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Five Orioles roster battles still being waged in spring training

SARASOTA, FLA. — It is less than two weeks until the Orioles open the regular season on April 6 in Tampa Bay, but with 13 Grapefruit League games remaining in spring training, they still have plenty of time to finalize their 25-man Opening Day roster.

When major league camp began, the Orioles didn't have many roster decisions to make. Most of the core group is back — Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller notwithstanding — and most of the talk of spring training has been the return from injury of third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters, as well as a potential rebound season from first baseman Chris Davis.

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Still, some roster battles remain. Here's a look at five that are still to be decided this spring training:

1. The emergence of Jimmy Paredes

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Few would have projected Paredes, who drew more attention for his defensive gaffes last season than for his bat, to make the Opening Day roster this time last month, but the 26-year-old switch hitter has emerged as a dark horse to make the team.

Simply put, Paredes has been the Orioles' best hitter this spring, entering Sunday's game batting .433 (13-for-30). He leads the team in hits, doubles (three) and RBIs (10). It's no secret he can hit — he batted .302 in 18 games with the Orioles last season — but the knock has always been on Paredes' glove.

However, at this point, Paredes is making it difficult for the Orioles to not keep him. He's garnered notice in the manager's office and the clubhouse. He might be just too good a hitter — especially given he's doing it from both sides of the plate — to leave off the team.

Paredes is out of minor league options, and given the strong spring he's had, he's not likely to clear waivers if he's designated for assignment. So, the Orioles will try to find him a place.

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He seems to have improved defensively, but he's made two errors at third base this spring. The Orioles are also testing him in left field, and he's seen time in right field in the past. Ultimately, if the Orioles can cover themselves with a roster full of multi-positional players — especially at third base — Paredes might rarely have to pick up a glove, and he can let his bat do his talking.

2. Five position players for three spots

Paredes is one of five players who appear to be battling for the three open position player spots. Infielders Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty and Everth Cabrera, as well as outfielder David Lough, are the other four players in contention.

Both Schoop and Flaherty seemed to be locks this time last month. Schoop excelled defensively as the starting second baseman as a rookie and Flaherty has tremendous value as a utility infielder. But then the Orioles signed Cabrera to a $2.4 million deal. It seems that only two of the three can make the team at this point.

Schoop hit 16 homers last season and Orioles manager Buck Showalter said this month he believes Schoop can win a Gold Glove if he puts himself in a position to play every day. That will depend on his bat, because last year he went though lengthy slumps. He struck out too much, didn't walk enough and hit just .209.

Flaherty can pretty much play everywhere — all four infield positions and both corner outfield spots. He's a good backup shortstop, but he, too, struggled with the bat.

Cabrera is also playing around the diamond trying to make the club as a utility player. The one dynamic Cabrera adds that the others don't is plus speed. That's important given there's no heir apparent to Markakis, the club's leadoff hitter last season. Cabrera was an All-Star two years ago as a shortstop, but he's also seen time at second base and played center field this spring.

Cabrera hasn't had a great spring, struggling on occasion defensively and on the basepaths. Admittedly, he's missed a lot of time the past two years, serving a 50-game suspension as part of the BioGenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal in 2013 and missing 69 games with hamstring issues last season. The Orioles can option Cabrera to the minors, but would have to be content with him opening the season in the minors with the money they're paying him.

Lough does not have an option, but has universal support through the organization after hitting .337 after June 1 last season. He can play all three outfield position, but there is a logjam of outfielders in camp. He's a solid defender and, like Cabrera, brings speed to the basepaths.

3. The catching situation

Up until the past week, there was optimism that Matt Wieters would be recovered from last June's Tommy John elbow surgery and ready for Opening Day. On Saturday, Showalter said that's unlikely after the team shut Wieters down with elbow tendonitis.

Caleb Joseph will likely assume the starting catcher duties if Wieters isn't ready. Joseph hit just .207 last season, but was exceptional defensively, which matters most in replacing a two-time Gold Glove winner in Wieters. Joseph threw out an American League-best 40 percent of baserunners last season.

It's not clear who Joseph's backup would be — none of three candidates remaining in camp have pulled away from the others this spring.

Pigtown native Steve Clevenger won the backup job behind Wieters out of spring training last season, but played just 35 games at the major league level, as he was sent to Triple-A Norfolk in May. This spring Clevenger has thrown out just two of 11 basestealers (18.2 percent)

J.P. Arencibia, a former first-round draft pick with a 20-homer season under his belt, is a minor-league invite who hit well last season with the Texas Rangers' Triple-A team under new Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. Arencibia has struggled defensively and already has four passed balls this spring.

Another minor-league invite is former hyped Red Sox prospect Ryan Lavarnway, whose playing time has spiked in recent days. He's thrown out just one of six potential basestealers (16.7 percent) this spring.

4. Six starters for five spots

There hasn't been much movement on this front. Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris all have their rotation spots locked, leaving Miguel Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez and Kevin Gausman battling for the final two spots.

Jimenez, who is in the second year of a club-record four-year, $50 million contract, is the Golden Goose in this equation. He was 6-9 with 4.81 ERA last year, battling control issues and his mechanics before a demotion to the bullpen allowed him to make some adjustments to his delivery.

This spring, Jimenez's pitching lines have been far from spectacular, but Showalter said he's gotten better each time out. Take this into account: Jimenez walked five and hit two batters in his first two spring starts. He's walked only one batter and hit another in his past two starts. Because his delivery is as unconventional as they come, he continued to work on his mechanics this spring with hopes that his adjustments would become second nature.

Like last season, Gausman has had a strong spring. He hasn't allowed an earned run in 10innings, even though the past two starts weren't in Grapefruit League play. He threw three shutout innings in a B game against the Pirates and four in a low Class-A minor league game on Friday. Showalter has said the fact that Gausman has options remaining won't be used against him this year.

Gonzalez was 10-9 with a 3.23 ERA and was one of the Orioles best starters in the second half (2.19 ERA after the All-Star break), but he has a minor league option remaining. He's posted a 4.26 ERA in four Grapefruit League starts, allowing two runs in each of his past three outings.

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5. Bullpen conundrum

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Closer Zach Britton and setup men Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter have their bullpen spots locked up. Newcomer Wesley Wright, a left-handed pitcher, and right-hander Brad Brach have pitched well enough to be safe.

Right-hander Ryan Webb missed two weeks with a sore right knee before returning Saturday with a scoreless inning. That was just Webb's third inning this spring. Despite the fact that Webb has a major-league contract, the Orioles sent him to Triple-A last season but he's out of options this year.

That's also the case with left-hander T.J. McFarland, but the Orioles like the sinkerballer as a long man who can turn the opposing lineup around behind a right-handed starter. He could also make a spot start, if needed.

If Jimenez doesn't make the rotation, he could be sent to the bullpen as a right-handed long reliever, as could Gonzalez, who has experience in long relief.

The most interesting reliever has become left-hander Brian Matusz, who has been the subject of trade rumors as the Orioles have started him — and perhaps showcased him — in his past two outings. Matusz is having a tremendous offseason, allowing only one run in 10 1/3 spring innings and posting a 0.87 ERA.

He's holding hitters to a .179 batting average and has 10 strikeouts and no walks.

That leaves the Orioles' two Rule 5 picks. Both are competing for bullpen spots.

Right-hander Jason Garcia, drafted from the Red Sox, missed nearly two weeks with a left hamstring injury before returning Sunday. He's thrown four shutout innings with six strikeouts and two walks. Right-hander Logan Verrett, a starting pitcher throughout his entire pro career with the New York Mets, has raised some eyebrows this spring, going multiple innings in four of his five outings and allowing just two runs over 10 innings (1.80 ERA) while recording eight strikeouts, one walk and two saves.

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