SARASOTA, Fla. — During a television interview amid the Orioles’ spring training game Thursday, a smile grew on manager Brandon Hyde’s face as play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Brown asked him about the state of Baltimore’s infield.
“It seems like there are some jobs open there,” Brown said. “How many blanks have you filled in in your mind outside of Ryan [Mountcastle] at first with the infield?”
Hyde paused for a beat, softly shaking his head.
“I’ve filled in Ryan in the infield,” Hyde said wryly.
Such is the state across the Orioles’ roster, with less than two weeks left until April 8′s Opening Day game with the Tampa Bay Rays and little decided about who will be making that short trip with them.
Each position group has at least one question mark and a bevy of candidates to serve as answers.
Non-first base infield
Opening Day candidates: Kelvin Gutiérrez, Jahmai Jones, Jorge Mateo, Tyler Nevin, Rougned Odor, Chris Owings, Ramón Urías
Of the above players, all but Owings — a minor league free agent with parts of nine seasons in the majors — are already on the 40-man roster. Each has also shown the ability to play multiple infield spots but Jones. Odor, almost exclusively a second baseman throughout his 11-year professional career, described his experience playing third base for the New York Yankees last year as “uncomfortable,” though he surely would be willing to do so again if that versatility helped secure a roster spot.
In that sense, even when picking three players from the group to serve as starters, choosing their positions is complicated. Urías, Mateo and Owings can play all three spots. Gutiérrez has gotten work at first base this spring largely because the Orioles have wanted to see what Nevin can do at third base.
A given day’s alignment might prove to have more to do with the opposing pitcher and the offensive platoons that might be required.
Opening Day candidates: Anthony Bemboom, Brett Cumberland, Jacob Nottingham, Beau Taylor
Adley Rutschman’s right tricep strain likely prevented baseball’s top prospect from making Baltimore’s Opening Day roster. It thus opened the door for one of these players to do so.
None of them are on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, though all but Cumberland have at least some major league time. Bemboom is among the players dealing with a stomach bug going around the Orioles’ clubhouse.
With all these positions, it’s important to remember how quickly things can change late in spring training. On the cusp of the 2019 season, the Orioles claimed Pedro Severino on waivers from the Washington Nationals, and he ended up serving as their primary catcher for the next three seasons. That’s simply to say that with any of these spots, the player who ends up filling them could be on another team’s roster and slide off as camp winds down.
Back of the rotation
Opening Day candidates: Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, Jorge López, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Tyler Wells, Bruce Zimmermann
John Means and Jordan Lyles will head the Orioles’ rotation entering 2022, but that leaves three spots for the nine players above.
Akin, Kremer, López, Lowther, Alexander Wells and Zimmermann all spent time as starters with Baltimore last season and generally struggled, though each has shown flashes of major league success. Tyler Wells was a Rule 5 draft pick who started the season in mopup duty, then pitched his way to the closer’s role. The Orioles are exploring him as a starter this spring, given he did well as one in the Minnesota Twins’ organization. Baumann was one of the top pitchers in Baltimore’s farm system in 2019 but battled some elbow issues last year before making a handful of late-season relief appearances.
Bradish is the Orioles’ third-ranked pitching prospect behind Grayson Rodriguez, generally regarded as the sport’s top pitching prospect, and DL Hall, a hard-throwing left-hander who ranks as a top 100 prospect. Although Hyde was impressed after Bradish worked two scoreless innings against a lineup of New York Yankees regulars and said he will get another start, Bradish will probably start the season with Rodriguez and Hall in the upper minors.
Opening Day candidates: Yusniel Diaz, Trey Mancini, Mateo, Ryan McKenna, Robert Neustrom, Nevin, Owings, DJ Stewart, Kyle Stowers
Mancini will start for the Orioles, likely at designated hitter, if his status as a pending free agent with the highest salary on the team doesn’t prompt a trade first. But the Orioles giving the natural first baseman work in the outfield this spring would enable them perhaps to load lighter in this area and carry another pitcher.
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Stewart and McKenna served as the Orioles’ bench outfielders for much of last season. McKenna primarily served as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner, with the offensive prowess he showed in Triple-A unable to carry over. Stewart has among the best plate discipline of all Orioles, but he’s had trouble in other aspects. Wednesday, he suffered a bruised left hand from a 96 mph fastball and will be out until at least the middle of next week, losing crucial at-bats.
In the bottom of the sixth of Friday’s exhibition with the Rays, the Orioles’ outfield from left to right was Neustrom, Stowers and Diaz, perhaps a preview of how Triple-A Norfolk will open its season. None have reached the majors, and only Diaz is on the 40-man roster, though the former top prospect has certainly played at the level of someone pushing for a major league spot this spring.
Mateo, Nevin and Owings are all infielders who can play the outfield if needed.
Final bullpen spots
Opening Day candidates: Akin, Bryan Baker, Baumann, Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Joey Krehbiel, Kremer, López, Lowther, Cionel Pérez, Alexander Wells, Tyler Wells, Bruce Zimmermann
With MLB reportedly allowing each team to carry 28 players rather than 26 early in the season, the Orioles likely will have two more relievers break camp with them. Given they will also have to add a catcher and possibly Owings to their 40-man roster — plus whichever waiver claims cross executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ desk — adding a nonroster invitee to the relief mix seems doubtful.
If healthy, Paul Fry, Tanner Scott, Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate will be in Baltimore’s bullpen, with López and Wells likely to join them if they don’t crack the rotation. That leaves a minimum of four spots to fill. Of the remaining starting candidates who appeared with Baltimore last year, only Kremer has yet to make a major league relief appearance. With starters unlikely to be fully stretched out as the season begins, length from relievers will be valuable.
Pérez would offer a third left-handed option for Hyde along with Fry and Scott, while Krehbiel pitched well for the Orioles after a late-season waiver claim. Bautista and Gillaspie are power arms with intriguing backstories who were added to Baltimore’s 40-man roster in November.