The Orioles have just over a week’s worth of spring training games left in Florida before coming north to begin the season, and manager Brandon Hyde seems to believe they’ll need every one of them to put the finishing touches on their roster.
He said Sunday they have “a lot of question marks” remaining on the roster, but the good news is none are new ones. They’ve had the same areas of focus all spring, and those will only continue as camp winds down and they start to play their regulars more regularly.
“We have question marks rotation, we have question marks bullpen, we have question marks as it comes to some of our extra infielders,” Hyde said. “So, I think we have a lot of things to still finalize before we leave.”
Here’s how some of those questions could still shake out and what will go into their decisions.
How can they maneuver a smaller bench?
Hyde said Sunday that breaking camp with 14 pitches was still a possibility, which would leave just a three-man bench early in the season. That might be an issue for a team in postseason contention, but truthfully, if the Orioles are left short midway through a game and have to play someone out of position for a few innings before they have to make a move, no one will much mind.
Sunday’s attempt to get Yolmer Sánchez a bit of shortstop action over a debuting Richie Martin indicates a possible path forward on that front. If Sánchez is on the field as the everyday second baseman and something happens to Freddy Galvis, he can shift over there and possibly eliminate the need for a utility player who can play shortstop.
That could allow the Orioles to bring an overall better roster north, even if it’s not a versatile one. They could have both Maikel Franco and Rio Ruiz on the roster with the understanding that Ruiz could play second base in an emergency for a few innings before the team regroups the next day.
And with DJ Stewart facing a time crunch to come back from his hamstring injury, the Orioles could use Austin Hays as a fourth outfielder who can cover all positions.
Hyde said it was becoming “more and more challenging” for Stewart to make the team out of spring training given he’s not back in game action yet.
“He was out there doing some drills with us this morning,” Hyde said. “He’s just not 100% yet and I’m not going to put him on the field in a game until he’s 100%, so we’ll see.”
How will the pitching shake out?
For all the talk of tough decisions to make with their starting rotation and the composition of the Orioles’ pitching staff, the decisions aren’t actually going to be difficult ones in many cases. And the layout of the potential rotation has been in place for several weeks now.
Opening Day starter John Means has been on turn for that role all spring, and the team’s spring schedule actually made it easy to work around the April 2 day off early in the season: César Valdez’s start Tuesday represents a bullpen day that won’t take a starter off turn.
Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann and Wade LeBlanc are lined up as length options for the second game of the season on April 3 in Boston, with Kremer typically the starter in the spring. Matt Harvey, Keegan Akin and Thomas Eshelman are lined up for the third game, and Félix Hernández was lined up to start the fourth game before his injury. Jorge López is also set up for that day.
The Orioles could eschew a fifth starter and go back to Means for their fifth game April 6 before pulling someone out who had been stashed in the bullpen to start April 7, the first day they’d need a fifth starter. That could be someone like Akin, Zimmermann or LeBlanc.
Or, one of those pitchers could be left off the roster with the understanding that the Orioles need a bench infielder or a reliever in that first week and their fifth starter can join up when he’s needed if the long relievers end up getting used before that.
Is Matt Harvey for real?
One of the challenges of not covering spring training in a traditional sense has been the inability to see if the performances match up to the statistics that show up in the box score, and former All-Star Matt Harvey’s spring is a prime example of that.
He continued what seems to be an impressive progression this spring with four innings of one-hit, one-run ball with four strikeouts Saturday against the New York Yankees, and players and coaches on both teams were impressed by his reinvention after years in the pitching wilderness.
Harvey said a back-field simulated game after his first start changed the trajectory of his spring, and he’s pitched well statistically in two games since. He and Hyde have spoken of the importance of using a two-seam fastball as his primary pitch and how that has opened up his arsenal this spring, with his four-seam fastball and changeup playing off that.
It’s a far cry from the days of his triple-digit fastball that blew hitters away and only required a slider to complement it.
“Now, I’ve got to pitch more,” Harvey said. “It’s definitely becoming fun again to figure that out. ... It’s exciting to finally be able to feel my mechanics are working in the right direction and be able to pitch again. It’s been a long time. It’s been a rough couple years, but I think we’re definitely finally moving in the right direction.”
There’s a long way between going off of the team’s observations and a box score in spring training and doing it in major league games that count. But there’s no choice but to have a little bit of hope that the Orioles might have found a real contributor to their rotation in how Harvey is coming along this spring.
He’s lined up to pitch Thursday, when the Orioles have one of their two scheduled spring training broadcasts on MASN. It would be a shame if Harvey ended up in a simulated game that day instead.
Can they sneak a Rule 5 player onto the roster?
By this time last spring, the Orioles had already returned their Rule 5 pitchers in Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker. They had pitched well in the spring, the same way this year’s picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells have. But in 2020, the Orioles judged that they wouldn’t be able to keep those picks on the roster all year with a relatively inflexible bullpen and needed their 40-man roster spots to add LeBlanc and Tommy Milone to the major league roster for the start of the season.
There are still those types of considerations this year with Harvey, LeBlanc, Hernández and possibly Fernando Abad as nonroster candidates to be potentially added in the next week. But the bullpen might be a little more flexible in terms of optionable pieces if the Orioles want to try and use a Rule 5 pitcher as a long reliever.
Hyde said trying to give each an honest, fair look was a priority this season and would continue through the last week of spring training. Each pitched two shutout innings Saturday night against the Yankees, and Hyde said they were “very impressive.”
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“I thought they worked ahead nicely,” he said. “I like Tyler Wells’ competitiveness. I thought he threw some good off-speed. All three pitches for strikes that we hadn’t really seen and he did that tonight, as well as a live fastball at the top of the zone. Sceroler did a really good job, also, facing the meat of the roster, forcing contact early. He was up to 95 [mph], as well, so both guys did a nice job against some good Yankees hitters.”