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Orioles spring training roster preview: Starting pitching has three veterans, then plenty of questions

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

As the Orioles prepare to begin spring training next week in Sarasota, Fla., and with it the next chapter of the franchise's rebuild under the leadership of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, the focus will finally shift from the front office to the field.

Without a major league free-agent signing and with many of the familiar faces of past years no longer with the Orioles, the cast of players who will be charged with starting the organization's transformation on the field is a unique one.

This week, we'll break down by position groups who will be in camp, and who could factor in to the team's immediate plans, continuing with a group of starting pitchers where pretty much everyone has something to prove.

Who's at camp?

The Orioles' starting pitching landscape looks pretty simple. There are three established major leaguers in camp — Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner. Below them are a handful of players who spent time both starting and relieving at the major league level in 2018, including David Hess, Yefry Ramírez, and Jimmy Yacabonis. Left-hander Josh Rogers also technically falls into that category, though he made three starts for the Orioles before he was shut down, and fellow July trade acquisition Luis Ortiz made two appearances before he was injured, ending his season.

There's also some dark-horse starting depth in terms of Hunter Harvey, Dillon Tate, and John Means, plus non-roster invitees Dean Kremer and Gabriel Ynoa. In addition, the Orioles reportedly signed free agent right-hander Nate Karns on Thursday.

Who's gone?

At this point, no one who ended the year in the Orioles' rotation isn't around this year (unless Ryan Meisinger, who started a bullpen game in Boston but is a reliever by trade, counts).

Who are the frontrunners to make the team?

All three of Bundy, Cobb, and Cashner will likely be the first names that come to mind when the time arrives for the Orioles to start trading away the next wave of veteran pieces on their roster. But considering the volatility of each man's 2018, it's safe to say it won't happen during spring training, so you can pencil one in for Opening Day and the next two for the other two games in New York that weekend.

The rest, to hear pitching coach Doug Brocail tell it at FanFest, is very much up in the air.

It might not have felt like it considering how he was regarded by some in the organization, but Hess ended the year with a 4.88 ERA — lowest by any Orioles starter not named Kevin Gausman. He found confidence in his slider in the last two months of the season, and has always had a varied and effective arsenal but no standout secondary offering, Hess is the type who can have his pitch mix refined by new streams of data and improve that way. And there's a rotation spot for him to win if that's the case.

Ramírez would likely be the next choice for a spot, though his 2018 was a mixed bag that featured just as many starts where he gave the Orioles a chance to win as ones where he didn't. Unless one of the rookies in camp surpasses everyone and makes the rotation from the back of the pack, it's down to Ramírez and Yacabonis for a spot like this — though it's unclear whether the new regime views Yacabonis as a starter or reliever.

What about the rest of them?

Beyond that group, there's a lot of potential but a lot of unknown. Harvey, Tate, and Ortiz are former first-round picks who have lost some of their shine but have shown the type of raw stuff at one point or another to make it so a revelation of a spring isn't unreasonable. Harvey especially was on the cusp of making the big league club last year out of spring training before the team signed Cobb and he was sent to the minors, where a shoulder injury and then elbow issues cost him another season of development.

In Rogers and Means, the Orioles have two pitchers without much to prove at the Triple-A level. Rogers had a 3.54 ERA between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Norfolk, while Means had a 3.48 ERA after an early promotion to Norfolk. However, they're the type who have gotten by without premium stuff, and the only way to see whether they'll be effective in a long look in the big leagues would be to give them one.

Ynoa is a familiar face who missed all last year with injury and may just end up being a fastball-slider reliever, while Kremer led the minors in strikeouts last year and might push for a major league debut this summer, though he'd have to jump a lot of bodies to do that out of spring training.

What's worth watching this spring?

For the veterans, this spring will be a unique one. Considering everyone outside the veteran trio has a full season less of accumulated major league service time (two years, 21 days) than Bundy (three years, 26 days), there's not going to be a lot of room for the older pitchers to do their own things and get ready for the season on their own schedule. Between that and the various questions each has to answer based on their 2018 performances, they'll get more scrutiny than a typical veteran might in camp.

For the rest, it's just looking for improvement and health. Harvey, Tate, and Ortiz all dealt with some kind of injury in 2018, and need to show they're healthy to begin to unlock their potential.

But with so many starters on the 40-man roster, it's worth wondering whether the Orioles will end up choosing two versus rotating them through and promoting flexibility. A young roster makes for a flexible one, and even if they were going to do something drastic like the "opener" strategy that became popular last year, that's more for maximizing wins versus developing pitchers, and the Orioles are firmly in the second category.

If one thing defined the Orioles' struggles in the last decade, it's been getting pitchers who came with a high draft pedigree or developed a track record of success in the minors to establish themselves in the majors. The pitchers who will be in major league camp will be learning a lot of new things on the fly but be an early marker for whether the Orioles' staff can coax a little more out of what they inherited at this level as opposed to building from the ground up with a new draft class.

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