It’s that time again! The first workout for Orioles pitchers and catchers is Feb. 17, which means it’s time to get excited about the return of baseball (if you weren’t already). You don’t need to see Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections to know the O’s are almost certainly headed for another rough season, but as the saying goes, hope springs eternal. Bad baseball is better than no baseball.
And no team is all bad. There are interesting things going on with the O’s roster, as intriguing prospects are close to making their major league debuts and showing what they can do at the highest level. Their push for playing time leads to important questions: How and where do certain prospects fit in? How much do they play? And who gets pushed off the roster to make room?
Here are five things I’m curious about as O’s spring training begins.
Playing Time At First Base
There’s a lot we won’t know about Trey Mancini, who is returning from stage 3 colon cancer, until actual games start. By all accounts, he’s ahead of schedule and is on track to make the Opening Day roster. As long as his body holds up and there are no setbacks, he is projected to be (and should be) the O’s primary first baseman. Mancini taking the field on Opening Day would be a real treat.
Other than Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle and Chris Davis could find themselves at first base at times. Mountcastle is expected to be the O’s regular left fielder, and he handled himself well defensively in left during the brief 2020 season. But there will be occasions when the O’s use Mountcastle at first base, which opens up time for another outfielder like Austin Hays, DJ Stewart or someone else to slot into left field.
And Davis … yup, somehow we’re still doing this. If he’s on the roster, he’ll find himself on the field here and there. His work with the glove, at least, shouldn’t be hard to stomach.
Workloads For Young Starters
There’s no tried-and-true approach for how to deal with the aftermath of the 2020 season. A good amount of prospects were able to continue their development at teams’ alternate training sites, but most minor leaguers had to deal with no in-person instruction to go along with no real game action. By itself, a full season’s worth of minor-league games getting wiped out has presented a major question mark for teams: How do you ease pitchers (particularly young arms) back into competition and get them through a full season?
Teams are smart, and they’ll have plans and be cautious. Whatever that plan ends up being for the Orioles will be meaningful, as they project to start the season with two young arms (Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin) in the starting rotation and a handful of others (Bruce Zimmermann, Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells and more) could get innings during the season.
The O’s recently adding three veteran starters — Wade LeBlanc, Félix Hernández, and now Matt Harvey — tips their hand a bit in knowing they need experienced arms around to eat innings. But signing fringe rotation options to minor-league deals in January and February isn’t a unique strategy for the Orioles. They did the same with LeBlanc and Tommy Milone last year. What will be interesting is seeing who actually heads north with the club after spring training, and if the O’s opt to try a six-man starting rotation or to keep more long relief options around.
Figuring Out Second, Third Base
The O’s biggest shakeup is in the infield, where José Iglesias, Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez are gone and in step new options in Freddy Galvis, Yolmer Sánchez and prospects Jahmai Jones and Rylan Bannon. Galvis can be penciled in as the Opening Day shortstop, and the same may be true for Sánchez at second base and holdover Rio Ruiz at third base. But there are no guarantees, and younger players (and utility options like Pat Valaika, Richie Martin and Ramón Urías) will be fighting for playing time.
Sánchez (career 79 wRC+) and Ruiz (career 77 wRC+) are underwhelming options at the plate but are known for flashing the leather (particularly in Sánchez’s case, as he won a Gold Glove in 2019 with the Chicago White Sox). Strong defense is valuable to have behind a young pitching staff, though it’s not everything.
Jones (2B/OF) and Bannon (2B/3B) — the team’s No. 19 and No. 26 prospects, respectively, per MLB Pipeline — offer new blood while also presenting upside where the O’s have lacked some for a while. It’s hard to envision a scenario where both Jones and Bannon make the Opening Day roster, but they could very well find themselves together in the big leagues later in the season. Jones was recently acquired for Alex Cobb, while Bannon was part of the return for Manny Machado in 2018.
Who’s The Closer?
In the grand scheme of things, who ends up getting the ball in the ninth inning for the Orioles isn’t the most important question. But even bad teams often have plenty of save opportunities, and the structure of the bullpen is something fans always watch closely. It’s also fascinating that the team’s best two relief options may be Tanner Scott, a flame-throwing left-hander coming off an overdue, promising season, and César Valdez, a crafty 35-year-old with an arsenal of filthy changeups who before last season hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2017.
Last season, Scott was often deployed in key spots, usually in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings. It makes sense for a team to use its best reliever that way — to put out fires — but someone else still has to get outs in those later innings. The Cole Sulser closer experiment did not go as planned, which played a part in Valdez eventually appearing and thriving. He allowed just two earned runs in 14.1 innings, and he also collected three saves. Can he keep fooling hitters and maintain his closer role, or could he be used as a starter or long relief option? Regardless, his story is a fun one.
Which Prospects Are Next?
With Mike Elias and the Orioles putting all of their chips into rebuilding the organization from the ground up, what matters most is how well they can discover and develop their own young talent. Looking around the roster, some headway has been made. In Means, Kremer and Akin, three homegrown starters could be in the starting rotation. The bullpen was surprisingly competent in 2020 and possesses some intriguing young talents in Scott, Hunter Harvey, Dillon Tate and more. And a team could do worse than a middle of the order that includes Mancini (draft pick), Anthony Santander (Rule 5 pick) and Ryan Mountcastle (draft pick).
Mountcastle, Kremer, Akin and Zimmermann all debuted last season. The 2021 season could yield the arrival of more young arms, as noted above, along with outfielders Yusniel Díaz and Ryan McKenna, infielders Jones and Bannon, and more. Of course, there’s always the potential for top prospect Adley Rutschman to debut this year. It wouldn’t get much more exciting than that.
Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox