SARASOTA, Fla.—The Orioles get their only day off of spring training on Monday, and when play resumes, there will be 13 days remaining before the team leaves the warmth of Florida for a much chillier climate.
Opening Day is March 28 in New York, and manager Brandon Hyde has dozens of decisions to make, but in the past week a number of players have made huge impressions on him.
Take the outfield competition. When camp began, it was assumed that Trey Mancini would be in left, Cedric Mullins would be in center, and right was a wide-open competition.
After 18 games, only Mancini in left seems to be a certainty — and he might be playing some first base. Perhaps the camp’s most pleasant surprise has been the emergence of Austin Hays (pictured above), who lost much of last year because of a left ankle injury that required surgery. He has excelled on offense and defense. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Hays unseat Mullins in center.
Hays also could play right field, but there are other contenders for the other outfield spots, principally Joey Rickard and Anthony Santander.
Rickard and Santander have played well. Veteran Eric Young Jr. is probably a step behind. Dwight Smith Jr., who was acquired on Friday from Toronto, has yet to play.
“They are tightly bunched,” manager Brandon Hyde said of the outfielders.
“The tough decisions are great because they’re playing well. I hope that Dwight comes in here and plays really, really well and makes it even harder on everybody, but it’s pretty fair to say that everybody’s gotten a real equal opportunity in the outfield. A lot of guys have gotten a ton of at-bats and gotten an opportunity to play and taken advantage of it, so I’m really pleased with how those guys have played.”
In the infield, Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson seem to be ahead in the jockeying for the shortstop and utility positions, assuming the Orioles carry 13 pitchers and three bench players.
Left-handed hitter Rio Ruiz has made a strong impression at third base, where his offense and defense have been better than incumbent Renato Nunez.
Hyde has gotten to know his players over the last month.
“I didn’t know Austin Hays, and I didn’t know Santander, and DJ Stewart real well, Rio Ruiz a little bit, [Stevie] Wilkerson, those type of players,” Hyde said.
“I just didn’t have a ton of knowledge into their games. A lot of those guys have big futures ahead of them. Whether they break with the team or not or go to Triple-A, they’re going to be productive major league players. They’re working the right way, I know that. This environment is really allowing them to be free and showcase. I think they’ve all taken advantage of it. I’m impressed with all of them.”
Chance Sisco has played well, and it would be surprising if he wasn’t the Opening Day catcher. Until the past several days, Austin Wynns seemed to have a clear path to being Sisco’s backup, but he’s out because of a sore left oblique. If he isn’t ready to play in the next several days, he could fall behind veterans Carlos Perez and Jesus Sucre.
Sucre was a late arrival in camp because of visa issues but has made up ground quickly.
Chris Davis has missed a week because of a strained left hip flexor. Hyde expects him to play in a few days. He’s just 1-for-12 (.083) and will need to play regularly in the final two weeks to be ready for Opening Day.
So will Mark Trumbo, who has yet to play after having right knee surgery last September.
“Guys will start getting more at-bats,” Hyde said. “You’ll start seeing pitchers back-to-back, some players going back-to-back. The guys are going to be on the field more. We’re really going to zero in on the guys we’re going to take to Baltimore, and they’re going to play a lot. This is the time to really gear up for the season right now.”
There is competition on the pitching staff, too. Besides Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb, none of whom has had a start without giving up a run, there are a number of candidates for the back end of the rotation.
David Hess and Mike Wright appear to be the top choices for starting roles. Wright, who has 10 scoreless innings, will start against the New York Yankees Tuesday night.
Bundy, Cashner, Cobb, Hess and Wright are right-handers. Hyde could choose left-handers Josh Rogers, who allowed two runs on five hits in 3 2/3 innings on Sunday, or John Means, who’ll pitch behind Wright on Tuesday.
So will Nate Karns, who the Orioles haven been bringing along slowly because of his injury history. Karns, who missed a start on March 1 against the Yankees because of arm soreness, has pitched a scoreless inning in two appearances this week.
If Rogers, Means or Jimmy Yacabonis, who has yet to start in major league camp, don’t make the club, they could start at Triple-A Norfolk along with Luis Ortiz, who was optioned to Norfolk Sunday, Yefry Ramirez and Gabriel Ynoa.
Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier, who made his 2019 debut on Saturday night, appear to be locks for bullpen slots. The same is true for Miguel Castro, who threw his fifth shutout inning, and has allowed just three hits and struck out eight.
Paul Fry might have secured a spot, too. On Sunday, Fry threw two more spotless innings. He has given up just three hits in six scoreless innings.
Tanner Scott has struggled some, allowing seven runs in four innings, but has walked just one batter in five appearances.
Hyde and general manager Mike Elias must decide if they want to keep Pedro Araujo, who still needs to stay on the roster for the first 17 days to fulfill his Rule 5 requirement. Araujo gave up three runs on four hits on Sunday.
Other strong candidates are Cody Carroll (two runs in five innings) and Evan Phillips (six scoreless innings).
If Karns and Araujo join Givens, Bleier, Castro, Fry and Scott in the bullpen, that leaves just one spot open—if the Orioles go with eight relievers to begin the season.
In the final days of spring play, Hyde will decide who will come north with the club and how they’ll be used.
“Whether we do a piggyback situation, whether we do openers, we haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” Hyde said. “We’re just stretching these guys out to see what the best fit is. The fortunate thing is that a lot of these guys that are battling are pitching well.”