Five Oriole storylines from spring training's first half - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Spring Training

Five Oriole storylines from spring training’s first half

Photo Credit: Joy R. Absalon

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.

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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.”

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Boog Robinson Robinson

    March 1, 2020 at 6:21 pm

    “Davis is taking the ball the other way” … Finally! Everybody within the MASN broadcast area region knew this was THE key for the man rediscovering his stroke. Did he finally have that all elusive moment of clarity? Go figure that in the year management would more likely than not have finally eaten his contract … that Crush Davis figures it all out. Talk about throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into the master plan! And frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about that? But then again .. in all likelihood ..this will seem like ancient history come April.

  2. Orial

    March 1, 2020 at 9:17 pm

    It’s scary but there are some beautiful things happening in Sarasota so far(don’t pinch me). Hays seems so dynamic in CF that having Mountcastle,Mancini,Santander flanking him out there may not be so bad after all. Still wondering if Mullins can pull it off and join Stewart in the OF rotation with the previous mention ed 4 players. Getting Mancini to 1B would sure loosen the squeeze out there. Rich utility and pitchers lie strictly in your hands as day to day reports evolve. Good things so far.

    • Rich Dubroff

      March 2, 2020 at 8:55 am

      Orial, thank you I’ll keep an eye on both competitions.

    • Borg

      March 3, 2020 at 5:31 am

      Mountcastle in left and Mancini in right would be a terrible defensive outfield and hte pitcher’s ERA’s would reflect that. Besides, Mountcastle has a noodle arm-when he was playing shortstop for Frederick, I watched him and saw he could not even throw the ball from short to first on a line, he rainbowed everything. All of this is happening because of Chris Davis. Mancini should be at first, with Mountcastle at DH by June, and an actual outfield surrounding Hayes. If Davis was making $6 million instead of his $22 million this problem would have been solved two years ago, but here we are. What is going to end up happening I would bet, is that Nunez gets traded so that the DH spot opens for Mountcastle and Davis remains blocking Mancini’s development a a first baseman. If they are keeping Davis for the remainder of his contract (and really, what choice do they have but to do so?) then the Os might as well deal Mancini too while he has value, and look to be competitive in two years, about the time their young pitchers are ready for the big leagues.

  3. Jimrhill

    March 2, 2020 at 8:21 am

    Rich,

    Just want to remark that you do a nice job in reporting on the Orioles. I now add your comments on a daily basis along with Roch and Steve. Thank you for your fine efforts.

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