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Five unanswered Orioles questions as coronavirus shutdown cuts short spring training

As Major League Baseball and the Orioles grapple with the reality that it will be months before baseball resumes in any significant way, the coronavirus pandemic that caused it will get a lot of the attention in the interim.

After a month of spring training in Sarasota, Florida, and only weeks away from starting the season, the Orioles were on track to unveil a vastly different team March 26 from the last one that played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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All that has changed, though. So while there might have been some indication as to what this team could look like before such a delay, all that’s left now is to speculate until the players start working out again.

Here are five unanswered questions left by the shutdown:

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1. Was the Chris Davis renaissance real?

If one on-field facet of spring training trumped the rest, it was Davis looking like a monster at the plate again — the kind that terrorizes the other team, not his own. He homered three times in his first four games, began the spring with a long on-base streak, and once the power stopped, he ended up putting together productive at-bats with runners on base and either driving in runs or advancing runners in situations when the Orioles would have been left wanting in the past.

Of course, as everyone knows, it was spring training. And now, it will be months before there’s any indication it will work when games count. But if Davis’ plan to add muscle worked during one months-long break, he could run it back again during this shutdown and be even stronger once baseball resumes.

Orioles pitcher #23 Wade LeBlanc. Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 12, 2020
Orioles pitcher #23 Wade LeBlanc. Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 12, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

2. Was the new pitching strategy going to work?

At the time of the shutdown, it looked pretty clear that the Orioles’ rotation was going to feature veteran nonroster free agents Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone behind the returning trio of John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski. However, the team wasn’t really giving them much of a showcase in games with two turns of the rotation remaining before spring training ended.

That made sense considering their nagging physical issues (Cobb’s blister, Milone’s neck soreness), but it made it hard to judge what was going on. There was also Kohl Stewart preparing for the season as a rotation candidate, but he made just one three-inning start. The Orioles easily could have started Stewart in the minors, either on a rehabilitation assignment or an option, to get the 2013 No. 4 overall draft pick further acclimated to what they want him to do to realize his vast potential.

In the interim, it was just going to be a rotation that might have checked in as the league’s oldest tasked with stabilizing a team that was pretty green elsewhere. It was a decent gambit as far as 2020 respectability went, but who knows what it will look like when things start to count mid-summer.

Orioles infielder Ryan Mountcastle. Orioles Photo Day at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 18, 2020
Orioles infielder Ryan Mountcastle. Orioles Photo Day at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 18, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

3. How quickly were the kids going to get to Baltimore?

Informed by last year’s spring training in which players whose roster status and experience level dictated they should make the team over all else, there wasn’t much expectation that someone such as Ryan Mountcastle or Yusniel Diaz was going to break camp with the team after a good spring.

What this could have shown, however, was how close they are to joining the Orioles once circumstances allowed it. Mountcastle didn’t help his cause by not walking once in 34 at-bats, though he showed there was still plenty of power in his bat and that he could play the outfield. Diaz was slowed by a shoulder injury that kept him out of games early but still showed all the fantastic tools that will make him a factor with the Orioles at some point.

What this shutdown could do, however, is create a shortened season in which there’s even less incentive to start the club-control clocks for their young impact players, meaning it could be next year when those players finally get the call to the big leagues.

Infielder Pat Valaika makes a grab while taking infield practice at third base. Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 19, 2020
Infielder Pat Valaika makes a grab while taking infield practice at third base. Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 19, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

4. Was anyone playing his way onto the Opening Day roster?

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In some cases where prospect status wasn’t an issue, spring performance might have been a separator for the Orioles’ front office in terms of which players they took north — notably on the bench and in the bullpen.

On the bench, Andrew Velazquez, Pat Valaika, Stevie Wilkerson and Mason Williams all made strong impressions, as did catcher Bryan Holaday. It might have been hard to add more than one or two to the 40-man roster at once with only Velazquez on the roster.

In the bullpen, there was some buzz around camp about Rule 5 draft pick Michael Rucker before he was sent back to the Chicago Cubs. Since he was sent home, others who could look good in the seventh or eighth spot based on spring outings include Eric Hanhold, Cole Sulser, Branden Kline and Travis Lakins Sr.

No matter when the season starts, they’ll probably all get a chance. They’ll just have to bottle up whatever has worked and keep it going.

Orioles pitcher Mychal Givens shares a laugh with a teammate at practice. Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 18, 2020
Orioles pitcher Mychal Givens shares a laugh with a teammate at practice. Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 18, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

5. Could this have been a competent bullpen?

It seemed like the Orioles were going to have a lot more options to put together a better bullpen than they did last year, when the group was historically bad. Part of that would just have required consistency from the five players who were considered fixtures entering this year — Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Shawn Armstrong, Paul Fry and Miguel Castro.

Part of that would have meant having a full year of the electric, hirsute Hunter Harvey. But the two swing spots after that, with all the candidates mentioned above or some combination of Hector Velázquez and David Hess adding length and cover as the long reliever, could have made for a much better group.

And that’s all without mentioning the dominant performances at times this spring from Tanner Scott, Dillon Tate and Cody Carroll. It was all shaping up to be a much more interesting group — partly because of the additions and partly because of the message all those additions sent. It was working, though, so perhaps it will again.

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