Orioles reporter Eduardo Encina, Jon Meoli and Peter Schmuck on the Orioles front office decision to wait out free agency. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
When Orioles pitchers and catchers report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Tuesday, the club will mark the start of spring training with much more uncertainty – both short and long term – than in past years.
The Orioles still have a lot of work to do in building the 2018 ballclub. Along with many new faces in camp, there will likely be additions to the players already rostered for the first full-squad workout the following Monday. The club will look different than that one on Opening Day, and could change dramatically by the nonwaiver trade deadline in July depending on how the Orioles fare in a stacked American League East.
This could be the final year with the Orioles for many key figures, from homegrown superstar Manny Machado to longtime cornerstone Adam Jones to manager Buck Showalter to executive vice president Dan Duquette.
But before then, the Orioles are focused on winning after last year’s last-place finish. This year, they will have to trump the prognostaications that predict another finish in the division cellar – but they’ve done that a lot over the past six years, making the postseason three times since 2012.
As spring training approaches, let’s take a look at the questions and concerns looming over this year’s Orioles entering camp.
This is the biggest question — and least clear area — entering spring training. The Orioles currently slot just two proven starters in their rotation — right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. The Orioles have 35 pitchers in big league camp; take away Bundy and Gausman, and only seven have made a major league start. There’s hope the team catches lightning in a bottle with one or two pitchers. They’re focused on transitioning Miguel Castro to a starting role and hope Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes Jr.’ track record of success can carry over, but both will have to show they can start at the major league level. It appears that Duquette will wait for the free-agent freeze to thaw before making a starting pitching acquisition — or two — saying at FanFest that he’s focused on building a rotation with a March 1 deadline in mind. But at this point, it’s unlikely that the Orioles will be in the mix for any free-agent pitcher that will require more than a two-year commitment.
How will Machado’s move to shortstop work out?
The Orioles insist that their decision to move Machado from third base — where he’s won two Gold Glove Awards – to his original position was done to put the best defensive product on the field. And that’s likely true, even though no one quite knows how the 25-year-old will handle the grind of the most important position in the infield over a 162-game season, and how Tim Beckham will respond to a move to third, a position he’s played just a handful of times in his big league career. The Orioles want to get better defensively, and having their best defender at their most important position — especially with J.J. Hardy’s departure — makes sense. But there’s no question the move was also made to appease Machado before his walk year. There’s no secret Machado has long wanted to take the reins at shortstop, and he was inspired when he played shortstop at the beginning of last spring training in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. For the team, a successful move to short would increase his trade stock if the Orioles revisit a deal. The Orioles want to get as much production from Machado as they can — both offensively and defensively — for as long as he’s wearing orange, and maybe that’s the biggest reason for the move. Because come 2019, the shortstop position will mostly likely be back in Beckham’s possession.
Who will play the corner outfield spots?
In a season when many things went against the Orioles, one thing that went the club’s way was Trey Mancini’s successful transition to left field. The rookie standout experienced some growing pains moving to the corner outfield, but his determination allowed him to become an adequate left fielder. The question entering camp is who will man right field, with top prospect Austin Hays headlining a group that also includes Joey Rickard and nonroster invitee Craig Gentry. The Orioles could also add a left-handed outfield bat to platoon with whoever wins that job, though that would also create a crowded outfield mix unless that addition can play center field to back up Jones. Hays, Rickard and Gentry all have made starts in center. Again, the Orioles want to improve their outfield defense and the decision about who receives the most playing time in right will be made with that in mind. Having said that, don’t expect to see Mark Trumbo in right field much, as he will likely be slotted as the designated hitter.
Who fills the utility role?
This has been a frustrating offseason for the Orioles in terms of filling their utility infielder position, which is an important one, especially if the team is open to a platoon situation in right or wants to carry 13 pitchers to start the season. That’s what made Ryan Flaherty so valuable, despite his offensive limitations, because he could play all four infield spots and both corner outfield spots in a pinch. The Orioles attempted to bring back Flaherty, but their efforts weren’t enough to keep him as he signed a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. They also pursued infielder Ryan Goins to make him the utility man, but he signed a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals. The fact that both players signed minor league deals with other clubs is disturbing. Intent to acquire both was there, but it indicates the team wasn’t able to make offers in a timely manner. So for now, the Orioles will look internally, with newcomer Engelb Vielma as well as nonroster returnees Luis Sardiñas and Rubén Tejada competing for the spot. The good news is all three have experience playing shortstop, but there’s no clear front runner for the job.
Will the Orioles do anything to lock up any players or management long term?
Speaking of timeliness, a lack of forethought has let the Orioles into an unenviable situation with the futures of so many key figures uncertain, from Machado to Jones to closer Zach Britton and reliever Brad Brach to Duquette and Showalter. If the Orioles want to lock up any of the players, spring training is the time to do it because once the season starts, players entering their walk years typically shelve extension talks until the end of the season. Having said that, it’s not likely Machado will entertain extension talk at this point even entering the spring, as he’s poised to head to free agency. Jones seems willing to discuss a long-term deal, but it has yet to be broached by the team. As for Duquette and Showalter, it would be awkward for one to be engaged in extension talk but not the other, and one would think each would want to know whether the other is returning. But that speaks to the bigger problem for individuals focused on winning: Do the Orioles face too much uncertainty from top to bottom for anyone to buy in to a long-term commitment? As of now, the more pointed focus might be on reaching out to players who remain under team control beyond 2018, specifically second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who isn’t a free agent for another two years, or maybe even pre-arbitration pitcher Dylan Bundy. The time to talk to Schoop, who is coming off his breakout season, might have already passed. But it is better to find out now whether he’s committed to Baltimore long term, so they’re not stuck in another Machado situation — trying to find trade value in a player who is a pending free agent — a year from now.
Even with Britton out for the first few months of the season recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, the Orioles bullpen remains one of the team’s strengths. Because the Orioles were without Britton for much of the first half last year, they know how to replace him. Brach will likely assume the interim closer role, possibly with some help from Mychal Givens, who figures to play a more prominent high-leverage role this year. Darren O’Day is back, looking to build on a strong and healthy second half last season, and Richard Bleier was quietly a much-needed left-handed presence. But with Castro moving into a starting role, the Orioles will have to find a way to replace the valuable relief innings he provided. Mike Wright and Gabriel Ynoa will likely compete for starting jobs as well, but if they don’t make the rotation, they could open the season in the bullpen because they are out of minor league options. A rebound season from situational lefty Donnie Hart would help, as would Jimmy Yacabonis building on the big league experience he received last season. Nonroster lefty Joely Rodríguez is intriguing. But all in all, there will be a lot of relievers in camp to choose from, and the final spots are definitely up for grabs.
What will the feel of the clubhouse be this spring?
The mood of the Orioles clubhouse will be an intangible factor worth monitoring. There’s always an optimism that comes with the beginning of the season, but the Orioles coming off a disappointing finish that included a miserable September, combined with the realization that this will likely be the last year with this group, could weigh on the clubhouse. The task of proving prognosticators wrong can’t be compared to the beginning of the Orioles’ renaissance in 2012. That team was invigorated by winning as a group for the first time. It had nothing to lose. This team is older, has been together longer and has plenty at stake this season — both as a group and individually. But the bell curve of success began trending downward last season, and there are questions about whether they can give it one more go at a playoff run or those days have passed for this collective core.