How do you keep a five-man bench? Rev up the Norfolk pitching shuttle and let it ride - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Dan Connolly

How do you keep a five-man bench? Rev up the Norfolk pitching shuttle and let it ride

One of the Orioles’ trickier situations of the early season is about to unfold this week.

Outfielder Joey Rickard, who has been on the disabled list since April 9 with a middle finger sprain of his left hand, is expected to come off the disabled list Friday if all goes well during a doubleheader today at Low-A Delmarva.

Then what?

Rickard has minor league options remaining, so there’s always the chance he could be sent to Triple-A Norfolk when deemed healthy.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter won’t dismiss that possibility, but it’s not his first choice.

“You don’t want to penalize a guy who makes your club better just because he’s got an option as a position player,” Showalter said recently. “We’ll see how it goes with Joey and his rehab.”

So does that mean they’ll do something with Craig Gentry, also a speedy, right-handed-hitting outfielder, but an older one (33) and one who can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers first?

Doesn’t sound like that either.

“Hopefully, when Joey gets back we’ll be able to use (Gentry) even more selective (as the) weapon he can be off the bench,” Showalter said. “It’s kind of nice when Joey plays and Craig is able to come in and we can pick our spot with (Gentry) where we know he can impact the game.”

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Showalter has a new toy that he hasn’t had since he’s been here: Speed off the bench. A legitimate pinch-running option that can play good defense and hit in spurts. Actually, he has two of them, and doesn’t want to give them up despite the similar skills set.

Is it possible to keep Gentry and Rickard together on the same roster?

“I’m gonna try. It’s gonna take some imagination, but we’re gonna try. May not be able to, I don’t know. But we’re gonna try. The problem is, after this off day (Thursday), we’ve got a pretty long span where you’re gonna line up five (starting) pitchers,” Showalter said. “It’s gonna be a challenge. … Depth doesn’t really come into play unless they are optionable and you can move things around.  … From that standpoint, we’re able to move the pitchers around, but the position players are a challenge.”

Right now, the Orioles have 13 position players, eight relievers (including spot starters Alec Asher and Jayson Aquino) and four starters.

Showalter appears to be leaning toward 14 position players, or a bench of five: reserve catcher Caleb Joseph, reserve infielder Ryan Flaherty and three reserve outfielders/designated hitters (from a pool of seven that includes Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith, Hyun Soo Kim, Trey Mancini, Gentry and Rickard).

Five offensive reserves would be a tremendous luxury for Showalter, who, at times, has had to deal with a three-man bench. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette promised to get Showalter a deeper, more versatile bench, though, and Duquette seemingly has delivered.

As good as Showalter is as a tactician, he’s done it mostly in his Orioles’ career with limited chess pieces. He’d be extremely dangerous with multiple possibilities to use in a given game.

So, that should be the Orioles’ No. 1 priority right now. Give Showalter the ability to have a five-man bench balanced with speed, power and hitting prowess from both sides of the plate. Then wind up Showalter’s imagination and see what happens.

But this, too, comes at a cost. Call it high-end petroleum for the Norfolk shuttle, which is gonna pile up some serious mileage if Showalter gets an extended bench.

Not only will Rickard be back this week, but closer Zach Britton and starter Chris Tillman will be coming off the DL soon, too.

That means the Orioles will have to go from eight relievers to six to make this work. And you have to assume five members of the bullpen are set: Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens and Donnie Hart.

So, the Orioles would have just one long reliever on the roster, instead of four right now (Aquino, Asher, Vidal Nuno and Paul Fry, who was recalled Tuesday). The assumption is, to keep the deep bench intact, the Orioles would have to send down the sixth reliever as soon as he is used, with the next fresh arm immediately coming up.

It’s an intriguing concept, and potentially a dizzying carousel if the Orioles’ starters fail to go deep. It’s something that, in practicality, may not be able to last too long.

But, with so many optionable, long-relief-type pitchers – Aquino, Asher, Stefan Crichton, Nuno, Fry, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Chris Lee, Gabriel Ynoa, you get the picture – the Orioles may be able to make it work for a bit.

The easiest solution is just to send the optionable Rickard to Triple-A once he comes off the DL.

But given the possibilities of what Showalter could accomplish with a diverse bench — and the multitude of optionable arms at his disposal — I say the Orioles should rev up the Norfolk pitching shuttle for as long as they can.

It’s unorthodox, but let’s see if it can work.

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