A week ago, I was in Sarasota preparing for the Orioles’ game in Fort Myers that never happened. Seven days later, the impressions of the truncated spring training are still fresh, and here are five that stood out.
- Overall, the team just seemed better
In 2019, the Orioles were getting to know a new manager and coaching staff, and they were getting to know the team. This year, most of the players already knew Brandon Hyde and his returning coaches, and the ones who didn’t were in step with the program immediately.
The talent level was higher, and the young players didn’t seem all that far from the major leagues.
With a 162-game season, this was still a team that could have lost more than 100, but discernible progress was there.
It was hard to see on some days. On February 25, the fourth day of games, the Orioles lost split-squad games to Tampa Bay and Boston by a combined 27-6, reminding some of all those lopsided games in 2019.
However, in nine of their 19 Grapefruit League games, the Orioles allowed three or fewer runs, and their record when play was suspended was 9-7-3.
- There was real competition for bullpen spots
The starting pitching might be a challenge for this team, but the bullpen was markedly improved.
Six spots seem assured with Shawn Armstrong, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry and Mychal Givens, who were the top five in appearances in 2019, and Hunter Harvey ready to assume a major role.
The competition for the back two spots was so intense that general manager Mike Elias felt comfortable enough to send Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker, their two Rule 5 picks, back to their original teams.
With the six spots virtually locked up, having a Rule 5 pick or two could have hamstrung the bullpen when the team wanted to option someone.
Hector Velázquez, who took one of the two vacated spots on the 40-man when he was claimed on March 8, could be the team’s long man, and there are many possibilities for the other spot, including Cody Carroll, Travis Lakins, Tanner Scott, Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate, all of whom are on the 40-man and have options.
Eric Hanhold and Branden Kline also pitched well, but aren’t on the 40-man.
- The starting pitching was dangerously thin
That wasn’t a surprise, but when Alex Cobb was slow played because of a blister, it was again apparent that the starting staff didn’t have much depth.
Cobb and John Means, who was lined up for Opening Day, Asher Wojciechowski and a pair of veteran non-roster hopefuls, left-handers Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, seemed to have starting spots.
But behind them, there weren’t appetizing choices.
Kohl Stewart, who was one of two major league free agents signed, was able to pitch only once because of biceps soreness, and David Hess wasn’t stretched out.
When Milone was held back by trapezius soreness, Stewart’s chances improved.
The Orioles brought three spot starters from last season to camp on minor league contracts, but Ty Blach, Thomas Eshelman and Chandler Shepherd didn’t do much to set themselves apart.
Blach allowed five runs in a start against the Washington Nationals, and Eshelman nine against Toronto.
- A year from now, battles for starting spots might be real
Pitching prospects Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann were all in camp, and in March 2021 they might be strong candidates to start the season with the Orioles.
With the length of this season uncertain, all three could have their debuts pushed back. Had the season begun as scheduled, Akin, Kremer and Zimmermann could have been in Baltimore later in 2020.
Michael Baumann, who wasn’t in major league camp, Zac Lowther, who was there briefly, and Alexander Wells, who was but didn’t pitch because of an oblique muscle injury, also could figure into the equation a year from now.
- The young outfielders looked interesting
Austin Hays was set to begin the season in center field and Anthony Santander, who was held back initially to rest his throwing arm, were in line to be two-thirds of the starting outfield. Trey Mancini would have been the third until he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his colon.
Ryan Mountcastle will get time at Triple-A Norfolk to work in left field and improve his plate discipline, and Yusniel Diaz will get to play in Triple-A for the first time.
Another young outfielder, DJ Stewart, who was set to start the season on the injured list to allow additional recovery time from October ankle surgery, should be ready when the Orioles reconvene, and Ryan McKenna, exhibited speed and defense.