SARASOTA, Florida—Spring training is over, and thanks to a canceled game against the Detroit Tigers, the Orioles have a break of two days before Friday’s season opener at Tampa Bay.
It was a rushed spring training and, as it ended, there was general agreement among prognosticators that the Orioles would again finish in fifth place in the ultracompetitive American League East.
In the last three 162-game seasons, the Orioles have lost 115, 108 and 110 games, and while fans are excited about the group of prospects that MLB Pipeline ranks as tops in baseball, the question for this season is, how much can they bump up the record?
A year from now, when the Orioles will play 56 games against the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays instead of the current 76, things might look brighter.
Catcher Adley Rutschman, who missed major league spring training because of a strained right triceps muscle should be a regular by then. Starters Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, who each pitched once, could be in the rotation, and infielders Gunnar Henderson, Joey Ortiz and Jordan Westburg might challenge for roster spots.
Toss in outfielder Kyle Stowers and perhaps Yusniel Diaz, who had an excellent, though brief, showing in spring training, and the Orioles could be significantly better.
By 2023, Colton Cowser, who will start at High-A Aberdeen, and even Heston Kjerstad, who hasn’t been able to begin his professional career, could be on the verge of making the team, too.
But first there’s the small matter of 2022.
While it was exciting to see the prospects in spring training, the reality is that the Orioles still need better starting pitching to avoid a fourth consecutive full season of more than 100 losses.
The Opening Day roster that manager Brandon Hyde revealed Wednesday has the knowns: an outfield of Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, a first base/designated hitter combination of Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle, a group of infielders who might not be here a year from now, and a highly questionable starting rotation.
Hyde’s first two starters are John Means and Jordan Lyles, and then he’ll turn to tandem starters—two pitchers who can give him length in the next three spots—at least for the season’s first few weeks.
Tyler Wells looked terrific in his four spring starts, allowing two runs on nine hits in 11 1/3 innings with 14 strikeouts and four walks. However, Wells, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019, was a carefully used reliever last year and his innings must be monitored carefully.
The Orioles will have to find a tandem starter to pair with Wells and another with home opener starter Bruce Zimmermann. Hyde hasn’t named a fifth starter.
The candidates are Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann and Dean Kremer, and perhaps some who aren’t currently on the roster.
On Monday, general manager Mike Elias noted the promise of the position players while contrasting it with the question marks in the rotation.
“I think that we’re very encouraged with what we’re seeing emerging on the position-player side,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a good lineup that’s going to get increasingly more dangerous as the year goes on if some of the prospect graduations that we expect happen, and I think that they will. That’s coming together.
“Obviously, our pitching staff, it’s going to be a struggle sometimes to cover innings, and it’s something we’re aware of and worrying about and talking about, but there’s a lot of opportunity here for the players that are here and that are coming. I also think we have a really good chance of getting some big graduations in that department as well, and we’re looking forward to that.
“We’re counting on Means and Lyles, once they get built up to remain healthy and be strong, and we’re still really counting on this group — Zimmermann, [Zac] Lowther, Kremer, Baumann — the guys that are on the 40-man, Keegan Akin, that we’ve been pitching the last couple of years. Some of those guys need to step up.”
Later that afternoon, Lowther, who had been considered in the mix for a tandem starter’s spot, allowed four runs on four hits and walked four in 2 1/3 innings. On Tuesday morning, Lowther was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk.
“That’s why we’re struggling right now because we haven’t gotten a real cemented breakout from one of those guys, and we still have high hopes for them,” Elias said. “We want some of those guys to click this year because it’s going to be tough if they don’t and we’re going to have to move on to other people.”
In his fourth season heading the Orioles’ baseball operations department, Elias is dealing with a restive fan base eager to see the prospects and more eager to see improvement on the field.
In his final media session of the 2021 season, Elias stated:
“We think that this team will continuously get better from this point forward.”
Elias and Oriole fans hope that this is the year for a measured and meaningful improvement, but with four playoff contenders in the AL East, it won’t be easy.
Note: The Orioles optioned infielder/outfielder Tyler Nevin to Triple-A Norfolk, which had been announced by manager Brandon Hyde on Wednesday right-handed pitcher Isaac Mattson, which wasn’t. Mattson didn’t pitch this spring while he was rehabbing a sore right shoulder.
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