CLEARWATER, Florida—The Orioles reported to the Ed Smith Stadium 19 days ago. In 22 days, they’ll be ending spring training. At roughly the halfway point in camp, there are some things that have stood out.
- Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle could be outfield mates in the near future
Hays has played an aggressive and skillful center field, and manager Brandon Hyde has batted him leadoff.
After watching Stevie Wilkerson learn on the job in center last year, it’s fun to watch an athletic centerfielder who has the ability to hit, run, throw and perhaps hit with power.
Mountcastle is learning how to play the outfield, and he’s displayed impressive offensive ability in the Grapefruit League season’s first eight days.
If Mountcastle can be a solid offensive player in the major leagues, the Orioles probably will learn to live with him being less than a star defender. If Hays can be an above-average player in center, that could help compensate for a learning Mountcastle in left.
“I’ve played with him for a while, and he’s always been an amazing player. He makes spectacular plays in the field,” Mountcastle said of Hays. “He’s a really good hitter. To play alongside him definitely is fun.”
Even if Mountcastle has an outstanding spring, it’s likely that the Orioles will follow through on general manager Mike Elias’ statement late last season that he expected Mountcastle to begin the season in the minor leagues to improve defensively and work on his on-base percentage. He batted .312 last season at Norfolk, but his on-base percentage was .344 because he walked just 24 times in 520 at-bats.
Then, there’s the service time issue. If Mountcastle begins the season in the minor leagues, the Orioles could delay his eligibility for arbitration and free agency by a year. Perhaps a late May or early June callup could be coming.
- Chris Davis is back to being an offensive force
Davis has homered in three of four games. The last time Davis did that during the regular season was May 2017.
Although Davis’ offensive heroics might not continue, it’s fun to look at a .714 average (5-for-7), .818 on-base percentage and 2.000 slugging stat line.
Davis is taking the ball the other way, and since his seven-year, $161 million contract still has three years to run, he’s bound to the Orioles. Even if he had a comeback-for-the-ages first half, it still would be nearly impossible to trade him.
That would be a good problem for the Orioles to have.
- The competition for the starting rotation seems to be narrowing
John Means, who threw three perfect innings on Sunday in the team’s fifth straight win, 3-2 over Philadelphia, and Alex Cobb, who threw in a simulated game in Sarasota while the Orioles played the Phillies, came into spring training as the team’s most established starters.
Asher Wojciechowski, who starts Monday against Tampa Bay, began the spring as the top candidate for the third spot.
Wade LeBlanc, who pitched two scoreless innings against Boston, and Tommy Milone, who equaled LeBlanc with two shutdown innings against Pittsburgh on Thursday, are the most accomplished starting candidates.
They’re both non-roster left-handers and the oldest pitchers in camp. LeBlanc’s second outing came in a simulated game on a back field.
If the Orioles want to add both, they’ll have to make room on the 40-man roster.
Brandon Bailey, who has allowed one run on three hits in four innings, is another pitcher who’ll get a serious look because of his Rule 5 status. So will Michael Rucker, the other Rule 5 candidate, who has thrown three shutout innings.
Kohl Stewart, another pitcher who looked as if he might be in the starting mix, has fallen behind because of biceps soreness. He hasn’t pitched in a Grapefruit League game.
If Bailey, LeBlanc and Milone continue to pitch well, they could all make the club. Keegan Akin, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect from last year’s Triple-A Norfolk staff, probably will return there to begin the season.
Akin has given up four runs in four innings in two appearances.
- It’s way too soon to pick an eight-man bullpen
The two most experienced relievers, Richard Bleier and Mychal Givens, stayed back in Sarasota Sunday to throw simulated innings. Hunter Harvey, who has been ill, is scheduled to pitch for the first time on Monday against Tampa Bay.
“I am excited about some of our bullpen guys. I feel like they are really throwing the ball well,” Hyde said.
“I like the way [Eric] Hanhold has thrown. I like the way Cody Carroll has thrown. To see Cody Carroll pitch like that in the Fall League and then pick up where he left off in November, that was great to see. He’s had a couple of really great outings where he was throwing 95, 96 and had good secondary stuff, so I’m excited about that.”
Hanhold, who is on a minor league contract, threw his third scoreless inning on Sunday. He has allowed one hit and walked a batter.
Carroll, who missed almost all of last season because of a back injury, has allowed one hit in three scoreless innings.
Hyde would like to see improvement from Shawn Armstrong, Miguel Castro and Paul Fry. He’s also looking for more efficiency from Branden Kline, Evan Phillips and Tanner Scott, who spent time in Norfolk and Baltimore.
“Some of the guys that were in our bullpen last year, especially the guys that did spend some time in Norfolk and were kind of that back-and-forth deal that we had last year, I think there’s time for them still to show that they’ve made improvements from last year,” Hyde said.
“I think that it’s great that we have some guys pushing some of those guys to step up, and that’s what I was hoping for all last year. I’d love to be able to define roles. I’d love to be able to feel like we have a bunch of guys who could pitch in a close game or with the lead, so I’m hoping that we have a ton of hard decisions to make at the end.”
- The utility competition is far from decided
There might be as many as three spots open in the infield and outfield. Hyde hasn’t decided how many extra infielders and outfielders he plans to carry on the 26-man roster.
Wilkerson, Dilson Herrera, Richard Urena, Ramon Urias, Pat Valaika and Andrew Velazquez seem to be leading the pack. Herrera has started at first and in right field. Velazquez has played center field, and Wilkerson continues to play the infield and outfield.
Hyde isn’t sure if he wants a utility man who plays infield and outfield.
“It will be depending on how many true outfielders we carry,” Hyde said. “If we feel like we need a center field option, then that does help if you can go out there and play center, for example. If we’re carrying four or five outfielders that are versatile and can also play other positions, then maybe not. So, we’ll see, but I have no idea.”