With Lou Piniella planning to announce his five-man starting rotation by the end of this week, the three contenders for the two open slots have gone out of their way to make the boss's choice difficult.

On Tuesday, Jason Marquis allowed the Royals one run over five innings to lower his Cactus League ERA to 1.93 (in 14 innings pitched).

On Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Dempster bounced back from a nasty outing over the weekend to fan seven Oakland A's while allowing one hit in 5 1/3 shutout innings.

Finally, on Wednesday night in a split squad game, Jon Lieber gave up just one earned run in five innings against the Giants, lowering his spring ERA to 1.80 (with just 2 walks in 15 IP).

We all know the candidates' shortcomings--Marquis is a terrible second-half pitcher, Lieber is battling age while trying to come back from a significant injury, Dempster is hoping to recast himself as a starting pitcher after years in the bullpen and before that, years as a poor starting pitcher--but at the very least, the three have presented themselves to their manager in the best possible light.

I like Lieber and question his ability to contribute out of the bullpen; I don't much like Marquis and question his ability to contribute out of the bullpen; and I suppose I could live with seeing Dempster as the fifth guy (whether they call him #3 or #5, who cares?). A trade (of Marquis to Boston?) would simplify everything, but it doesn't seem likely that will happen before Lou's self-imposed announcement deadline on Friday.


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