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Five things to watch for as Orioles spring training begins this week

This time last year, when the Orioles were beginning their first spring training of a new era under manager Brandon Hyde, everything was new. The team’s rebuilding status meant for a productive but more relaxed camp, replete with music during workouts and a focus on building a positive culture — though that’s not to say work wasn’t done.

As pitchers and catchers report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Florida, on Tuesday and position players join this weekend, the Orioles must balance pedestrian on-field results while maintaining the excitement caused by changes below the surface.

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These 2020 Orioles won’t have anything more than modest expectations, and their incentive might be the top pick in the 2021 MLB draft. But that doesn’t much matter to the nearly 70 players in major league camp or the coaches and staff members tasked with bettering them in the present.

Here are five things to watch as spring training begins this week and the Orioles go about the business of trying to improve on last year’s 108-loss season.

1. Will there be enough pitching?

When executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias noted in his end-of-season remarks that sometimes the pitching staff — specifically the bullpen — takes the blame for team losses, he was right. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Orioles’ pitching staff had historic struggles in 2019, allowing the most home runs in major league history (305) while pitching to a 5.59 ERA.

The ascension of John Means to the top of the rotation and an All-Star appearance for the homegrown left-hander was one of the main bright spots, as was the August cameo for former top prospect Hunter Harvey out of the bullpen. Journeyman right-hander Asher Wojciechowski seizing a rotation spot helped in the second half. Any other positive, though, can be compared with a handful (or handfuls) of examples in which said pitcher couldn’t get the job done.

The Orioles have used their high waiver position this offseason to grab some fresh bullpen arms and cycle some old ones off the roster while keeping them in the organization. Hyde hopes that a year of big league experience for many of them will make for improvements in 2020.

There are two waves of pitching on the horizon on the farm. The nearest one to the majors features holdovers from the last front office who are nearing the completion of their minor league development, like Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer. The one below them, with top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, holds more promise but less immediate possible impact.

It will still be a while before they get the chance to prove pitching development shed the pitfalls of previous administrations, though. In the meantime, a group of major league pitchers will be tasked with showing improvement can happen at the highest level, too.

2. How did the offseason trades (or lack thereof) affect the team?

In one week in December, the Orioles shed payroll obligations and proven performers in the form of infielder Jonathan Villar and right-hander Dylan Bundy to acquire five minor league pitchers as they continued to target a more competitive team in the future.

The hole Villar left in the infield has been presumably filled by veteran shortstop José Iglesias, and Bundy’s rotation spot remains up for grabs. The former is bad news for Richie Martin, the incumbent shortstop. The latter is good news for the host of pitchers who want to make the Orioles’ rotation.

Villar and Bundy weren’t the only ones on the trade block, though. Fellow arbitration-eligible big leaguers Trey Mancini and Mychal Givens were also frequent topics of discussion, and neither moved. Mancini, while developing into a top-level bat on the field, hasn’t let such trade rumors affect him and is just focusing on what he needs to do each day. Givens seemed to use not being traded at the 2019 deadline as motivation. He had 12 scoreless appearances in his next 13 and found the aggression that Hyde was looking for in attacking the strike zone.

While the opportunities created by the players traded will be something to follow in camp, so too will be the trajectory of those who could have been moved but stayed instead.

3. What will the fate of the top prospects be?

Many things became clear in the first Elias/Hyde spring training last year, and first among them was that opportunities might not extend to the young — at least immediately. When they touted opportunity and competition in camp, it was initially seen as a call for some of the team’s young and one-time top prospects, like Austin Hays and Chance Sisco, to make the Opening Day roster and start a new era of Orioles baseball immediately.

Those two and Anthony Santander all performed well in camp but started the year in the minors. Outfielder DJ Stewart played every day in September 2018 but was among the first cuts from major league camp. The opportunities were clearly meant for those who had Triple-A experience and something to prove in the major leagues.

That could still be frustrating to watch play out this spring, even if there’s more perspective on what’s happening. Akin and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle each spent all of 2019 at Triple-A Norfolk, with Mountcastle winning the International League Most Valuable Player award. Even though they’re on the 40-man roster, they still might not break camp with the team, thanks to the disincentive baseball’s player-control rules create for accelerating young players to the majors.

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It will be fun to watch so many possible future pieces of this organization play every day come Grapefruit League time, but for many, that’s probably going to be the last opportunity to wear an Orioles uniform until later this summer.

4. Can the veterans show that they can be contributors?

Enough about the future, though. This camp will also be a chance for the two most tenured big leaguers on the roster — Alex Cobb and Chris Davis — to solidify that they can contribute.

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Cobb, in the third year of a four-year, $57 million contract, showed late in 2018 that he still has the ability to start at the front end of a major league rotation. But several injuries in 2019 led to hip surgery. The Orioles hope that having a veteran with his kind of talent atop the rotation can stabilize that spot of the roster a bit.

Cobb seemed primed for a focused and productive 2019 before the injuries started to hit, so it will be easy to tell if he can repeat that mindset in 2020.

As for Davis, the struggling first baseman will have to avoid the same spring spiral of expectations and quick judgement that typically engulfs him. First, it will be the scrutiny of his offseason work and any changes he says he made. Then, at a time when most players are just trying to get a good feeling against live pitching, his every at-bat will be scrutinized as if it’s September for a contending team. And if the changes he made don’t take hold, those at-bat results will be used as a reason why, and the cycle will continue.

In truth, given the Orioles’ inexperienced roster and lack of highly paid players through salary arbitration, having Davis and Cobb on the books for $37 million (with $10.5 million deferred) spares the Orioles’ expected payroll of around $60 million from being embarrassingly low as opposed to just noncompetitive and low.

5. What will it be like if the Orioles don’t improve at the major league level?

All of the questions about the major league team and when the front-facing portion of this operation will turn around obscure the fact that the Orioles have made great progress in trying to improve the future and prevent the bottom from falling out again.

The strides the organization made in 2019 were recognized around the game, with top pick Adley Rutschman leading a farm system that earned plaudits for its improved depth and top-end talent all winter. There were great leaps on the pitching side of the player-development operation in 2019, and the hope is that that will be replicated for the hitters this year.

Organizationally, the Orioles have continued to make hires that align with Elias’ vision and have built an infrastructure that they believe is designed for long-term success. This year, and quite possibly even 2021, will be a test of how long the outside world will stomach nightly losses at the major league level to get to that point.

Spring training will be a great way to showcase some of the next generation of Orioles talent, players who Elias and everyone else in the organization hope can be part of a winner at Oriole Park at Camden Yards when the time is right. If that time is delayed further so a group of waiver claims and players plucked from the fringes of other rosters can try and hold down the fort — and the results don’t improve — it could be harder to sell that future.

Spring training schedule

Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report in Sarasota, Florida

Sunday: Position players report

Monday: First full-squad workout

Feb. 22: First spring training game, vs. Atlanta Braves in North Port, Florida

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