To no surprise, O's rotation far from settled

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Some teams in this fine land could tell you what their season-opening starting rotation will look like right now. On Feb. 19.

And then there are the Orioles.

“I think we could field TWO major-league rotations with the squad we’ve got,” quipped reliever Darren O'Day.

Except he wasn’t really kidding.

If someone asks you to name the candidates to fill out this team’s rotation, the correct response should actually be: “Got an hour?”

There’s Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen. There’s Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. There’s Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta. And then there’s a cast of thousands.

Steve JohnsonTommy HunterBrian MatuszJair Jurrjens … Rule 5 draft pick T.J. McFarland … the currently injured Tsuyoshi Wada.

And lest we forget, let’s not omit two of Keith Law’s top 11 pitching prospects in baseball -- Dylan Bundy (Numero Uno) and Kevin Gausman (No. 11) -- both of whom could show up in the big leagues any minute now.

So that’s 14 starters by our count. For five spots. Unless Buck Showalter has figured out a way to unfurl history’s first 14-man rotation. And if any manager who ever lived could pull that off, he’s the guy. But that’s not the plan. Not this week, anyhow.

So on Tuesday, with Opening Day still six weeks away, Showalter was asked how many names he could safely write into his rotation at this very moment.

“In pencil or in pen?” he replied.

"In whatever writing implement you prefer,” he was told.

“Well,” he said, “I can pencil in four. I can pen in two.”

“It probably wouldn’t be that hard to guess which four,” he was told.

“You’re gonna have to,” the manager retorted, “because I’m not telling you.”

So here goes, even though it’s far from official: In pen: Hammel and Chen. In pencil: Gonzalez and Tillman. In limbo: Everybody else.

“To me, it’s the same situation as last year,” said Johnson. “We’ve got a lot of pitchers in camp. A lot of guys have a shot. And it’s a good competition for everybody.”

And one thing they all learned from last year: If they don’t make the rotation coming out of spring training, no reason to panic. They could go through 10 or 20 more starters as the season rolls along.

“Last year,” said Hammel, “we had more than a dozen guys do something for us in the rotation. So I was joking that when I was injured last year, after I had my surgery, I would look up online to check and see who was throwing tonight, it was always TBA. And we discovered that TBA is a pretty good player.”

Well, TBA -- which either stands for To Be Announced or Throwing Bullets Anonymously -- was good enough that this team made the postseason, at any rate. And just so you get a true feel for how difficult it is to make the playoffs in a year in which your team uses 12 different starters, consider this.

Eight other teams also used a dozen starters or more last season. They averaged 91 losses apiece. And only one of them (the White Sox) had a winning record.

But any team can call a pitcher up to make one quick cameo start in an emergency. All 12 men who passed through that Orioles rotation last year, on the other hand, made multiple starts. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they’re the first playoff team that could make that claim since the 2009 Dodgers -- and just the second AL team to do it over the last decade. (The other: The 2007 Yankees).

And finally, there’s this: The Orioles were the 18th team in the wild-card era that had only one starter (Chen) pitch 135 innings or more. How many of the other 17 made the postseason? None, of course.

So it’s safe to say the 2012 Orioles don’t exactly fit the mold of your traditional contender. Or possibly any other mold. But just because that’s the way they did it last year doesn’t mean that’s the way they prefer to do it again.

It may be true that having 14 viable rotation candidates in one camp signifies this is a team with tremendous pitching depth. But when the Orioles’ executive vice president for baseball operations, Dan Duquette, was asked Tuesday if he liked going into camp with all those options, as opposed to having a set rotation, he couldn’t help but laugh.

“I’d much rather do it the other way,” he confessed. “But we’re not quite there yet in the building of our team.”

Nevertheless, it’s fair to wonder how many teams would ask a guy like Gonzalez -- who went 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts and threw seven brilliant innings (five hits, one run, eight whiffs) in Yankee Stadium last October -- to win a job in spring training.

Or ask a guy like Tillman -- who went 9-3, 2.93, in 15 starts -- to compete for a job. Likewise Johnson, who went 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA, in his four late-season starts. Or Arrieta, who was the Opening Day starter last year. Or Britton, who is 16-14 in two big-league seasons.

But if you know Buck Showalter at all, you know there’s nothing he enjoys more than a good, healthy, spring-training free-for-all, that forces all these guys to earn their plane ticket to Baltimore.

“A guy like Tillman isn’t getting after it because he’s out of options,” the manager said. “He’s approaching it like that because he wants to be here. … I really like all our depth, between Arrieta and Matusz and Hunter and Johnson and [prospect] Eduardo Rodriguez. These guys are really working at it.”

Six weeks from now, we can safely predict this team WILL have a rotation. But as Duquette couldn’t help but point out, “at this time last year, we didn’t even have Gonzalez in our organization.” So you never know who might show up on that mound at Camden Yards between now and October. But if Duquette and Showalter get their wish, the number of starters who take that mound will be fewer than 12. Hopefully, a lot fewer.

“The real question,” Duquette said, “is who is going to pitch those innings? Who is going to take their turn 30 times and pitch between 180-200 innings? That’s really what this team would like.”

It wouldn’t be spring training if Buck Showalter wasn’t hauling out some kind of ingenious new innovation. And here’s this year’s new gizmo:

A water polo countdown clock.

No, the Orioles aren’t performing any PFPs underwater this spring. But after Showalter commissioned some research to determine that the average hitter took 4.5 seconds to run to first base last season, he then took that info to the next level.

As always.

So when Orioles pitchers field their come-backers to the mound in drills this spring, that water polo countdown clock starts ticking. And every 4.5 seconds, its buzzer sounds to let those pitchers know exactly how much time they have to field a ground ball, turn to first, get their feet set and deliver the baseball to first base on time.

“I’ve talked about this with our infield guys for three or four years,” Showalter said, “going, 'How do we teach a clock?' Everybody says, you’ve got to have that [internal] clock. Well, you don’t teach it. You can’t say, 'Hey, slow down. You don’t have to hurry that much.' You’ve got to go, 'Here’s how much time you’ve got.'”

So the concept here is to give players a sense of how their internal clock should function by supplying an external clock that pounds the amount of time they actually have into their noggins. The only downside is that, when that water polo clock hits zero, the shrill buzzer it uses to get that message across is also doing wonders for Advil business in the clubhouse.

“I’d say it’s not the kind of buzzer you want to hear,” Hammel chuckled. “It’s kind of like the alarm you get in the morning.”

Stat of the day: The Orioles had 19 different pitchers win a game last season (including one position player, Chris Davis). Only five playoff teams in history had more different pitchers win at least once. Here they are:

2007: Yankees (22)

2002: Cardinals (21)

2010: Reds (20)

2006: Mets (20)

2000: White Sox (20)