SARASOTA, FLA — A day earlier than they initially planned and on the back of what could prove to be a transformational offseason for their baseball operations department, the Orioles' pitchers and catchers report to spring training Tuesday to begin preparation for what could be a uniquely difficult season.
The current major league roster hasn't been the focus of anything this offseason, with new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias attending to building a front office and manager Brandon Hyde, hired in December, filling out a staff.
Tuesday, however, represents the part that most anyone involved in or interested in the team will likely care most about — the product on the field. Hyde declared at FanFest that this would be a camp full of open competition, with clean slates for everyone on the roster. But there's only so much that can grab interest when it comes to following what will be six long weeks of spring training. So, here are five storylines to watch entering the first spring training of the Orioles' modern era.
1. Who emerges from the young outfielder mix to grab an everyday role?
After the Orioles dealt most of their recognizable stars in July, the focus turned to the future, with center fielder Cedric Mullins representing the beginning of that transition. He held his own in his first major league time and was joined by fellow rookie DJ Stewart as September wore on, and the list of young outfield prospects in camp will feature many other notable names as well.
Assuming Trey Mancini reprises his left-field role (though that's not a given if Mark Trumbo isn't healthy and in the designated hitter spot to open the season), Mullins and Stewart will be measuring themselves against a who's who of young outfielders in the system — former top prospect Austin Hays, former Rule 5 draft pick Anthony Santander, and nonroster invitees Yusniel Díaz and Ryan McKenna.
Díaz is the top prospect in the system, and though he and McKenna could both be better served cleaning up what's left for them to accomplish in Double-A Bowie before pushing for the majors midseason, the rest could break out from the pack in camp. Whoever does will make himself part of the vanguard, along with Mullins and Mancini, of the next generation of Orioles baseball. With a fan base that will be eager to latch onto anything resembling promise on the major league roster, a good spring could create a fan favorite or two quickly.
2. Is there a Marwin González in this year's Rule 5 draft crop?
Right there on the list with all the high draft picks and state-of-the-art player development tactics that helped the Houston Astros from whence Elias and company came was the fact that they picked up Marwin González, who turned into one of the game's best and most versatile utility players, in their first Rule 5 draft.
In Richie Martin and Drew Jackson, the Orioles hope they can even come close to securing that kind of value with this administration's first set of Rule 5 picks. Each is coming off a breakout year at Double-A with the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively, and while there's a starting job up for grabs in the middle of the field with Jonathan Villar starting at shortstop or second base, each can stake a claim to a significant role early.
González has produced 12 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball-Reference.com, which makes him one of the most valuable Rule 5 picks in recent memory and far more productive than the Orioles' forays into that market. It's a lofty hope for Martin or Jackson, but as is always the case, spring training will provide plenty of time for the Rule 5 darlings-du-jour to emerge.
3. How does the back end of the rotation shake out?
Last week's low-cost addition of right-hander Nate Karns added potential depth to the set portion of the starting rotation behind Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner, but Karns hasn't pitched in the majors since 2017.
Behind him, all of David Hess, Yefry Ramírez, Jimmy Yacabonis, Josh Rogers and Luis Ortiz will be in camp representing the group of pitchers who made starts for the Orioles last year and will be back trying to solidify a rotation spot this year. (Mike Wright Jr. and Miguel Castro also started early in the season, but settled into bullpen roles late.)
How the Orioles sift through this subset of pitchers will be notable in that it could show how they view them going forward. Hess and Ramírez spent the most time in the majors last year and could be viewed as close to finished products, so development time in the minors wouldn’t be a factor. But the new coaching staff could look at someone like Yacabonis, who started on a controlled schedule last year for the first time in his career, as someone who could be a long-relief weapon in the majors instead.
As it was last year, the back end of the rotation is likely going to be fluid. The hope will be that someone takes control of a spot and doesn't let go, but until that happens, every day's events could have an impact on the rotation race.
4. Is there going to be a bounce-back player among the once or current top prospects in camp?
Whether it was a down year or just a second-half swoon, the number of Orioles prospects and young major leaguers who come into camp with something to prove is high. The top prospects from 2017 and 2018 according to Baseball America, Chance Sisco and Hays, never got it going last year. Díaz and McKenna started out hot but finished poorly at Bowie, right-hander Hunter Harvey had another lost season because of shoulder and elbow injuries, and Santander stalled out once his required major league time was over.
While all anyone wants to know is how long the rebuild Elias and his team are beginning will require to take hold, the process will be a lot smoother if some of the talented young players they inherited get back on track and show themselves to be major leaguers, and soon.
5. Does the second edition of the "Trade everyone with value" phase begin in spring training?
Last year, the Orioles reported to Sarasota knowing that if things went sideways, then the likes of Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Brad Brach and Adam Jones would spend July hearing their names in trade talks. That's exactly what happened.
While only Cashner and Trumbo are pending free agents, the likes of Cobb, Villar and even Bundy could be part of the next wave of trade candidates as the front office looks to stockpile young assets and build toward the future. While many of those players could use a good first half of the season to create some value, Villar is the type of player who could attract some interest for a team who loses an infielder in spring training, and comes at the relatively modest price tag of $4.825 million.
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It would be drastic for the Orioles to sell off what few major league pieces they have before Opening Day even arrives, but there's not a lot of attachment to the foundations of this roster for the new front office, and their stated goal isn't to win now. It's to build what Elias has called an "elite talent pipeline," and culling the major league roster could help accomplish that.