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Five things we learned from Orioles spring training, including a glut of talent in the outfield | ANALYSIS

If the Orioles players and coaches are rejoicing this week to finally be reaching the light at the end of the spring training tunnel, so too are those who have been craning their necks and analyzing whatever information they could find to get a sense of what the actual team looks like.

A spring training with scant media coverage and limited ability to watch games outside of being at them in person made for a difficult evaluation of the Orioles in a lot of ways, from understanding what the team has in No. 2 starter Matt Harvey to having a good feel for whether Rule 5 pitchers Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler would make the team.

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Come Thursday in Boston, any questions about the quality of the team and the veracity of what was presented from Sarasota, Florida, on a daily basis will be in full public view. But plenty happened that can still illuminate some of the clubs’ thoughts and intentions since camp started in the middle of February.

Here are five things we learned from spring training as the Orioles break camp this week and prepare for Opening Day on Thursday against the Boston Red Sox.

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The Orioles’ thinking on spring training seems to have evolved from 2019.

Two springs ago, when the Orioles sent down hot-hitting outfielders Austin Hays and Anthony Santander in the midst of strong camps while keeping a struggling Cedric Mullins around to be the team’s Opening Day center fielder, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said the Orioles didn’t want to forsake a player’s development “just to have a pure tryout based on spring training at-bats.”

Viewing that in retrospect, it’s clear they didn’t want to overreact to what they were seeing when everything and everyone was so new. But because of that, and because there was hardly any 2020 spring training to evaluate, the assumption was that the team would act as it did in 2019 and bring the players north it planned to regardless of how spring went.

That’s not how it went. The Orioles seemed to really value what they saw over the past six weeks in Sarasota, with Yolmer Sánchez deemed not good enough to be the everyday second baseman, Keegan Akin not able to comfortably recreate his 2020 success and optioned to the minors and Bruce Zimmermann moving from the roster fringe to the middle of the starting rotation in Akin’s place based on his spring exploits.

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Since the team hasn’t finalized its bullpen, it’s unclear whether spring results will end up mattering for a group including Paul Fry, Travis Lakins Sr., Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate. But considering how that first spring went under this regime, another year of sticking with the plan and not valuing the performances they’re seeing would have been a tough look. This time next spring, we’ll have to remember both outcomes are possible.

The outfield crunch hasn’t materialized, but will need to be addressed.

Even with Trey Mancini now a first baseman, the Orioles’ outfield entering spring was an impressive group with Santander, Hays, Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and DJ Stewart probably making up the most exciting group of players on the team where the future is concerned. It was difficult, though not impossible, to see how they would all get on the field enough to fulfill their individual potential.

Stewart’s spring, which began with two home runs in two games, ended a week into Grapefruit League action when he pulled his hamstring. He hasn’t been seen since, so now there will be plenty of opportunities for the other four — all of whom had very strong springs — to play regularly with the designated hitter spot available.

But there’s going to come a time when having five major league quality outfielders isn’t going to make a lot of sense for the Orioles, especially once two others who left good spring impressions in Ryan McKenna and Yusniel Diaz are ready to come up from Triple-A Norfolk.

Expanding the talent base the way the Orioles have is one thing. Having two outfields worth of big league quality players is another.

Perhaps it will lead to a trade that enhances other parts of the major league roster, or perhaps injuries will ensure none are healthy at the same time and the problem is moot. It’s not the worst thing to have to deal with for an Orioles team that can’t offer the same level of talent anywhere else.

Expectations should be high for Trey Mancini.

A month of spring training games in Mancini’s comeback from colon cancer was plenty to show that the hitter who Elias and manager Brandon Hyde have routinely often called one of the league’s most productive is capable of achieving that form again in 2021.

Mancini had 17 hits in 51 at-bats with two home runs in his return to play this spring, and at every turn was insistent that he felt like he could be a productive major leaguer for a full season after missing a year. The Orioles feel that way as well, and there’s no reason to doubt any of them.

Often, Mancini is his own toughest critic. He joked after hitting his first home run that he often leaves spring training at-bats wondering if he’ll ever get the feeling right at the plate and then quickly does. Now, there’s no better place for his first meaningful baseball since September 2019 to be at Boston’s Fenway Park.

His 16 extra-base hits and 1.040 OPS at Fenway are his best marks at any visiting ballpark. He’s said previously that he likes hitting there. Anyone who wants a feel-good moment on Opening Day might want to pay attention during Mancini’s at-bats for what should be the first of many he provides this season.

The Orioles are prioritizing pitching depth above all else this year.

Expanded rosters and the shortened season meant even the Orioles weren’t terribly challenged for pitching last year, but the tables have turned in 2021 with more than 900 additional innings required of major league pitching staffs.

Teams are handling it in different ways, but the Orioles’ method of trying to accumulate as many pitchers who can go multiple innings on a given night as possible is about as sound a strategy as they could come up with.

Outside of the five starting pitchers on the Opening Day roster, five others — Wade LeBlanc, Adam Plutko, César Valdez and Rule 5 draftees Wells and Sceroler — are all stretched out to some extent and can provide length this year. The secondary camp in Bowie that replaces the early part of the Triple-A Norfolk season will have prospects such as Akin, Mike Baumann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther all building up and developing alongside bulk inning candidates such as Thomas Eshelman and Conner Greene.

No amount of pitching is too much, so if that means carrying two Rule 5 picks and making your roster inflexible, so be it. If that means not having the best leverage relievers to protect leads when you do have them, that’s a price they might be willing to pay.

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It won’t be easy covering nine innings every night for the Orioles this year, and the only hope is that they have the depth and quality to finish games without things completely plummeting the way they did at times in 2019.

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We’ve entered the post-Chris Davis era in practice, if not in reality.

The Chris Davis experience this spring lasted all of two days, from his Feb. 26 Zoom media session to his Feb. 28 game appearance with two at-bats, the second of which he strained his lower back on. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

When he spoke to the media, he spoke candidly as ever about unspecified regrets about how he’s handled things in the past and vaguely about swing changes that he’d implemented in the offseason that would be evident to the eye.

It’s hard to know what to make of any of it other than declaring it wasn’t really worth it to fuss over, and with Davis on the 60-day injured list, it will be months before he appears in an Orioles uniform again. Any absence at this stage of his career, too, must come with the clause that it could be the end for him.

But whereas a Davis on the roster or in the general orbit of the Orioles naturally draws attention, it’s hard to see his status being more than an infrequent question lobbed at Hyde on slow news days in April and May. He’s still getting his salary and he’s still entitled to try and get healthy and come back to the team, as Hyde said he intended to do. But there can’t be many complaints about how the team is put together without him.

Season opener

ORIOLES@RED SOX

Thursday, 2:10 p.m.

TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM

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