It has been an offseason of upheaval for the Orioles after a season of horrendous play. There is change in the front office, with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, and the on-field coaching staff, with manager Brandon Hyde.
Finally, though, baseball is back on the horizon. Orioles pitchers and catchers will report to Sarasota, Fla., next week to kick off spring training.
Coming off a 115-loss season, the Orioles’ roster is full of uncertainty. Of the 59 players scheduled to report to camp, only a small fraction can be considered locks to crack the Opening Day roster. Let’s look at where the Orioles stand at each position.
If you have any idea who’s going to be the Orioles’ starting catcher, please report to the courtesy phone. Two holdover candidates are the strongest contenders, but the Orioles haven’t tipped their hand about which way they’re leaning.
Caleb Joseph, who led the Orioles with 79 starts last year, wasn’t offered a contract to come back and is still unsigned, Chance Sisco (43 starts) and Austin Wynns (33) remain. Sisco was a huge disappointment last season, entering 2018 as the Orioles’ top prospect and finishing it with major questions about his defense and offense. It’s too early to give up on the left-hand-hitting catcher, who turns 24 on Feb. 24, and the Orioles have nothing to lose by giving him another crack at the job. But the club could decide to park him in the minors for further development first.
Wynns was the best hitter of the Orioles’ revolving door of catchers last year, batting .255 with a .669 OPS, and the 28-year-old showed polish behind the plate for a rookie. Almost any outcome is possible by Opening Day; he could be the regular catcher, serve as the backup or return to the minors as depth.
The Orioles have also brought in veteran catchers Jesus Sucre and Carlos Perez on minor league deals, and Andrew Susac, who was removed from the 40-man roster this offseason but will be in camp as a non-roster invitee. Ultimately, the decision may come down to the catchers who Hyde and his coaching staff think are best equipped to develop young pitchers.
As much as some Oriole fans don’t want to hear it, the first base job belongs to Chris Davis, who will be the starter — at least to begin the season. With the Orioles still owing Davis $92 million for the next four years, Elias and his analytics team will try everything they can to wring some value out of the fading slugger before they give up on him. It remains to be seen just how long Davis’ leash will be, but he’ll be on the Opening Day roster.
At the other corner, Renato Nunez has the inside track on the third base job after a solid two-month performance in 2018, in which he batted .275 with a .781 OPS and played better-than-expected defense. Winter pickup Rio Ruiz will be competing in the spring.
The middle infield is where things get muddled. Elias, shortly after his hiring in November, indicated that Jonathan Villar — who was a spark plug after his acquisition July 31 — would serve as the regular shortstop rather than second baseman. That might have changed after December’s Rule 5 draft, in which the Orioles plucked shortstop Richie Martin from Oakland with the first pick, and also acquired Drew Jackson from the Philadelphia Phillies.
Martin, who has a reputation as a stellar fielder but is unproven with the bat, has the inside track. But the new Orioles’ administration might not be as devoted to keeping Rule 5 picks on the roster as the previous regime was. If they don’t think Martin is likely to develop into a solid player, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Orioles cut ties with him before the regular season starts. The same holds true for Jackson, who is also under Rule 5 restrictions and is a longer shot to stick. Offseason acquisitions Hanser Alberto and Jack Reinheimer are also in the middle infield mix, as is homegrown utility man Steve Wilkerson.
The only outfield spot with relatively little competition is in center, where Cedric Mullins will begin his first full year in the majors. Mullins arrived in Baltimore with much fanfare last August, pushing Adam Jones off the center field position for the first time in his 11-year Oriole career. After a red-hot debut, Mullins cooled in September and finished with an uninspiring .235 average and .671 OPS and had some growing pains defensively. Still, his minor league pedigree suggests he can be an asset with his speed and his glove.
Trey Mancini, who’s one of the longest tenured Orioles in just his third full year, will be stationed at a corner outfield spot for now, although Elias and his staff are aware how much Mancini struggled in the field last season. Look for Mancini to start in left field until a spot opens up at first base or designated hitter.
Right field is wide open after the departure of Jones, who shifted to the position last August. Although Jones is still available as a free agent, Elias indicated the Orioles aren’t planning to sign anyone who is seeking a multi-year contract. For now, the top candidate may be DJ Stewart, the Orioles’ 2015 first-round pick who provided a jolt during his September callup last year with three homers in 40 at-bats. Joey Rickard is still around, though he’d ideally serve in a fourth outfielder role at most.
One player who could make this an interesting competition is Austin Hays. After being named the Orioles’ minor league player of the year in 2017 and making his big league debut, Hays had an ineffective, injury-marred 2018 in the minors. With a clean bill of health and a hot spring, Hays could put himself back into the major league picture sooner rather than later.
The designated hitter spot belongs to Mark Trumbo, who is optimistic he’ll be healthy enough to start the season after undergoing knee surgery in September. If Trumbo hits well for the first few months, there’s an outside chance the Orioles could trade him at the deadline to a club that needs power. If Trumbo needs more rehab time to start the year, Mancini could slide into the DH role to open an outfield spot for a better defender.
The top three spots are locked in with Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner, though all three could stand to improve from 2018. Bundy struggled to a 5.45 ERA and an MLB-worst 41 homers allowed, Cashner posted a 5.29 mark and Cobb had a strong second half but a disastrous first. All three lost 15 or more games. They’ll be working with a new pitching coach, Doug Brocail, who replaced Roger McDowell.
David Hess would likely be the No. 4 man if the season started today. He was erratic in his rookie season but showed potential to hold down a back-of-the-rotation spot. The fifth starter’s job is an open competition. Of the Orioles on the roster, Yefry Ramirez had the fifth-most starts last year with 12, but he threw only one quality start — in his last outing of the season — and had a 6.92 ERA as a starter. The Orioles will likely throw Ramirez into a scrum of candidates that also includes left-handers John Means and Josh Rogers and right-handers Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate.
The bullpen might be the most stable area of the team. Mychal Givens will return as the closer after faring well in that role during the last two months of 2018. Miguel Castro has become a mainstay in the bullpen, as has Richard Bleier, who is returning from lat muscle surgery. Second-year left-handers Paul Fry and Tanner Scott figure to round out the southpaw contingent with Bleier, barring a spring collapse.
It’ll be interesting to see how the new regime handles 25-year-old right-hander Pedro Araujo, who made the 2018 roster as a Rule 5 pick. Araujo, who suffered a strained right elbow and didn’t pitch after June 10, needs to serve 16 more days on the big league roster to fulfill his Rule 5 requirements. The logical move is for the Orioles to carry him for that short time frame and then send him to the minors, but we don’t know if Elias is as high on Araujo as predecessor Dan Duquette was.
Two or three remaining bullpen spots are up for grabs. Mike Wright spent the 2018 season on the Orioles’ roster, mainly because he was out of options, but stumbled to a 5.55 ERA in 48 games. Elias and Hyde won’t carry the same loyalty to the homegrown Wright that the previous administration did. The same is true for left-hander Donnie Hart, who failed as a specialist last year, giving up a .333 average and .948 OPS to lefty swingers.
Holdovers Jimmy Yacabonis, Cody Carroll and Evan Phillips will battle for a right-handed relief role along with Maryland native Branden Kline, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason. And five non-roster invitees — right-handers Gregory Infante, Josh Lucas, Bo Schultz and Gabriel Ynoa and left-hander Sean Gilmartin — have previous major league experience, the latter two with the Orioles.
Who are the locks?
Well, there aren’t many. By my reckoning, the only position players sure to make the Opening Day roster — assuming health, and no last-minute trades — are Davis, Villar, Mancini, Mullins and Trumbo. And I’d classify Nunez and Wynns as pretty safe bets, if not necessarily locks, based on their solid 2018 performances.
Among pitchers, Bundy, Cobb and Cashner are locks in the rotation and Givens, Bleier and Castro in the bullpen. The safe bets include Hess, Fry, Scott and Araujo.
With so few sure things, there could be anywhere from eight to 14 roster spots available for the taking this spring. It’s going to be a fascinating camp, and Elias and Hyde will be closely watching how it all shakes out.