Ortiz could climb Giants' rotation ladder

Ortiz could climb rotation ladder

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's completely logical to regard Russ Ortiz as more than just a candidate for the fifth-starter's spot in the Giants' rotation.

Officially, Ortiz hasn't won a job. But it's difficult to imagine that he won't. Ortiz continued his progress Wednesday by lasting a personal spring-high 3 2/3 innings in the Giants' 4-3 loss to the Angels.

So at this juncture, it's worth asking two questions: If Ortiz isn't the Giants' fifth starter, who is? And could he begin the season occupying a higher berth in the rotation -- even as high as third, behind Barry Zito and Matt Cain?

Giants manager Bruce Bochy wouldn't touch the first question. With nearly three weeks of exhibition games remaining, he has to remain cautious in case a sudden injury, dip in performance or trade jumbles his pitching staff.

"We haven't announced anything yet," Bochy said. "He's certainly throwing very well."

But catcher Bengie Molina didn't hesitate to suggest that Ortiz could elevate his status before too long.

"He's throwing way better right now than a No. 5 guy," Molina said of Ortiz, who has a 3.00 ERA in 12 Cactus League innings.

Ortiz, in the midst of an apparent resurgence from a 5-19 record in 2005-06, also is throwing much better than the other potential No. 5 starters.

Brad Hennessey has starting experience, but not nearly as much as Ortiz, who was 67-44 for the Giants from 1998-2002, before finishing 36-16 with Atlanta in 2003-04. Hennessey probably will begin the season as San Francisco's long reliever unless he's traded.

Although the Giants project Jonathan Sanchez as a starter, rushing him into the rotation would be counterproductive, particularly with a seasoned pitcher such as Ortiz at hand. Sanchez, who remains likely to open the season in the Giants' bullpen, is scheduled to start Thursday night against the Mariners, although Bochy explained that assignment is largely meant to extend the left-hander's stamina.

Rookie sensation Tim Lincecum could be starting for the Giants by the end of the season, but for now he must gain savvy at Triple-A. Sun-Woo Kim, another starting candidate, has a 4.91 ERA and a .333 opponents' batting average this spring.

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Ortiz won't assume anything.

"Nothing has been guaranteed to me, so I'm trying to do everything I can to put myself in the best position to make it an easy decision for them," he said.

Once Ortiz officially arrives in the rotation, the Giants will be hard-pressed to label him the starter who's prone to being skipped following scheduled off-days if he keeps thriving.

"I don't see why I can't have a very good year," said Ortiz, who has attributed his comeback to bringing his arm farther back as he prepares to throw. "I think I'm smarter than I was five or six years ago ... and I feel like I have the stuff that I've always had."

Ortiz's stuff remained sharp against the Angels, although he surrendered two runs. He finished the first inning by retiring Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson, the Angels' most formidable hitters. Ortiz lapsed briefly in the third, when a fastball veered back over the middle of the plate and Gary Matthews Jr. hammered it for a home run, and in the fourth, when a double-steal accounted for the Halos' second run.

First baseman Rich Aurilia, Ortiz's teammate during his first stint in San Francisco, played behind the right-hander for the first time this spring and liked what he saw.

"The ball seems to have some life on it," Aurilia said. "It looks like he has some velocity back, also."

Nobody seriously thinks that Cain (11.42 ERA) or Matt Morris (16.20) will continue to struggle during the regular season. Yet if somebody in the rotation faltered, a consistent Ortiz could climb in the pecking order.

Or, if Ortiz stays the No. 5 starter all season, that'll probably reflect the Giants' depth.

"I think the way things are set up now, he's not No. 5; he's in the fifth spot," Aurilia said, employing the logic that each day's starter is the No. 1 pitcher for that game. "That could be an advantage, matching him against somebody else's No. 5. If you can get a guy like Russ close to where he used to be and have him in the five spot, that's nothing but good things waiting to happen."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.