As a first-choice Orioles lineup was battling New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in one of the final spring training games of the season Friday night, the club made a series of roster moves that went a long way to explaining what their roster may look like come Opening Day on April 1 in Boston.
Veteran left-hander Wade LeBlanc returned on a major league deal after opting out of and being released from his minor league deal earlier this week. He took the roster spot of Chris Davis, who went on the 60-day injured list with a back strain suffered late last month.
The team also sent five players to minor league camp, headlined by a presumptive starting rotation member in left-hander Keegan Akin, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk and will begin the year at the secondary training site in Bowie.
All that means, in manager Brandon Hyde’s estimation, is that the team’s starting rotation picture for the first week of the season is “definitely becoming more clear,” and so is the rest of the roster.
Here’s what the moves Friday mean and where they leave the Orioles going forward:
So much for the tough decisions in camp
Friday’s roster moves came with a clarification from the team as to who is remaining in major league camp with just a few days remaining. Because the team has only moved the players designated as “camp reserves” who were based with the major leaguers at Ed Smith Stadium back to Twin Lakes camp, that clarification made it clear that those based at the minor league site aren’t considered to be in major league camp.
So, Friday’s moves make 36 players in major league camp, and they’ll need to get down to 26 for April 1. DJ Stewart (hamstring) is destined for the injured list, while Félix Hernández is on a minor league contract, so the Orioles will have to figure how to keep him around as his elbow injury heals. He won’t, however, be an impediment to getting to 26.
Six other nonroster players or camp reserves remain: utility man Stevie Wilkerson, right-handers Thomas Eshelman, Conner Greene and Eric Hanhold, and catchers Nick Ciuffo and Austin Wynns.
Assuming none of them gets added to the major league roster, that gets the Orioles down to 28 rostered players for 26 spots.
The Orioles will only take either Pat Valiaka or Ramón Urías as a utility infielder, though if they’re willing to live dangerously, they could try to survive without them for a few days. But if they decide to take one of those infielders, then there are some pitchers on the chopping block.
Rule 5 pitchers Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler are two on the fringe, with Wells especially showing the team might be well-served keeping him. Keeping one or both might put some of the team’s relievers such as Dillon Tate, Travis Lakins Sr. or Cole Sulser in jeopardy as all have minor league options remaining. Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann might be at risk in that scenario, too.
Decisions, yes. But save for whether they keep a couple of depth pitchers such as Sceroler and Wells in the organization or return them to their old clubs, none have long-term implications in the Orioles’ plans. Anyone who is optioned to the minors the rest of the way is likely to be up by the end of April for sheer roster churn either way.
Keegan Akin showed spring does matter …
With fellow rotation aspirants such as Jorge López and Zimmermann pitching well all spring, it would have been hard from an internal credibility standpoint for the Orioles to break camp with someone who struggled the way Akin did in the rotation.
The young left-hander has always had more area command with his sneaky fastball than spot command, and that means when he’s not on his game, he can either be erratic in his misses or too much over the plate as he compensates for it.
That’s how one allows 22 base runners in nine Grapefruit League innings, and that’s how one ends up off the roster to start the season.
Akin can still be back with the major league team relatively quickly once he’s eligible to return. It’s just too risky to have a pitcher who is so clearly searching for it to start or be responsible for bulk innings early in a major league season, especially one that teams are so concerned about pitcher health in. He admitted Thursday to being “uncomfortable” on the mound earlier this spring; the alternate site in Bowie is a better place to continue remedying that than the major league mound.
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“I just thought that Keegan needed a little more time,” Hyde said. “We think really highly of him. Talking to him this afternoon, it was about being a little sharper with his pitches. The command wasn’t quite there during this spring, being able to locate to both sides of the plate. I’d like to see the improvement in his off-speed stuff, being able to land it for strikes. It was just kind of a little bit of a scuffle for it this spring. He’s going to have time to go down there.”
… and it might for Zimmermann too.
Zimmermann, an Ellicott City native, doesn’t have much left he can do to bolster his roster case this spring after the way he’s pitched entering the final weekend. His fastball velocity is up from last year, and both Orioles staff and opposing scouts alike have been impressed by his pitch mix.
It still remains true even with these roster moves that the thing keeping a rookie pitcher such as Zimmermann from sleeping easily at night knowing that he’s on the Orioles is the possibility of the team adding pitchers from outside their camp.
Through Friday night, no one has come available that would represent a clear upgrade for the Orioles. But if they need to shift a pitcher off the roster or out of their immediate plans, Zimmermann could be the one to suffer that fate through no fault of his own.
Davis won’t be on the field for a while
It seemed fated from pretty early on in the life span of Davis’ spring training back injury that it was the type of injury that could double as a convenient solution to both his and the club’s problems, and nearly four weeks later he’s been placed on the long-term injured list.
Davis must spend the first 60 days of the major league season on the injured list, pushing any potential comeback to June at the earliest. It will be valuable for the Orioles in the interim to have his roster spot available and not have to carry a part-time player on the major league roster. For Davis, it’s a chance to get healthy again after he said he spent most of the winter rehabbing various leg ailments and didn’t seem to be at his best when camp started.
He referred in the offseason to himself and his $161 million contract that expires after the 2022 season as a lump the Orioles couldn’t get rid of. With this back injury, they might have found a way to at least operate around it for a while.