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Early debuts give Orioles head start on answering a key question: Who should be part of their future? | ANALYSIS

Barely a week into the season, the Orioles nearly have as many major league debuts in 2021 as they did in all of 2020, with outfielder Ryan McKenna and Rule 5 pitchers Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler each taking his big league bow before the first homestand of the season even starts.

For the pitchers, it was inevitable once they made the roster this spring. For McKenna, and likely the many prospects the Orioles have developed who will follow him to the big leagues this year, it’s hard to tell if the debut is belated or right on schedule.

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Either way, it matters a great deal to the rebuilding Orioles that so many players who have ascended to the high minors in the past two years will be pulled to the big leagues at some point in 2020.

“Our organization is growing and we’re going to be getting players to the big leagues,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “The first couple years, we had a lot of players that didn’t have major league experience that kind of came from other organizations through the waiver wire or trade. Now, we’re starting to get guys graduated from our organization, and that’s exciting. …

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“We’re excited about the talent that we have, and we’re excited that we have these younger players to really grow up here in the big leagues and grow together. We’re going to continue to do that.”

It’s true that not all development is linear; for every Trey Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle or John Means who goes level-to-level in the big leagues and never looks back, there’s an Austin Hays or Cedric Mullins or Anthony Santander who might need time to readjust in the minors after a major league debut.

After only a handful of Orioles made their debuts in 2020, the team has a backlog of players they need to find out more about. They’re in an awkward position with many, especially those who are at the secondary site in Bowie preparing for the minor league season with scant Triple-A experience.

McKenna is one such player, though his addition was made necessary by Hays’ hamstring injury. At the Bowie site, a group of top hitting prospects, including Yusniel Diaz, Rylan Bannon and Tyler Nevin, are in similar positions, while recent trade acquisition Jahmai Jones has a handful of big league games to his name but hasn’t played in Triple-A.

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Pitchers who are in line to debut at some time this year include Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Isaac Mattson.

That group is actually young, a collection of age-25-and-under talent who could grow into roles on the next great Orioles team. The challenge of 2020 will be starting to blood them in the big leagues without overwhelming them, allowing the players to finish their development at a reasonable pace.

Absent that happening, the Orioles will have a few problems. First, they’ll be left without many boosts of interest and excitement if the same group of players struggles through a long summer, which will wear out the patience for their rebuild.

From a baseball perspective, they could run the risk of not being able to truly give these players they’ve invested so much in a chance, as another, larger wave of players that this current front office has acquired through the draft and trades will be ready for their opportunities as well.

Talent will win out no matter when the competition is, but this season’s group of young players needs to get a fair shake in the big leagues before the next wave subsumes them and they’re stuck hitting Triple-A benchmarks instead.

Just as the Orioles in the early days of this rebuild took a look at waiver claims with lots of high-minors experience that other teams didn’t have room for — such as Rio Ruiz, Pedro Severino, Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez and Dwight Smith Jr. — this year will be the time to begin their major league evaluations for the players they have experience with. Simply put, they need to find out if they’re going to be part of the next winning Orioles team.

McKenna’s first audition, under difficult circumstances after being away from live game action for over a week and not playing any real games in 2020, might be a short one.

For that reason, it might be a while before any of these debuts happen absent necessity. It won’t be about starting service time clocks, but starting evaluation clocks. The Orioles have done a fantastic job amassing high-minors depth through improving drafts and big trades at the end of Dan Duquette’s tenure and through Mike Elias’ own progressive efforts.

If this season is going to hold many nights like the last two in New York, it might be time for the Orioles to back up Hyde’s oft-repeated belief that there’s no tougher place to play, and thus better place to learn, than in the American League East.

Debuts for the prospects at the Bowie site, and perhaps even accelerating the process for a player development success story who will need to be added to the roster this winter, like DL Hall or Kyle Bradish, will be a start. So too would be the holy grail of debuts, that of top prospect Adley Rutschman.

This week was only a start, but it was an important one on the Orioles’ journey to transition young players who have a chance to play in the big leagues into those who have consistent success there.

Home opener

RED SOX@ORIOLES

Thursday, 3:05 p.m.

TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM

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