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As spring training nears, Orioles’ biggest offseason needs remain

Since the offseason’s early days, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has been adamant the organization would add a starting pitching candidate or two, noting no team could ever have enough of them.

About a month later, the removal of a pair of projected starters from the Orioles’ middle infield plans — José Iglesias through a trade and Hanser Alberto through a non-tender decision — added another item to Baltimore’s offseason wish list, particularly with no clear substitute for Iglesias at shortstop.

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Nearly two months after the loss of those players and less than a month until the scheduled start of spring training, those two needs remain.

The Orioles have made a handful of minor league signings this offseason, most recently bringing back 2020 swing man Thomas Eshelman, but none of the moves have immediately changed the outlook of the 2021 roster. By this time last year, Iglesias had already been under contract for two weeks, but the Orioles have yet to find a replacement for him after sending him to the Los Angeles Angels for two pitching prospects the same day they non-tendered Alberto, their starting second baseman the previous two seasons, in early December.

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Elias has made clear it’s unlikely the Orioles commit to a multiyear contract at this stage of their rebuild, and with the free-agent shortstops of the caliber to likely demand those deals — Marcus Semien, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons — still unsigned, it’s possible the players Baltimore is targeting are waiting for the dust to settle before making a move.

Free agency at large is moving at a glacial pace, with the Toronto Blue Jays’ recent commitment to bring star outfielder George Springer into the American League East accounting for one of the only major free-agent signings. With the top talent of their budding farm system still a handful of years from contributing at the major league level, the Orioles will not be a team to jump the market.

Last year, the Orioles didn’t sign eventual rotation members Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone until February, with each agreeing to a minor league deal. It’s possible Elias takes a similar approach to whichever moves he makes this winter, though the Orioles’ rotation picture is seemingly less open than it was a year ago.

Rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer made strong impressions in their first taste of the majors, and fellow debutant Bruce Zimmermann could factor in come spring, as well. High-minors prospects Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells are another year closer to the majors, as well, though they lost a year of formal minor league seasoning because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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But with the season expanding from 60 games to its traditional 162, the Orioles and other teams will need as much innings coverage as possible. Signing a couple of veteran free-agent starters would allow manager Brandon Hyde and new pitching coach Chris Holt to better manage the innings of the young starters who they hope are fixtures in the rotation of Baltimore’s next contender.

Still, pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Sarasota, Florida, and officially begin spring training in under a month. It’s not an official deadline for free-agent moves; the Orioles signed Milone days into spring training last year, and he ended up as their Opening Day starter and netted them two young infielders from the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline.

But throughout the offseason, Elias has had two clearly stated goals, and with spring training weeks away, neither has been addressed.

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