-half starter Gregg Zaun into a backup catcher, part-time DH and full-time tutor.
The depth, if nothing else, means the Orioles are more capable of withstanding injuries. In the long run, though, it may also create competitions for playing time. Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Adam Jones may be guaranteed playing time, but Wigginton might be able to steal at-bats from Mora, Scott and Pie in the right circumstances.
The Orioles may even have enough contingency plans to effect a late-spring trade to acquire more pitching, a situation that will be closely monitored as Spring Training progresses. All of Baltimore's offseason moves got less combined interest than the ill-fated pursuit of Mark Teixeira, but the team has been improved quietly nonetheless.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.