A collection of recorded voices cheered at Camden Yards on Thursday night as Wade LeBlanc struck out opponent-for-a-night Renato Núñez. Only a few pitchers later, similar audio carried through the empty ballpark, this time after Chris Davis homered off LeBlanc. Quickly, the fake fans went from cheering for to cheering against the left-hander in home whites.
Thursday night offered a glimpse of at least the early portion of Major League Baseball’s 2020 season, with the coronavirus pandemic keeping fans from attending games. Trying to simulate a more game-like environment, the Orioles spent their intrasquad matchup feeding the sounds of fans’ cheers into the ballpark, using the Camden Yards scoreboard with public address announcer Ryan Wagner introducing each batter as their respective walk-up songs played.
The Orioles will repeat the structure Friday and Saturday before heading to Philadelphia for the first of three exhibition games ahead of their July 24 season opener at the Boston Red Sox. But even as the Orioles stage games for fake fans before contests that truly count, manager Brandon Hyde doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. He’s well aware, as the coronavirus pandemic has repeatedly shown, that a lot can change in a week.
“I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed every day,” Hyde said Thursday.
The ever-changing circumstances surrounding the upcoming season, shortened from the traditional 162 to 60 games because of the pandemic, are part of why Hyde is hesitant to commit to how any aspect of how the Orioles’ 30-man roster will look July 24 at Fenway Park.
“If I committed to ‘These are our five starters and we’re definitely carrying two or three catchers,’ I’d be lying because I honestly don’t know,” Hyde said. It’s possible the Orioles go with six starters. There’s no limit to the number of pitchers they can carry. They could certainly choose to have three catchers. With 43 players participating in their major league training camp at Camden Yards, Baltimore has some trimming to do over the next week, though a handful of that group is already unlikely to make the roster because of injuries or absences. Given the threat of the virus and more standard ailments, the Orioles’ projected roster could certainly shift plenty over the coming week.
“Honestly, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions on our roster when I don’t know what’s gonna happen from a day-to-day basis,” Hyde said. “I don’t want to promise anybody anything because things can change so much, especially this year, so we’re keeping all of our options open for this next week.”
That said, here’s a projection of which Orioles will be in Boston on July 24.
Catchers (3): Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco, Bryan Holaday
There are two big questions here: Will there be a third catcher, and who will it be? Severino and Sisco split time at the position most of last year, but with a slightly expanded roster, the Orioles could easily use one spot to add extra coverage to a demanding position.
Holaday has gotten some work at third base during training camp, possibly adding to his case. But the Orioles could choose the simpler route and go with Austin Wynns, who’s already on the 40-man roster, and send the veteran Holaday to the secondary site in Bowie, where he can work with a collection of young pitchers. He could also help groom top prospect Adley Rutschman, who appears unlikely to make his debut this year despite being included Baltimore’s player pool.
Infielders (8): Chris Davis, Hanser Alberto, José Iglesias, Rio Ruiz, Renato Núñez, Pat Valaika, Stevie Wilkerson, Andrew Velazquez
The first four listed figure to serve as the Orioles’ Opening Day infield, from first to third, with Núñez penciled in as the designated hitter. Valaika, Wilkerson and Velazquez all come with the capability of playing in the middle infield and the outfield, with Richie Martin’s broken right wrist and subsequent surgery removing him from the options to back up Iglesias at shortstop.
Wilkerson and Velazquez could also be worthwhile options in center for a thin outfield, while Valaika is limited to the corners.
Outfielders (4): Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, Mason Williams Anthony Santander
The Orioles’ initial pool included only four outfielders, and that group quickly got trimmed to two when Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. didn’t participate in the first week of workouts without an explanation from the team. Santander joined camp Tuesday, explaining his absence was because he tested positive for the virus and had to be in isolation, and has since done some light outfield drills and tracked pitches during pitchers’ bullpens and live batting practice. Santander didn’t participate in Thursday’s intrasquad, but Hyde has said the team will try to get him ready for Opening Day.
Adding Mason Williams to the 40-man roster would provide coverage regardless. Including Ryan Mountcastle or Cedric Mullins would do the same, but it seems likely both are bound for the secondary site in Bowie to begin the year. The Orioles could also simply rely on Velazquez or Wilkerson until Santander is prepared.
Starting pitchers (5): John Means, Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Asher Wojciechowski, Tommy Milone
Likely in that order, with that being how they’ve been deployed in intrasquad games and live batting practice sessions thus far. The wild card is right-hander Kohl Stewart, who was the lone free-agent pitcher the Orioles signed to a major league contract this offseason. The 25-year-old was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth-overall pick in 2013, and Hyde said Thursday that while Stewart remains a candidate to start, he could also be used as a long reliever or bulk pitcher behind an opener.
Tom Eshelman, César Valdez, Rob Zastryzny and Chandler Shepherd will in all likelihood join prospects Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Michael Baumann as starting depth in Bowie. Ty Blach, still officially a member of the club’s pool, was probably heading there also before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Relief pitchers (10): Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry, Shawn Armstrong, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, Kohl Stewart, Cody Carroll, Cole Sulser
Right-handers Givens, Castro and Armstrong and left-handers Bleier and Fry formed the nucleus of the Orioles’ bullpen in 2019, with Harvey and Scott adding a hard thrower to both groups. Pitching group Doug Brocail has said either Givens or Harvey could close, with Bleier an option against lefties.
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Carroll and Sulser were both pitching well before the virus shut down the original version of spring training. Stewart and Milone could swap roles, or both could be part of a six-man rotation and the Orioles could decide to have one less potential starter in Bowie to have a long reliever in the major league bullpen.