When announcing that the Orioles would be without designated hitter-first baseman Mark Trumbo for at least three to four weeks while he deals with a quadriceps injury that has lingered for over a week now, manager Buck Showalter stopped short of suggesting there was a better chance that someone like Pedro Álvarez could break camp with the club as a result.
"Depending on who you talk to, I don't know," Showalter said. Depending on what angle you look at it from. We all do [it] — we start handicapping when we heard the news today, but there's a lot of different variables that come into it. ... I wouldn't say that that means that [Danny] Valencia or Pedro, that their chances increase. I wouldn't say that that's a given."
Just days earlier, Showalter had said the team had as many as seven roster spots up for grabs — three of which were presumably position players — and replacing Trumbo could make four.
There are plenty of ways Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette can scheme to fill the spot Trumbo leaves, and depending on what they want, the team has plenty of options for each. Combined with the lingering uncertainty regarding the elbow injury to first baseman Chris Davis that has kept him out for two weeks, the Orioles' roster construction has gone from relatively straightforward to increasingly complex by the day. They can ...
Keep a slugger in Trumbo's place
This is the conventional wisdom, considering the presence Danny Valencia, a masher against left-handers, and Álvarez, a masher of righties, on minor league deals. Valencia has an opt-out and won't go to the minors, while Álvarez has a later opt-out deeper into the season, so by that logic, Valencia might now have a path to stick around. That said, he had four extra-base hits in his first three games of the spring and is 1-for-13 since. Álvarez is 9-for-35 with a home run this spring.
In theory, there was a spot for Valencia as the utility infielder if the Orioles decide to take neither Éngelb Vielma nor Luis Sardiñas north for Opening Day, as he could fill in at first or third base in a pinch with Tim Beckham, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop able to fill in up the middle if required.
Should the Orioles do that, and choose to keep Álvarez now as a result, they’d have an inflexible bench but a lethal designated hitter platoon a la 2016, when Trumbo was the DH against lefties and Álvarez took that role against righties. Valencia's .863 OPS against left-handers and Álvarez's .799 OPS against right-handers would fit nicely together. That said, two players without minor league options on the Opening Day roster to serve as platoon designated hitters without much defensive value wouldn't be making the most of the Orioles' newfound flexibility. Just remember they've done it before.
Keep another bench outfielder
Assuming that the combination of a strong spring and his carryover Rule 5 roster requirements keeps Anthony Santander on the roster for Opening Day, there are a few options for a fifth outfielder in camp.
Craig Gentry had another hit Thursday to bring his average to .292 this spring, and is playing his typically strong defense. He was a constant off the Orioles bench when they were at their best in 2017, both as a defensive replacement and pinch runner. But he's another right-handed bat and will have trouble cracking the lineup regularly. Minor league free agent Alex Presley is a left-handed bat who's batting .323 this spring after posting a .770 OPS last year for the Detroit Tigers, though he doesn't quite bring what Gentry does on the base paths or in the field.
If the Orioles want to use that last spot for flexibility, though, there's another option that could give Showalter what he wants off the bench — and get someone to do it with options. Nonroster invitee Cedric Mullins hasn't really found his swing this spring, batting .172 with a steal in 29 at-bats. He was off to a scorching start in 2017 before a pair of hamstring injuries knocked him off track, but before that, he stole 30 bases and he can capably fill in in left field and center field.
It's far-fetched that he'd jump the veterans who are outperforming him in camp, but he has the skills the Orioles might covet in this spot — and once he's added to the 40-man roster, he'll have the options to use, too.
Punt on a pitching decision
Showalter said earlier this spring that he was planning on a seven-man bullpen (in addition to the five starters) come Opening Day, and nothing has changed that.
But if he wants to go with a three-man bench of, say, whichever of Austin Wynns, Chance Sisco or Andrew Susac ends up backing up Caleb Joseph, plus Valencia as the nominal utility infielder and Santander as the fourth outfielder, they could use the temporary opening until Trumbo's return to punt a pitching decision.
That could be good news for Mike Wright Jr., who is out of minor league options but is pitching well enough that the Orioles will be hard-pressed to get rid of him. Same would go for Gabriel Ynoa before the stress reaction in his shin, which is likely going to start him on the disabled list.
But there could be a reprieve for one of the three Orioles Rule 5 picks — Pedro Araujo, Nestor Cortes Jr. and José Mesa. They've probably set themselves in that order in terms of who is likeliest to stick, so perhaps Mesa will get time to build his arm strength up and show the form that got him selected in the first place.
They could also take a second left-hander from the group of Donnie Hart, Joely Rodríguez, and Josh Edgin, or keep someone like Jimmy Yacabonis, who is improving with every spring outing.
Without the extra spot, the Orioles bullpen could be very inflexible. Their hope is that they won't need it with longer starts this season, but until that actually happens, everything is a consideration.
Change nothing and wait
By saying everyone handicaps roster spots in situations like this, Showalter gave clearance for everyone to do it. There are only 10 more Grapefruit League games to figure it out who fits where, but the free-agent climate of this offseason could mean that all that is premature.
Between the decent number of free agents still on the market and the raft of bona fide major leaguers (like Valencia, Álvarez and Colby Rasmus here) who signed minor league contracts, there's likely to be a lot of movement around the roster deadline around Opening Day.
Orioles officials referred to what they were doing with some of their minor league free agents as getting a free look, essentially getting them into camp for a few weeks of meal money to see how they can help before their in-season salaries kicked in. Everyone else in the league is doing that, too, so there will be plenty of movement once those looks expire.
Perhaps they can find a utility infielder that way, or can dip back into the market one last time. Doing that with a roster spot to work with means it won't change any other plans, either.