With an entire season of health and safety protocols ingrained in their memories, the Orioles are so used to playing baseball during a pandemic that manager Brandon Hyde said the process of boarding a plane from Sarasota, Florida, on Wednesday to fly to Boston for Friday’s Opening Day game against the Red Sox felt “business as usual.”
He acknowledged that it won’t be fully back to normal until stadiums can be full — all parks the Orioles will play at in the first month of the season have limited capacity — and masks are still required in the clubhouse as the team follows the league’s protocols. Baseball, however, is starting to feel the same as it ever has.
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“It’s starting to feel more normal,” Hyde said. “I think the fans in the ballpark in spring training was a big help in getting back to that sort of feeling, and we’re looking forward to this year obviously fans being there and hopefully more and more fans as the summer goes along.”
The Orioles’ first game of the season Friday against the Red Sox — moved back a day because of inclement weather in Boston — will begin a season for the rebuilding organization filled with promise and challenges in equal measure. Their lineup, Hyde noted Wednesday, has the potential to be potent.
But they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to the league-wide issue of covering a full season’s worth of pitching because of the youth and inexperience of the pitchers in the entire organization. As previous Orioles seasons have shown, they only go as far as the pitching takes them.
That’s why expectations outside the organization are low. But for those who want to jump back into baseball as a sign of the world returning to normal this spring, here are the important things to know about the Orioles entering Opening Day.
John Means is the Opening Day starter.
At the end of the 2018 season, the Orioles had to summon Means from his couch in his Kansas City-area home after the minor league season ended to resume throwing. He eventually made his major league debut at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Opening Day starters don’t often have such humble beginnings, but Means added velocity and honed a very good changeup the following offseason to make the Orioles roster out of spring training. His rise to All-Star that 2019 season was a rare highlight for the rebuilding team.
Means was meant to be the Opening Day starter last year when the season began in July in Boston, but a tired arm kept him from making that start. He joked with Hyde upon hearing the news that he’d actually be able to pitch on Opening Day this time around, and he’s set to make good on that promise.
Trey Mancini is back.
After missing all of 2020 following surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his colon and subsequent treatment for stage 3 colon cancer, Mancini has been proving all spring long that he’s nearing his 2019 form and can be a fixture in the heart of the Orioles lineup.
His battle with cancer has made the Orioles’ most popular player even more so, and his comeback has been one of the feel-good stories of spring training. It seems fair to assume that everywhere he goes early in the season, including Fenway Park, Mancini will be warmly received by even opposing fans who will want to acknowledge all that he’s been through to be able to step into the batter’s box again.
If he can produce near the level the Orioles came to expect from him before his illness, it will be all the better.
The outfield gives some hope that building through the farm can pan out.
The Orioles have been rebuilding for three seasons now, and while there’s reason to want immediate results, just look at the team’s outfield to show what patience can provide in terms of productive major leaguers.
Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins are all set to be part of the Opening Day outfield picture and have reached a point in their careers through the new Orioles’ player development model that has them set up to make a serious impact on both sides of the ball this season.
Mountcastle could be a Rookie of the Year candidate. Santander is back to build on his 2020 Most Valuable Orioles-worthy season. Hays and Mullins were among the most impressive players in camp for a variety of reasons.
Eventually, they’ll be joined by DJ Stewart once he’s off the injured list for his hamstring injury.
With the exception of Mountcastle, it’s been a while since each was a highly-touted prospect and made his major league debut. But the rocky path they’ve taken since has ultimately been productive, as they’re set to make up the core of the 2021 Orioles. Eventually, more players the Orioles develop themselves will follow suit.
They’re beginning the season with six rookies on the roster.
Mountcastle is one of six rookies expected to be on the Opening Day roster, alongside infielder Ramón Urías, starting pitchers Bruce Zimmermann and Dean Kremer and Rule 5 draft picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells in the bullpen.
The first appearance for Wells and Sceroler will be their major league debuts, while the other four debuted in 2020 for the Orioles. Before long, left-hander Keegan Akin will join that rookie mix for the Orioles.
It might be a while, but future-focused fans will be anticipating the chance to see many more Orioles debuts coming later in the season with the likes of Yusniel Diaz, Ryan McKenna and Mike Baumann among the highest-touted players in that group.
There’s a new look to the infield.
The Orioles rebuilt their infield in the offseason after letting go of Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez and trading shortstop José Iglesias to the Los Angeles Angels. In their place, the Orioles signed free-agent shortstop Freddy Galvis to replace Iglesias, third baseman Maikel Franco to replace Núñez as a right-handed hitting corner bat and gave Yolmer Sánchez every chance to take Alberto’s second base job.
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However, Sánchez scuffled in spring training and was knocked off the roster on Friday. Urías and Pat Valaika will share time there instead, while the team tried third baseman Rio Ruiz at second base for a few spring training games to get him some emergency experience there.
Chris Davis is out of the picture for a while.
Anyone looking for a familiar face who can tie the Orioles back to their mid-decade run of contenders won’t find one as first baseman Chris Davis is on the 60-day injured list with a lower back strain suffered on the first day of spring training games.
Davis might not have been part of the Orioles’ Opening Day lineup as it were, with Hyde and executive vice president Mike Elias saying he was going to be battling for at-bats off the bench entering camp. Now, it will be at least June before he’s seen in an Orioles uniform again, if he is at all.
Friday, 2:10 p.m.
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