Jason Johnson's latest spring start for the Baltimore Orioles was witnessed by a strong contingent of the team's front-office staff, plus a bevy of scouts from other teams. Any of them seeking definitive answers from the Orioles' talented but confounding right-hander probably walked away disappointed.
Battling veterans Rick Helling and Pat Hentgen for the last two spots in the Orioles' rotation, Johnson had one major stumble but otherwise pitched well in a 5-2 win over the Florida Marlins. Johnson yielded seven hits and two earned runs in six innings, lowering his spring ERA to 3.27, not counting five shutout innings in a minor league game last week.
"For the first three or four innings he was throwing pellets at the knees," Manager Mike Hargrove said. "That's as good as I've ever seen him direct the ball. He's throwing better now than I've ever seen him in the spring."
For Johnson, whose talent has been obscured by a 6-20 record since August 2001, today's start did not hurt his chances of earning a rotation spot, but it may not have helped as much as he would have hoped.
With only about two weeks until Opening Day, Hargrove keeps waiting for one or two of his rotation candidates to separate themselves from the others and complete a rotation that is headed by Rodrigo Lopez, Omar Daal and Sidney Ponson. Johnson has pitched slightly better than Hentgen and Helling, but the latter two have the benefit of proven track records.
"There are ways we can keep all of them," Hargrove said. "I'm sure we'll discuss that."
The Orioles could send the loser in the rotation race to the bullpen as their long reliever. Johnson hopes it isn't him.
"I don't want to have anything to do with the bullpen," Johnson said. "I've [done] that before, and I wasn't very good there."
The prevailing feeling in the organization is that neither Johnson, Helling nor Hentgen -- none of whom have much bullpen experience -- would be better in that role than right-hander Travis Driskill or left-hander Eric DuBose, the two leading candidates for the long-man job.
That means the loser in the rotation race may be cut loose -- or in the case of Hentgen, placed on the disabled list. Although Hentgen ($1.2 million) and Johnson ($2.9 million) are owed guaranteed money this season -- Helling's $1 million salary is non-guaranteed -- team officials have said money would not decide the choice.
One National League executive said the Orioles are still making it known that Johnson or Ponson are available in a trade for the right price, which could solve the logjam. Johnson also has a minor league option remaining, but it is unlikely he would be sent to the minors.
Orioles Notes: Scott Erickson's shoulder injury was found to be worse than expected, when surgery last week for a torn labrum also discovered a frayed rotator cuff and a deteriorating clavicle bone. The news further increases the possibility Erickson, a free agent after this season, will never pitch for the Orioles again.
"The odds are definitely against me to be back this year," Erickson, 35, told MLB.com on Saturday. "[Doctors] said the shoulder will never be as strong again. But I am going to come back. . . . Even if the doctor said I wouldn't pitch again, I would try. But I am not even thinking about retiring." . . .
Outfield prospect Larry Bigbie has gotten hot at exactly the right moment -- when the Orioles have a roster spot available because of David Segui's injuries. Bigbie, 25, has taken the team lead in RBI with 13. "Bigbie is really making us take a look," Hargrove said. "And I'm tickled pink." . . .
With all of their players signed, the Orioles will have an Opening Day payroll of about $49 million for their 25-man roster (plus Segui, who is expected to spend the first few weeks of the season on the disabled list).