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Orioles

Five questions the Orioles face heading into the final week of spring training

DUNEDIN, Fla. — A moving truck sat outside the Ed Smith Stadium complex this weekend, and Orioles players sent most of their belongings up north, signaling the nearing end of this year's seven-week spring training.

The final Grapefruit League games of 2017 mean just a few more opportunities for the team to make decisions on some of the issues that still stand between them and their Opening Day roster, and while none are major, there are enough to keep things interesting.

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Entering the final week of spring training, here are the five biggest questions facing the Orioles, including how they plan to build their bullpen, staff their rotation, and assemble their bench.

What will the bench look like?

It's far more complicated than this, but the Orioles' decision on their final two bench spots outside of Ryan Flaherty and Caleb Joseph seems like a straight choice between offense and defense.

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On one hand, right-handed hitting outfielders Craig Gentry and Joey Rickard fill two desperate needs for the club — platoon outfielders against left-handed pitching, plus speed and defense off the bench. They've also been two of the best players in camp this year, making their coming north a natural fit.

However, Rickard has options and Gentry is a minor league camp invite who doesn't need to be added to the roster. And the same can be said for two players seemingly in competition with them — first baseman/outfielder Trey Mancini and right fielder Pedro Alvarez.

Both of those players just made their game debuts in the outfield this spring, but they're shoe-horned into those positions because of their bats. Taking them would make the Orioles' bench bats that much more formidable, but could come at a cost to having much defensive solidarity in the outfield.

Is this the year a Rule 5 pick doesn't stick?

Part of that bench conversation involves Rule 5 outfielders Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander, two players who the Orioles have grown to like this spring but will have a tough time keeping on the 25-man roster all season.

Santander, who had elbow inflammation crop up shortly after resuming his throwing work after offseason shoulder surgery, hasn't played since March 14 and is almost assured of starting the season on the disabled list. That would delay any kind of decision on whether to keep him.

Tavarez is a more complicated matter. He's unpolished, but has a lot of skills the club doesn't believe they have in the high minors. The Orioles can hide him on the bench for the required amount of time and find a way to keep him, work out a trade with Boston to remove the Rule 5 restrictions and get him into their system, or offer him up on waivers.

If they really want to keep him, they'll either have to use a 25-man roster spot on him or give up an asset to be able to send him into the minors. Either one is a tough call.

Who's the fifth starter?

This is a question the Orioles don't really have to answer until April 15, and as such they'll likely ticket the chosen one to Triple-A Norfolk to create an extra roster spot until then. But the pitcher they choose will earn the distinction of having separated himself from a crowded group.

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Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright have done it before, so they're more known commodities, but Gabriel Ynoa, Chris Lee, and Jayson Aquino all give the Orioles an injection of starting pitching promise they haven't had in a while. All three are 24 or younger, and have made what was a gap in high minors as far as pitching upside disappear.

After Lee and Wright didn't make it into the third inning in their most recent auditions, Ynoa separated himself Saturday with five shutout, one-hit innings against the Minnesota Twins. Aquino followed that up by giving up just three hits and one run in four innings Sunday.

Based solely on spring results, Aquino and Ynoa have the edge. Ynoa has started three times out of his five appearances, and allowed three earned runs on 11 hits in 13 2/3 innings. Aquino has now given up just two earned runs on 10 hits with 14 strikeouts in 15 innings.

Wilson will get his chance to return to the starting rotation Monday after making four relief outings since his last start on March 2, but it's safe to say this race won't be decided by the time camp breaks Thursday.

How many long relievers make the team?

This roster issue might be partially answered in tandem with the fifth starter question, but the hope for the team this year is that it won't move its Triple-A starters into the big league bullpen every time a need arises.

That could be more flexible with Tillman's injury now, moving someone in contention to be a starter into the bullpen. But two candidates to break camp as multi-inning relievers are Logan Verrett and Vidal Nuno. Each pitched two shutout innings in his most recent appearance; they appear to be frontrunners for a long relief role.

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They could be supplanted by one of those starting candidates, but in the world of what-ifs, Showalter might want to break camp with two to cover the team for the first few games of the year. Unless they option someone Sunday, the Orioles wouldn't be able to call up an extra long reliever for the second game of the season on April 5, and the Orioles always like to protect themselves from even the most far-fetched scenarios.

What could the late-spring surprise be?

The story of the last week-plus of camp last season was the Orioles' desire to option left fielder Hyun Soo Kim to the minors and their eventual move to keep him for Opening Day.

There's no major swerve that could match that this year, though little ones could provide some intrigue.

Showalter has been floating the idea of reliever Stefan Crichton — who isn't even in major league camp — making the roster after his impressive trips over from minor league camp. There's also the possibility that reliever Oliver Drake, who is out of options but hasn't fared well this spring, could still end up on the roster, pushing someone else off.

Otherwise, the surprise would come from outside the organization. As teams solidify their starting rotations for the first week in April, those brought into camp on minor league contracts who end up without roster spots could come available, and the Orioles might be tempted to pounce on one to provide a stopgap rotation-filler until Chris Tillman returns.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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