SARASOTA, Florida—The Orioles begin spring training on Tuesday with many questions to be answered. Between now and March 23, when their time in Florida ends, much more will be known. As pitchers and catchers report, let’s look at five storylines that bear watching over the next six weeks.
- Who will be in the starting rotation?
That’s the main question for the Orioles. John Means and a returning Alex Cobb should anchor the rotation, and at least at the beginning of the season, Asher Wojciechowski could be a part of it, too.
On Saturday at the Birdland Caravan in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, general manager Mike Elias said the Orioles are still trying to sign a veteran for the rotation.
Barring that, there are still at least two holes in the rotation. Among the candidates are Rule 5 draft picks Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker. David Hess, who began last season as a starter, Kohl Stewart, a free agent signed in late December, and minor league free agent Brady Rogers will get a look, as will veteran Wade LeBlanc, who signed a minor league contract.
Ty Blach, Tom Eshelman and Chandler Shepherd, all of whom pitched for the Orioles last season, aren’t on the major league roster but will get another chance.
Keegan Akin, their most advanced minor league starter, is on the 40-man roster but probably will begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
- Will the bullpen be any better?
The Orioles return the five pitchers with the most appearances from last season: Shawn Armstrong, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry and Mychal Givens.
That’s not necessarily a good thing because their ERAs ranged from 4.57 (Givens) to 5.37 (Bleier). Bleier and Givens are expected to begin the season with the Orioles. So should Hunter Harvey, who dazzled in seven brief appearances, if there are no concerns about his health.
Dillon Tate’s 6.43 ERA didn’t impress, but his arm did.
Bailey and Rucker might be used in the bullpen if they’re not in the starting rotation.
The Orioles also hope that Tanner Scott, another with outstanding potential, can solidify a place among the relievers.
Evan Phillips is back, and so is Cody Carroll, whose back injury ruined his 2019. Waiver claims Travis Lakins and Cole Sulser have a shot, too, and it will be interesting to see how Branden Kline pitches after he was passed through waivers.
Left-hander Hunter Cervenka is another intriguing non-roster product.
- An important year for inherited prospects
Elias has changed the front office and minor league and scouting systems, but just over a third of the players on the 40-man roster (14) weren’t in the organization when he arrived 15 months ago.
Prospects such as Scott, Hess, outfielders Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart, and catcher Chance Sisco have been up and down between the minors and the Orioles.
For each of them, 2020 is a huge year. They were drafted, developed, and each came to the majors before Elias arrived.
But they have disappointed.
Hess was 1-10 with a 7.09 ERA last season. Mullins was the starting centerfielder on Opening Day but was sent to Norfolk, and later, Bowie when he hit .094 (6-for-64) early in the year.
Stewart played in 44 games but needed ankle surgery after the season and isn’t expected to be ready to play when the team ends camp. Scott and Sisco, who have each played in parts of the last three seasons, have yet to establish themselves.
- Who gets the reserve infield and outfield jobs?
For now, let’s assume Chris Davis is at first, Hanser Alberto at second, José Iglesias at short and Rio Ruiz at third. In the outfield, Anthony Santander in left, Austin Hays in center and Trey Mancini in right.
That leaves four spots open.
In the infield, Richard Urena, Pat Valaika and non-roster player Dilson Herrera are the top candidates. Herrera and Urena are out of options, and Valaika has one left.
Dwight Smith Jr., who played solidly in the first third of last season, has a good chance to begin the season with the Orioles, but so do Mullins and Mason Williams, who re-signed with the team on a minor league deal.
A healthy Stewart would be in the mix, too.
Despite being outrighted for the second time in less than a year, infielder/outfielder Stevie Wilkerson chose to remain in the Orioles’ organization, but it will be difficult for him to make the team as a super-utility player. That would require a player to come off the 40-man, as he’s done twice in the last 11 months.
- The future may be bright, but it isn’t quite here
The most fascinating part of spring training is the one that needs a little imagination. Watch Yusniel Diaz hit and play the outfield, Adley Rutschman catch, and Zac Lowther, Alex Wells and Bruce Zimmermann pitch. Those five prospects have been invited to camp but won’t start the season with the Orioles.
But fans who watch the first games on the Grapefruit League schedule can observe these players, along with Akin, outfielder Ryan McKenna and infielder/outfielder Ryan Mountcastle, who are on the 40-man roster.
The level of talent is higher in this camp than it was in 2019, but the end result may not be much better, if at all.
These prospects are on hand to get them time with major league coaches, and to show the fans that there is talent not far from the major leagues.