Position Battle for Orioles' fifth Rotation Spot has Heated Up

Andrew StewartContributor IMarch 27, 2010

SARASOTA, FL - MARCH 27:  Pitcher David Hernandez #63 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Boston Red Sox during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at Ed Smith Stadium on March 27, 2010 in Sarasota, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

With spring training wrapping up in the coming week, and opening day right around the corner, the position battles on the Baltimore Orioles' spring training roster have started to heat up. Players are putting in their last efforts to secure one of the few remaining spot(s) on the Orioles' 25-man roster.

In an effort to shore up the starting rotation, Baltimore traded relief pitcher Chris Ray for veteran starting pitcher Kevin Millwood. The deal gave the young staff an established top-end starter and a veteran in the club house. The Orioles took it a step further by placing Millwood’s locker in between Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, two of the O’s top pitching prospects.

Baltimore’s opening day rotation will consist of Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen, and Brian Matusz, leaving the final spot in the rotation up for grabs. Thus creating a heated battle between Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, both of whom made their major league debut last year. Although Tillman was expected to be the fifth starter before spring training, a string of shaky starts from Tillman and some fine performances by Hernandez, might be enough to re-open the spot.

Chris Tillman, 21 years-old, made his major league debut last season in July. Tillman was a second round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners in the 2006 amateur draft. He was acquired by the Orioles in a deal that sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners in exchange for Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman.

Tillman’s rookie season for the Orioles went as expected (2-5, 5.40 ERA, 65 IP). With one season under his belt, Baltimore had great expectations for the promising prospect. Before the season, the Orioles' fifth and final spot in the rotation was all but certain to be Tillman’s. However, Tillman has struggled to find command with a strike out-to-walk ratio of (9BB/10k) on only 16.1 innings pitched. Even though Tillman has been plagued by some shaky performances this spring, his ERA has relatively stayed intact (3.86) and has held his opponents to a (.226) batting average, compared to his rookie season of (.297).

David Hernandez entered his second spring training with the club and a sense of urgency. Hernandez took advantage of one of his final tune-up starts today against the Boston Red Sox. On five scoreless innings, Hernandez struck out six against a loaded Red Sox roster, further padding his spring numbers of an ERA of 3.00 on 15 innings pitched with 20 strike outs and only surrendering three walks. Hernandez's ability to throw strikes and limit the amount of walks this spring has been vital, after he gave up 46 last year on 101 innings pitched.

Hernandez’s rookie season was very similar to Tillman’s (4-10, 5.42 ERA, 101 IP). In his rookie season, Hernandez struggled with limiting home runs, giving up 27, tied for second worst behind Jeremy Guthrie’s dismal 35. In his 15 innings pitched, Hernandez has given up three home runs. However, all three of his home runs came out of the bullpen. Since then, Hernandez has gone (1-0, 8.2 IP, 0 ER, 8 K) on two starts, thus leaving Baltimore with one of its most difficult decisions regarding the final spot in the rotation.

If Chris Tillman is tabbed as the team's fifth starter, Hernandez's role with the team will most likely be to offer relief out of the bullpen, consequently eating up one of the few remaining bullpen spots.