Sports columnist Peter Schmuck and Orioles beat writer Eduardo Encina on latest news from Orioles spring training in Sarasota, Fla. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — The Orioles enter spring training coming off their best season in 17 years, and while most of the core players from last year's division title-winning team return, most national experts don't expect them to duplicate their 2014 success.
But despite three key free-agent losses this offseason — major league home runs leader Nelson Cruz, longest-tenured Oriole Nick Markakis and lockdown left-handed reliever Andrew Miller — the club has players to fill those holes. After an offseason most have deemed unremarkable, the Orioles enter Friday's first spring workout for pitchers and catchers in Sarasota with several players entrenched in starting spots and very few position battles.
"We had a lot more battles in '11 and '12," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Thursday. "I feel good about the people we have competing for the available spots. They know their track record, and what they did last year does mean something. It's not going to be just purely based on what happens here. But you're always an injury or two from that going away. We've spent a lot of time on the what-ifs this offseason. Some of the moves we've made recently and in the past two months have been what-if oriented."
Most of this spring's focus will be on the health of returning starters such as third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters. First baseman Chris Davis, who also saw his season cut short after a 25-game suspension for unauthorized Adderall use, will look to return to form after a 2014 in which his batting average plummeted.
Still, Showalter will use every available moment to ensure the Orioles make the right decisions on the roster battles that do exist.
"You have precious days that you can't waste down here," he said. "Because once the season starts, you can't go, 'I wish I had spent more time on that,' or, 'I wish we had made this more of a point of emphasis,' or, 'I wish we had gotten a better feel for this.' I was telling guys in meetings, every moment, hour, day that passes down here that we don't use properly to make good decisions and be good, it's our fault."
Added Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette: "We have the pitching depth and we have the defense. We're going to see what remains to be done for our lineup to see what we have to do."
As the spring's first workout for pitchers and catcher approaches, take a look at the big roster battles to follow in Florida.
The catching situation
The health of Wieters, who played just 26 games last season because of an elbow injury that ended his season and required Tommy John elbow reconstruction, will be one of the top storylines of spring training. The Orioles remain optimistic that he will be ready for Opening Day.
Wieters isn't expected to be cleared to throw in games until March 17, but he will get at-bats in Grapefruit League games as a designated hitter and can handle all other catching duties in simulated and minor league games before then. If he does begin throwing March 17, he would have 2 1/2 weeks to be ready for the start of the season.
The catching position hinges on Wieters. Showalter was clear in saying that if Wieters isn't ready to catch by Opening Day, he would stay in Florida instead of going on the active roster as a DH. The team was unable to re-sign Nick Hundley, who agreed to a deal with the Colorado Rockies, but they return Caleb Joseph, who also helped step in for Wieters last season, as well as Pigtown native Steve Clevenger.
Looking for a veteran alternative, the Orioles signed former Toronto Blue Jays and Texas catcher J.P. Arencibia, who split last season between the Rangers and their Triple-A affiliate. Former top Boston Red Sox prospect Ryan Lavarnway is also in camp, as is minor league catcher Brian Ward.
Ultimately, if Wieters isn't ready for the beginning of the season, the Orioles likely will rely on their best defensive alternative. Joseph, who as a rookie threw out 40 percent of base runners while developing a rapport with the pitching staff, stands out among their available options.
You never can have too much pitching, and the Orioles have six starters for five rotation spots. It's a good problem to have, except when the player who could get squeezed out of the rotation is the team's highest-paid pitcher.
Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who signed a four-year, $50-million deal last offseason, will look to rebound from a rocky 2014 season.
He was dropped from the rotation in August but hopes to build on a strong finish — he earned wins in his final two starts — after a slight tweak to his mechanics. The Orioles are still on the hook for three more years with Jimenez, so they'd like to see him start the year with confidence.
Right-hander Chris Tillman, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Bud Norris, who combined for 44 wins last season, are expected to open the season in the starting rotation. Right-hander Kevin Gausman spent 2014 vacillating between the majors and Triple-A, but this might be the time the Orioles' top young pitcher joins the Opening Day starting rotation.
If Jimenez pitches well — and it would be surprising if he does not in Grapefruit League play — and locks up a rotation spot, right-hander Miguel Gonzalez could be on the outside looking in. Gonzalez, who will make $3.275 million this year, was 10-9 with a 3.23 ERA last season but was sent down to the minors when Jimenez returned from the disabled list. Gonzalez joined the Orioles as a reliever and could transition back to that role.
Except for Miller, a trade deadline acquisition who was huge down the stretch and in the postseason, the Orioles' relief corps enters the season almost entirely intact.
Even with Miller now playing for the New York Yankees, the bullpen's back end, featuring closer Zach Britton (37 saves in 41 opportunities) and dependable setup men Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day, remains one of the best in baseball. Left-hander Brian Matusz returns, and the Orioles added another left-hander in Wesley Wright.
Right-hander Brad Brach, who didn't make the team out of spring training last year, emerged as a valuable multiple-inning reliever. This year, he's out of options, so the Orioles risk losing him if he doesn't make the team out of spring training. The same goes for right-hander Ryan Webb, who is in the second year of a two-year, $4.5 million deal. Despite his guaranteed contract, Webb was sent to the minors for a month last season before rosters expanded in September. The Orioles can't do that this year.
Left-hander T.J. McFarland, who can pitch in relief and also make the occasional spot start, is the only bullpen arm with options. (Gausman, who also has options, debuted as a reliever in 2013 but made 20 big league starts last season.)
The Orioles also have two Rule 5 draft picks, right-handers Jason Garcia and Logan Verrett, who are competing for bullpen roles. Garcia, a 20-year-old with an electric arm, has high upside, and Verrett has a strong resume of success at every level of the minor leagues.
But given the crowded bullpen, it will be a stretch to see either remain on the major league roster all season.
Who replaces Markakis?
Markakis has patrolled right field in Baltimore since his rookie year, in 2006, so it will take time for Orioles fans to get used to the sight of someone else manning the space in front of Camden Yards' out-of-town scoreboard.
Showalter said in December that Steve Pearce likely would be the team's Opening Day right fielder. Pearce has earned the opportunity after a breakout season in which he finished .293/.373/.556, hit a career-high 21 homers and led the team in Wins Above Replacement (6). But Pearce never has made more than 27 starts in right field in a big league season, and he'll have to be a quick study of how the right field corner plays at Camden Yards.
Last month, the Orioles made a trade with the Pirates for outfielder Travis Snider, who Duquette believes has shown signs of making good on his potential as one of the game's top prospects. Snider helps fill Markakis' void because he's a left-handed bat who could see time at both corner outfield spots.
Showalter isn't against shuffling players in and out of the position. Pearce also can spell Chris Davis at first base and serve as DH. The Orioles also re-signed veteran Delmon Young, who saw most of his playing time at DH last season but could see an expanded role in right field, his natural position.
Given all those options, the Orioles could replace Markakis' production, but it still will be difficult to replace his on-base capabilities from the leadoff spot. Left fielder Alejandro De Aza, a career .271/.334/.405 leadoff hitter, is the most likely option to fill that void atop the batting order. The Orioles are also close to signing infielder Everth Cabrera, who stole 99 bases over the past three seasons.
The utility infielder
The Orioles' pending one-year deal with Cabrera muddles the middle-infield mix this spring. Cabrera is a career shortstop but also can play second base and has expressed a willingness to try the outfield as well.
Starting shortstop J.J. Hardy signed a three-year extension last year, so Cabrera likely would see most of his playing time at second base. Rookie Jonathan Schoop held that spot last year and provided the Orioles with critical bottom-of-the-lineup power (16 homers) while going through some growing pains at the plate (a .209 average, .244 on-base percentage and 122 strikeouts in 481 plate appearances).
Ryan Flaherty has filled the utility infielder position nicely since joining the Orioles in 2012 as a Rule 5 pick. He can play all four infield positions and can play both corner outfield spots, which has kept him on the 25-man roster through some lean times at the plate.
Cabrera, Flaherty and Schoop can be optioned to the minors, and it will be nearly impossible for all three to make the Opening Day roster.
The utility role will be important again this season, with Machado returning from knee surgery for a second straight season. Flaherty made 27 starts at third base and also made 21 at shortstop, filling in when Hardy was injured. He's a valuable defender who usually holds his own, but over parts of three seasons, Flaherty has hit just .221/.283/.369.