Once again, O's opening day starter unknown

It's been a while since the Orioles headed to spring training with a definite pitcher slated to take the mound on opening day. Was it perhaps Mike Mussina in 2000? He's the only pitcher I can remember who, in mid-February, was expected to be the team's ace barring a meteor landing on Ft. Lauderdale or a widespread plague.

Someone has to start opening day for the Orioles. For those of you that believe that pitcher might not be on the O's roster yet don't hold your breath.

A true top-of-the-rotation ace isn't going to appear out of the blue. There are no free agents out there that fit that description this late in the offseason and O's executive vice president Dan Duquette doesn't have enough trade chips he's willing to part with to bring in a No. 1 type starter.

So when hypothesizing who will take the ball for the Birds on April 5, you better scour the current 40-man roster.

My top candidates before seeing anyone throw this spring are Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta and Wei-Yin Chen. Any of those three could win the job.

Arrieta has the best stuff, but needs to prove in spring training that his mechanics and command have caught up with his stuff and mental toughness.

Hunter has proven he can put up solid numbers over the course of a 162-game season. In 2010, he won 13 games for the American League champion Rangers while posting a 3.73 ERA. Last year, a spring training groin injury allowed for young Texas arms like Derek Holland and Matt Harrison to bump Hunter out of the Rangers' rotation. He was traded to Baltimore midway through the season.

Hunter could be a good candidate to grab the O's top spot if he comes to camp in shape believing he can pitch like he did in 2010.

Chen could be the wild card. He posted a 2.68 ERA in 164 2/3 innings in Nippon Professional Baseball last year in Japan. It's hard to gauge how that will translate to the major leagues. Scouts say he has more upside than many of the other NPB pitchers we've seen make the leap to Major League Baseball. The lefty throws a low- to mid-90s fastball and his out pitch is a heavy slurve-like breaking pitch, but no one really knows what kind of stuff he has until we see him pitch in Sarasota.

Of the three, Arrieta is the only one who isn't contractually obligated to make the team. He has minor league options left. That won't have a bearing on Buck Showalter's decision if he pitches well in Florida. It might if he'd mediocre.

Barring any of the candidates really stepping up and earning that opening day honor, the Orioles will continue what seems like a decade of throwing pitchers out there opening day who, by default, get the title of No. 1 starter. It's been a while since the term "ace" could be used.

Looking back over the list of opening day starters since Mussina opened the 2000 season, the only other pitcher with ace-like numbers was Erik Bedard, who opened the 2007 season for the Birds and posted a 3.16 ERA that year.

For those of you who were never comfortable calling Jeremy Guthrie an ace, he did live up to that billing in 2008 when he was the Birds' opening day starter and went on to post a 3.63 ERA.

Here's a look at the O's opening day starters since 2000 and what their ERA was at season's end.

2011 Jeremy Guthrie (4.33 ERA)
2010 Kevin Millwood (5.10 ERA)
2009 Jeremy Guthrie (5.04 ERA)
2008 Jeremy Guthrie (3.63 ERA)
2007 Erik Bedard (3.16 ERA)
2006 Rodrigo Lopez (5.90 ERA)
2005 Rodrigo Lopez (4.90 ERA)
2004 Sidney Ponson (5.30 ERA)
2003 Rodrigo Lopez (5.82 ERA)
2002 Scott Erickson (5.55 ERA)
2001 Pat Hentgen (4.37 ERA)
2000 Mike Mussina (3.79 ERA)

Mussina was the Birds' opening day starter six times from 1994-2000. He posted a 3.58 ERA in those six seasons. The one year he didn't toe the rubber opening day was 1997. Jimmy Key was given the honor that year.