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Orioles exhibition games bring roster clarity as Opening Day approaches

WASHINGTON — The Orioles’ pending cutdown to 30 players by the deadline later this week might not be that complicated considering they entered summer camp with only 44 players.

Their roster was relatively settled when spring training ended in March, with only a handful of questions at the back end of the roster. Things have changed slightly since then, but not much.

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When summer camp began and the Orioles announced that initial roster, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said that the players in camp at the beginning were the ones who would be competing for a roster spot and those who weren’t in camp could “creep” onto the Opening Day roster because of injuries.

The Orioles have had plenty of those injuries. As far as long-term absences go, Richie Martin broke a bone in his wrist, Stevie Wilkerson fractured a finger and left-hander Ty Blach had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Dwight Smith Jr. is on the injured list because of his late arrival in camp after testing positive for COVID-19 on intake earlier this month.

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Short-term injury concerns include John Means and Hunter Harvey (tired arms), Chance Sisco (triceps) and Dillon Tate (bruised elbow).

Rosters are typically due at noon on Opening Day, and with the first two regular-season games Thursday night, that means the Orioles’ decisions need to be made quickly. Here are some considerations that could make this a simpler process:

A third catcher could just be on the traveling taxi squad

Even as Sisco deals with a sore triceps after being hit with a pitch last week, manager Brandon Hyde hasn’t seemed too concerned about the long-term prognosis. If he’s worried about Sisco being ready for Opening Day, they could keep a third catcher to go to Boston along with him and Pedro Severino.

However, it’s possible that because one of the three players on the traveling taxi squad must be a catcher, the Orioles assign that role to either Austin Wynns and nonroster veteran Bryan Holaday and use the 30-man roster spot elsewhere.

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Hyde said that would be a consideration as they craft the final roster this week, and while Sisco’s health is a factor, it might be the best way to maximize the roster elsewhere.

The fourth outfielder can be an infielder

In the outfield, more than anywhere else, it’s possible that a player who arrived at camp late could make the Opening Day roster. Anthony Santander is ready for Opening Day despite reporting late because of the required isolation for a positive COVID-19 test, and he’s a shoo-in with Austin Hays and DJ Stewart in the outfield.

Smith, too, is a possibility, but the Orioles seem to be slow-playing him a little bit.

Cedric Mullins and Mason Williams both were added in the middle of camp and could serve as a fourth outfielder. Mullins is on the 40-man roster, while Williams isn’t, making Mullins a little easier to carry if they’re just going to wait a few days for Smith.

More likely, however, is nonroster utility men Pat Valaika and Dilson Herrera being added to the roster to provide cover at every position, along with Andrew Velázquez and a bench catcher, while still maintaining a normal-sized bench.

There’s a lot of room for a lot of relievers

With the possibly two catchers, eight infielders and three outfielders, that leaves room for many more pitchers than the Orioles will have innings to cover. Or at least they’ll hope.

Means played catch Tuesday and Hyde said that he might be available a few days into the season, so it’s reasonable the Orioles could open with six starters (Means, Opening Day starter Tommy Milone, Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Asher Wojciechowski and Kohl Stewart).

That leaves room for 10 relievers out of a possible 16 remaining pitchers in camp. Tate and Harvey didn’t pitch in the three exhibition games for health reasons. Shawn Armstrong, Evan Phillips and Rob Zastryzny were scheduled to pitch Tuesday before the rain ended the game, though Armstrong was warming up for the eighth and one of the other two would have been left without an inning to pitch.

Because injured list assignments at the start of the season can be back-dated to July 20, starting Harvey and Tate on the 10-day injured list means that they can come back July 30 and not miss as much time as they would if they were optioned off the roster. Phillips, who was a late addition to camp because of elbow soreness in the spring, could continue to build up at Bowie camp.

As for the rest, the expectation has always been Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry, Armstrong and Tanner Scott were on the team. Cole Sulser seems like a shoo-in lately, and the Orioles have liked how Cody Carroll has pitched.

The question comes down to what they’ll do with multi-inning relievers such as David Hess and Travis Lakins, and whether Thomas Eshelman or Cesar Valdez gets added to the roster as a swingman/long relief type and who gets to fill that role on the taxi squad.

They have some 40-man roster spots to play with

All of this makes for an active day of roster maneuvering when rosters are set, considering the Orioles’ 40-man roster doesn’t have as many spots as they’ll require. It’s currently at 39, though it seems Smith being on the COVID IL might remove him temporarily from the 40-man roster.

That would be two spots, but more could be required if the Orioles are going to keep two nonroster hitters (Valaika and Herrera) and a nonroster pitcher (Eshelman or Valdez).

There’s also the possibility that they’ll need some 40-man roster spots for waiver claims from other rosters. There’s no reason — even in a pandemic — that they won’t be grabbing players that are falling off other rosters this week.

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