BOSTON– Baseball is back, and so is Trey Mancini. The Orioles’ world feels closer to normal. Opening Day is here.
They won’t be running down the Orange Carpet. That will wait a week, and six games into a season somehow doesn’t feel like a true opener.
Instead of playing 60 games in empty ballparks, the Orioles are scheduled to play a 162-game season in front of at least some fans. The Red Sox are allowing 12 percent capacity, about 5,000 fans, but it will be nice for the Orioles, who played in stadiums that were about 25 percent full in Florida.
Next week, Oriole Park will have about 11,000 fans—25 percent capacity, for the April 8th opener.
On Thursday, John Means will start against Nathan Eovaldi at 2:10 p.m. Although the official 26-man roster won’t be set until later in the morning, there will be two Rule 5 draft choices, right-handed pitchers Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, wearing major league uniforms for the first time.
Half of the projected 26 will be experiencing their first Opening Day with the team. That includes outfielder/first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, infielder Ramón Urias, and pitchers Dean Kremer, Jorge López, Dillon Tate, César Valdez and Bruce Zimmermann, who played for the team in 2020.
Four are new to the organization — right-handers Matt Harvey, who will start Saturday’s second game, Adam Plutko, who was acquired from Cleveland last Saturday, and shortstop Freddy Galvis and third baseman Maikel Franco.
The focus Thursday will be on Mancini, 29, who’s the senior player on the roster with Chris Davis on the 60-day injured list because of a back injury.
Mancini will play in his fourth opener, and his most special one after missing last season because of colon cancer surgery.
His comeback story is a wonderful one, and even hardened Fenway fans will cheer him, but it won’t be the same as the heartfelt ovation he’ll receive a week from now.
Mancini, who hit 35 home runs in 2019, is part of what manager Brandon Hyde hopes will be a potent offense. Anthony Santander, the team’s Most Valuable Oriole of 2020, Austin Hays, who had an exceptional spring, Mountcastle, who has impressive power, and Cedric Mullins, who has become a full-time left-handed hitter, could present problems for opponents.
“I think we have the chance to score a lot of runs,” Hyde said. “We have a lot of upside offensively. We have a lot of young hitters that I think are going to come into their own. You started seeing that last year, and I think we’re going to improve on that.”
Four of the 10 who started the delayed July 24 opener at Fenway in 2020 are gone — second baseman Hanser Alberto, shortstop José Igleias, pitcher Tommy Milone and designated hitter Renato Núñez. Two others, Davis and outfielder DJ Stewart, will begin the season on the injured list. Stewart has a hamstring injury.
Hays, Santander, catcher Pedro Severino and third baseman Rio Ruiz are back, but since Hyde hasn’t revealed his lineup, we don’t know if all four will start.
It’s the third year for Hyde and executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias. They inherited a club that went 47-115 in 2018, the worst record in club history.
In last year’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season, the Orioles went 25-35, tied for the fifth-worst record in baseball. They are still rebuilding their talent base, with their starting outfield best reflecting their goals. The starting rotation is a work in progress.
Means appears to be the most reliable. Harvey is the most accomplished, though his best year came in 2015. Zimmermann, López and Kremer, who will be the other starters to begin the season, are trying to show they belong in the rotation.
Zimmermann and Kremer have a combined six major league starts. López has started 33 times with Kansas City, Milwaukee and the Orioles but has an ERA of 6.03.
With a full season after a truncated one that didn’t include a minor league season, Hyde knows he’ll need a number of starters.
“We brought in as many starters as we possibly could just because we know that this season is going to be different,” Hyde said. “We’re going to need innings, and we’re going to need a lot of different guys to pitch for us.”
Mancini is the feel-good story, but there are others worth watching. There’s Valdez, who will be starting the season in the majors for the first time—at age 36. There’s Hays, who appears as if he’s ready to have a breakout season if he can stay healthy. There’s the rotation of the four outfielders — Hays, Santander, Mullins and Mountcastle, who’s also likely to see time at first — and Hyde’s plan for designated hitter.
Then there are prospects. When will outfielder Yusniel Diaz, and pitchers Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells join the Orioles? Will Elias decide at some point this season that Adley Rutschman is ready for major league catching?
Even though players are being vaccinated, health and safety protocols remain.
“There’s not going to be as many fans at the start,” Hyde said. “We still wear masks in the clubhouse, and we still follow the protocols and the guidelines closely, so it’s not all the way the same there, but baseball’s the same. It’s starting to feel more normal. I think the fans in the ballpark in spring training was a big help into getting back into that sort of feeling, and we’re looking forward to this year, with fans being there and, hopefully, more and more as the summer goes along.”
Last year, Hyde was asked about the unique nature of the season.
“It’s still not quite the same this year, but it’s getting closer,” Hyde said. “That’s a really good feeling.”