Orioles still looking for an answer to fifth starter question

While auditions continue for the fifth slot in the Orioles starting rotation, the question that was debated throughout the team's largely inactive offseason suddenly seems relevant again.

Can last year's formula produce a new and improved product in 2013?

This might seem like a strange time to bring it up, since the Orioles are off to a solid start and entered Tuesday tied for the seventh-best record of the 30 major league teams while playing one of the game's toughest April schedules.

It's relevant because the answer to that question will establish whether Dan Duquette was one of the luckiest GMs in recent memory to be able to play roster bingo throughout 2012 and end up making it to the second round of the playoffs … or remains the not-so-mad baseball scientist who really can turn straw into gold.

The fifth starter situation may be the laboratory where we find out. Duquette let veteran left-hander Joe Saunders go to the Seattle Mariners last winter and stocked the Triple-A roster with cheaper options. Though Saunders' terrific performance against the Orioles on Monday night might appear to be evidence that letting him go was a mistake, his April numbers were far from impressive, so the proof will be in the performance of the group of pitchers who are lined up on the organizational runway.

So far, no one has taken off. Jake Arrieta won the job out of spring training and could only hold it for four starts. The next man up was minor league right-hander Josh Stinson, who surrendered four home runs in a spot start against the Blue Jays on Wednesday and returned to Norfolk. Zach Britton started Monday night against the Seattle Mariners and allowed six runs and 12 baserunners over six innings.

The Orioles aren't exactly in crisis, of course. They won their last four series and bought time for the other members of the starting rotation to work through some early inconsistency. But in a division where the Red Sox have turned things around and the Yankees apparently were not informed that they were supposed to collapse after losing several key hitters, the Orioles really cannot afford to have the fifth slot in the rotation turn into a chronic trouble spot.

Remember how it seemed like manager Buck Showalter had way too many starting pitchers to sort through when the Orioles opened spring training? The stated number of candidates for the rotation was anywhere from 11 to 14, depending on whether the club wanted to include top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman in the conversation.

It won't be long before Gausman actually is in play, but it seems likely that Duquette and Showalter will work though the more experienced candidates before making another dynamic Manny Machado-like promotion.

Showalter was non-committal Monday night as to Britton's status, leaving room to speculate that the team will keep shuffling through the Norfolk rotation until somebody sticks. Eight-year minor league veteran Zach Clark (UMBC) was summoned to Seattle on Tuesday after getting mixed results in five starts for the Tides, but he likely will be parked in the bullpen until a decision is made on a starter for Saturday's game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim.

The remaining options include veterans Jair Jurrjens and Freddy Garcia, both of whom have put up strong numbers at the Triple-A level while they wait for a chance to return to the major leagues. Steve Johnson, who has made two minor league starts on an injury rehab assignment, was taken of the disabled list Tuesday and optioned to Norfolk. He will need to stay in the minors for at least 10 days unless there's an injury at the big league level.

Arrieta also remains an option after a strong performance in his first minor league start after being sent down, but it seems more likely that the team will first experiment with one of the veterans. Garcia has been particularly effective, going 4-0 with a 2.67 ERA, 21 strikeouts and an 0.98 WHIP. Jurrjens has similar numbers and has averaged six innings per start on his shaky knee, but his command has not been as sharp.

The fact that there still are four or five seemingly viable possibilities is a testament to Duquette's dogged pursuit of low-cost pitching depth, but the fact that Showalter has not been able to push one of those magic buttons the way he did so many times last year keeps the question open.

It's early, but the Orioles already have had to go to the well too often.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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