SARASOTA, Fla. -- In just about two weeks, the Baltimore Orioles will trot out on the orange carpet for Opening Day on April 6 against the Minnesota Twins. But before the 2012 season officially begins, the organization will have to make some tough decisions -- and likely one or two trades -- to help solidify a roster full of uncertainty. With 43 players still in big league camp as of Thursday, I thought it'd be a good time to dip into my Inbox and answer some of your biggest questions...
What has been the biggest, pleasant surprise in Spring Training so far? -- Chris B., Columbia, Md.
The comeback of Brian Matusz has been the feel-good story of camp, with the 25-year-old lefty making a strong bid for a spot in the team's starting rotation after going 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA in 12 games last year. In his last three starts, Matusz has allowed one run, walked one and struck out 13 in 13 innings, and his velocity has been much improved from last season, ranging from 91-95 mph, depending on the outing and radar gun.
Matusz made a significant effort to get into shape this offseason, and he's noticeably stronger than previous springs and better able to make adjustments in his delivery. One National League scout marveled at the transformation, saying Matusz is throwing the ball better than he has in the past few years. It's still early, of course, but a healthy and productive season from Matusz could go a long way in helping the Orioles' season. The challenge now is for him to keep working and not let a few early spring starts cause a lapse.
How are the battles for the leadoff and cleanup spots looking? -- Sean B., Bellmore, N.Y.
Manager Buck Showalter has mentioned several times this spring that finding a cleanup hitter will be more difficult than a leadoff guy (even without Brian Roberts) in making out the daily lineup. So, who hits fourth?
Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are the most likely candidates for the cleanup spot, with Jones getting an extended look in that spot so far this spring. The front-runner to hit leadoff is Nolan Reimold, given his speed and ability to work counts, although the recent play of Endy Chavez -- who is having an excellent spring -- has presented another option for Showalter.
While the initial thought was Reimold and Chavez won't spend a lot of time on the field together and would serve as a platoon, Chavez could see more time in right field, especially earlier in the season. Nick Markakis, who is coming off abdominal surgery, expects to be ready for April 6, and even if he is, you can expect Showalter to rotate Chavez in there to ease in Markakis to some degree. Another leadoff option, although not as likely, is Robert Andino, who Showalter prefers to have hit ninth, citing the importance of a strong No. 9 hitter in the American League East.
Who is the leading candidate to start on opening day for the O's? -- Scott J., Bean Station, Tenn.
More and more, I'm leaning toward Jake Arrieta. Showalter has said there are several candidates for the spot and -- while I wouldn't rule out Jason Hammel or Tommy Hunter -- my gut feeling is it will be Arrieta, who started last year's home opener.
First, how has Mark Reynolds looked at third with the lost weight? And, second, at this point, who's your surprise player to make the team? -- Jon P.,Severna Park, Md.
Reynolds lost about 20 pounds this winter due to cardio-based workouts, and he's really taken improving his defense seriously this spring. Reynolds has admitted his play at third base last year was embarrassing, and in the first few weeks of camp, he was out for early work on a near-daily basis. So far in spring, he's gotten a return for it; making plays that Showalter admitted he wasn't sure Reynolds would have made last year. The weight loss has improved his mobility, and he just looks like a more confident player on the field.
Have a question about the Orioles?
E-mail your query to MLB.com Orioles beat reporter Brittany Ghiroli for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
As for the second part of your question, it's got to be Rule 5 Draft pick Ryan Flaherty. Although I have both Flaherty and Nick Johnson penciled in to bench spots (assuming both stay healthy), watching Flaherty's bat this spring has been impressive. Taken from the Chicago Cubs this winter, Flaherty has made the most of his opportunities this spring and is second on the team in RBIs (seven), trailing only Jones. I think he has to make this club and give the O's a chance to see what they have in him, particularly since he's a Rule 5 guy, meaning he would have to be returned to the Cubs if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster.
What are the plans for Dontrelle Willis? He was a great pitcher at one time, and since then has bounced around. -- Garrett M., Jonesboro, Ark.
The Orioles signed Willis to a Minor League deal as a reclamation project of sorts, and it's safe to say he won't break camp with the big league club given how late it is and where he's at right now. What will most likely happen is Willis will go to the Minors and try to reinvent himself -- and resurrect his career -- as a reliever.
"The idea is to see if he can be a lockdown left-handed reliever against left-handed hitters," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said of the decision to sign Willis. "Our interest in that project is [that] lefties hit .127 off him last year, and three of the last four years, he's done very well vs. left-handed hitters."
Willis threw a brief bullpen session after passing his physical on Wednesday, and he should get into games for the Orioles soon.