Orioles beat writers Eduardo Encina and Jon Meoli wrap up team moves and progress from 2018 Spring Training in Sarasota, Florida. (Baltimore Sun video)
With the Orioles heading to Norfolk, Va., for a daylong pit stop to scrimmage their Triple-A affiliate on the way back to Baltimore, there's much more clarity about what they’ll be carrying into the regular season than this team is accustomed to.
The Orioles can still add a spare part or two, but they have a settled roster and few questions on that front. They're bringing a better starting rotation into this season than they have in years. Their stars have, almost to a man, shown during Grapefruit League action that they're ready for the spring.
But how did this settled moment arrive for the Orioles? Six weeks of spring (three for me) provided plenty to evaluate on the team's roster construction, outlook and future. Here are five things we learned during spring training as the Orioles come north.
1) The Orioles changed the perception of themselves this spring.
Midway through spring training when I arrived in Sarasota, Fla., many of the conversations I had with rival evaluators and people around the game were basically spent trying to figure out what the Orioles were doing.
They had the makings of a good roster, but the question marks in the rotation were numerous and things felt incomplete. By the time Andrew Cashner got into some games and fellow starting pitcher Alex Cobb signed, everyone got a lot more interested in the Orioles this season.
Cobb needs to prove immune to some of the regression that Orioles free-agent pitcher signings have experienced upon arrival, but he's never pitched badly in his seven-year major league career and is two years out from Tommy John surgery and essentially shelved his changeup last season so he was able to get by. He could be a major asset. And no one denies that Cashner will help, either. He's won friends in the clubhouse, and the two veterans can take a lot of pressure off Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman.
Combine that with the useful signing of outfielder Colby Rasmus, no signs of slippage from last year's offensive leaders Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini, and a healthy and motivated Manny Machado, and the Orioles will be worth paying attention to early.
That's all mitigated by the fact that they're projected to win 71 games by PECOTA and 75 by FanGraphs, and by a first week of the season that’s an absolute bear. But the pieces are in place to overcome that.
2) There were a lot of position battles entering camp, and no one really won.
Part of the early-spring lethargy regarding the Orioles both back home and around the game was because for all their roster battles entering camp, none of the candidates were terribly inspiring. The right field race never got going once Rasmus arrived, but would have been the most interesting if Austin Hays had been healthy, considering how Anthony Santander hit early in spring.
Backup catcher was the one race that lasted until the end, and prospect Chance Sisco's .429/.474/.800 batting line won him a spot in the face of speculation founded in manager Buck Showalter's comments that defense, not offensive production, would be the priority.
But the team arrived in Florida with Mike Wright Jr., Miguel Castro, Gabriel Ynoa and Rule 5 pitchers Nestor Cortes Jr. and José Mesa all working as starters and vying to be in the rotation. Mesa washed out of that conversation quickly, Ynoa got hurt, and a combination of uneven performances and the team's free-agent activity means the other three appear ticketed for the Opening Day bullpen.
And the spring was spent longing for the return of utility man Ryan Flaherty while Rubén Tejada, Luis Sardiñas and Éngelb Vielma didn’t do much to show they deserved a roster spot. The Orioles have cover for every infield spot in their starters, so Danny Valencia won the job. He's there for his ability to hit lefties, not his glove.
Ultimately, the Orioles did well to answer many of their questions from the outside. That some of those came after getting a look at some of the early-camp battles doesn't appear to be a coincidence.
3) This roster appears inflexible, but the rotation was built so it won't have to be.
As currently constituted, a bullpen of Brad Brach, Darren O'Day, Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Pedro Araujo, Cortes and Wright features just one player they can send to the minors without exposing to waivers: Bleier. Considering that they won't play without two catchers and thus optioning Sisco or Caleb Joseph without replacing him would be a nonstarter, there isn't a position player they can send down without risking losing until Santander's Rule 5 draft restrictions are satisfied in mid-May.
They won't have the flexible roster they crave, and there will be all kinds of hand-wringing about this. But the point of having those relievers with options is to have cover for short starts or catastrophe, and considering the investment the Orioles made in their rotation, they shouldn't have to worry about the former. That's why you go out and sign Cobb and Cashner, and at least the second-half versions of Bundy and Gausman showed that's not a problem for them.
If they need to be shuttling a reliever to cover three innings of relief once in every series, the Orioles will have worse problems, namely a rotation built for both the present and future underperforming and ruining their season.
The roster consequences will come early when the team has to activate Cobb from the minors and Mark Trumbo (quadriceps) from the disabled list. All any of that means is the bottom few occupants of the roster had better give the Orioles reasons not to get rid of them. Maybe in that sense, their lack of flexibility will help.
4) The heart of the Orioles lineup has changed.
Offensive success with the Orioles has always been spread around, but until Chris Davis and Trumbo show signs of their league-leading slugging form this year, the Orioles will be happy to build around the ones whose form is better.
In Machado, Schoop and Mancini, they have three hitters who are primed for big years. Tim Beckham is taking to third base well and isn't the ground-ball machine who slumped through September anymore. Joseph gets a chance to prove what he's been saying for years — that he can produce at the plate with regular playing time. Adam Jones will continue to be the veteran stabilizer when all those young players are placed atop the lineup.
It's not a good position in terms of team-building to regard the contributions of two sluggers making north of a combined $35 million this year as a possible bonus, but that's how this team is set up.
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On that note, Machado is going to have quite a walk year in an Orioles uniform. Everything is trending that way. He's been locked in at the plate, with the line-drive swing that grew into home run power back, and his natural strength meaning he can fight off pitches and have them fall in for hits.
In the field, he'll be a totally fine shortstop, and the difference between his value at third base and shortstop will probably be negligible. His move there was painted as a lot of things, and if you want to say it was done to entice him to stay once he hits free agency, that's fine. But he spent all of 2017 frustrated, endured two months of trade rumors in the offseason, and got his wish of playing shortstop and arrived as happy as ever.
The move is a direct benefit to the 2018 Orioles, and that's really what matters. This isn't a call to enjoy him while he's here — those are trite at this point. It's just to prepare for the inevitable surge that comes before his inevitable free agency. And it's going to be big.