Norfolk, Va. — The Orioles identify themselves as an organization of opportunity, one in which players can join and have the chance to contribute, and in recent years, the team’s roster flexibility and ability to get the most out of each of its 25 active players has been a key piece to its on-field success.
During spring training, manager Buck Showalter brings each player sent to the minor leagues into his office and preaches that mantra, that if you’re good enough, you’ll be in Baltimore. But as the Orioles stopped off in Virginia for an exhibition game Monday against their Triple-A affiliate Norfolk Tides, they have the makings of an Opening Day roster that lacks the maneuverability of the past.
The Orioles have 25 active players to make up their roster set, but Showalter said some players still have not been told that they’ve made the club. Opening Day rosters don’t have to be filed until noon Thursday, so there’s time for pieces to move.
As other clubs trim personnel in the pre-Opening Day roster crunch, there are plenty of players available, and Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette sat together on the charter flight from Sarasota, Fla., to Norfolk on Monday morning and discussed potential additions. While they are keeping all avenues open, it appears as though they are ready to open the season with the group they’ve picked.
“We all know what we will do if nothing changes, but I’m always so careful about telling guys something that’s not going to come to pass,” Showalter said. “They have families. It’s a tough time of the year for them. I understand. There are guys with families, so you’re trying to do things the right way. Believe me, I’d love to tell them right now I know the way we’re going if we don’t have any unforeseen changes.”
Said Duquette: “I think we have the people here we need to start our season and get off to a good start. We have a tough schedule. We play Minnesota, Houston, the Yankees, the Red Sox, all playoff teams last year. It’s the top teams in the American League we’re facing, some of them on the road. So we have our work cut out for us, but our team generally gets off to a good start and hopefully some of the players that we add to the club can help stabilize the pitching staff.”
Regardless, the Orioles returned to Baltimore with a much different team than the one that first gathered on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota for the first full-squad workout in mid-February. With a surplus of proven players available as a result of a frigid free-agent market, the Orioles invested in experience — whether it was the rotation rebuild that centered on veterans Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and Alex Cobb or the bevy of nonroster signings of established position players such as outfielder Colby Rasmus, utility player Danny Valencia and designated hitter-first baseman Pedro Álvarez, the Orioles are a much more veteran club now.
But with that experience also comes a lack of flexibility. The nonroster players who must be added to the 40-man organizational roster — there are four of those with the three position players three above and outfielder Craig Gentry — can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. The club is carrying three Rule 5 draft picks — pitchers Pedro Araujo and Nestor Cortes Jr. and outfielder Anthony Santander — who must remain on the roster. The first two must be on the active roster for at least 90 days to fulfill their Rule 5 eligibility, and Santander, who was drafted the previous season before spending time on the disabled list, must stay active for this season’s first six weeks before the Orioles can option him to the minors.
Combine that with a group of core players who built up enough service time to void any option to the minor leagues and the Orioles are very much an inflexible group.
The shuttle to Norfolk — and occasionally Double-A Bowie — has been a key component to the Orioles’ success, a way the club can maneuver around not having the star-studded rosters, especially starting pitching staffs, of its American League East rivals. The biggest part of that is the flexibility of the bullpen, where Showalter has been able to call to the minors for reinforcements with optionable arms.
“On a normal night here, the game starts and I know what’s going on in Baltimore,” Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said, “because I’ve got the feed, somebody’s following the game in the dugout. And that’s what this is all about. I like to win more than anybody. I want to win 100 games here in Norfolk because then everyone will think that I’m a pretty good manager, but the bottom line is how important it is. If we win one night and they lose, it’s a bad night.”
Said Showalter: “I think we’re in a good spot. I’m excited about the depth and the overall ability to withstand a 162-game season. For us, it’s a 36-man pitching staff. It’s the 12 we have, the 12 or 13 here and the 12 or 13 we have in Bowie. And who knows, someone in Frederick could be knocking on the door. I think all our players know that’s who we are and that’s how we’re going to have to do it. We like it that way.”
This year’s club might have better depth than recent ones, but finding a way to use that depth could prove challenging.
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As the Orioles’ 25-man roster stands now, there are just eight players who can be optioned to the minors without the player’s consent, and that group includes several who wouldn’t be considered to be sent to the minors — second baseman Jonathan Schoop, outfielder Trey Mancini, right-hander Kevin Gausman, reliever Mychal Givens and catcher Caleb Joseph — so that pares the number to three.
That group includes players who could conceivably ride the shuttle to Norfolk, though left-handed reliever Richard Bleier has established himself as a bona fide major leaguer, and last year he survived several roster-crunch moves over the course of the second half of the season, solidifying his value.
That leaves just two spots — right-hander Miguel Castro and backup catcher Chance Sisco, both players who the club decided had too much present-day value as major league contributors to be refining their games in Norfolk. Castro is in the opening stages of transitioning to starting after serving as a valuable middle reliever last year, and while Sisco has made tremendous strides behind the plate, he still has room to grow at his position.
The lack of flexibility could block the progress of some of the team’s prospects. None of the team’s outfielders — except Mancini — have minor league options, so that clogs the potential arrivals of prospects such as Austin Hays or Cedric Mullins.
Ultimately, the message is that the team that made its name by offering opportunity might not be able to do so nearly as much in 2018, mainly because it’s banking its success on veterans.
“There’s always flexibility,” Showalter said. “With the proven-track-record guys, you don’t worry about that. It’s not like we’re going to send Darren O’Day down or Brad Brach or [Zach] Britton or whoever, Cashner, Cobb, [Dylan] Bundy, Gausman. So it’s a little different dynamic from that standpoint. But there’s always flexibility in a roster.
“We all know what it is, and you hope that doesn’t happen because that’s about [lack of] productivity, how they’re playing.”