SARASOTA, FLA. — After an offseason in which the Orioles kept most of their team intact from last season's playoff squad, they enter the start of spring training this week with fewer questions than most teams.
With the exception of catcher Matt Wieters — a free agent still looking for a home — they bring back their entire core. The starting rotation is set and all of their top bullpen arms return.
Still, as the Orioles report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, spring training won't be void of storylines. On the eve of pitchers and catcher report day Monday, we take a look at the five pressing topics entering spring training.
Who bats leadoff?
Manager Buck Showalter hates lineup questions, but he's often on the receiving end of them as he tinkers with his batting order throughout the Grapefruit League schedule. Over recent years, Showalter hasn't had many traditional leadoff hitter options to choose from. But from Nick Markakis to Manny Machado to Adam Jones, he's made it work.
This season, there's emphasis on who serves as the leadoff man because the Orioles' winning philosophy remains — at least for the next two seasons — centered around their middle-of-the-order power bats. The Orioles led the majors with 253 homers last season, but 152 of those came with the bases empty, so having a catalyst who can get on base and make opposing pitchers uncomfortable would help the team's impressive power numbers translate into more run production.
Showalter would rather have Jones and Machado in the heart of the order, and it's undoubtedly where they most belong. Rule 5 draft pick Joey Rickard filled the leadoff spot well early, making 40 of his 64 rookie-season starts atop the batting order, but he cooled off after a quick start, hitting just .240/.297/.347 from the leadoff position. A mid-season thumb injury prevented the Orioles from seeing whether Rickard could handle the long haul of a major league season.
Hyun Soo Kim might be best suited after leading the team with a .382 on-base percentage in 95 games in his first big league season, but Kim still needs to show an ability to hit left-handed pitching — something he really didn't get the opportunity to do in 2016 — before he can be considered an everyday option. Offseason trade acquisition Seth Smith, a left-handed platoon bat, could also be a leadoff option, but only against right-handers.
Even though Showalter wants to avoid it, if the power bats go cold, don't be surprised if he turns to Jones to spark the lineup again. For now, possibly the most curious question going into the offseason is whether Showalter can find one leadoff hitter or will resort to matchups atop the batting order.
Starting rotation reserves
The Orioles entered the offseason with six projected starters for five rotation spots. That quickly solved itself when they dealt right-hander Yovani Gallardo, and his contract, to the Seattle Mariners for Smith. What it left, however, was an unsure cabinet of starting pitching depth beyond the club's projected Opening Day rotation.
There are candidates aplenty, and the conversation has to start with right-handers Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson, who both made the Opening Day 25-man roster and the starting rotation early in the season before going through growing pains that landed them a seat on the shuttle to Triple-A Norfolk.
They have to earn a roster spot again, but Wright and Wilson might be better prepared for the physical and mental challenges of the big leagues without the pressure of being pushed into the rotation early on.
But the Orioles have addressed their need for pitching depth this offseason by acquiring young swingmen who can serve different roles in a pinch and don't handcuff the roster, reuniting with former Rule 5 pick Logan Verrett and acquiring right-hander Gabriel Ynoa this week through painless trades with the pitching-rich New York Mets.
Like Wright and Wilson, those two have plenty to prove, and other alternatives in the minors such as left-hander Chris Lee and right-hander Joe Gunkel are plenty green as well. But there will be an opportunity for most because the rotation is likely to change.
Whether it's through injury or poor performance, every team's rotation depth is tested at some point. This spring, one of the Orioles' primary focuses will be determining their best options when that scenario arises.
Sorting out the outfield mix
The most interesting comment coming out of last month's FanFest was Jones' saying the team's outfield defense must get better. His assessment isn't off base, at least according to FanGraphs numbers that ranked the Orioles' outfield defense as the majors' worst with a cumulative ultimate zone runs per 150 games (UZR/150), an indicator of range and plays made on batted balls, of minus-11.2.
They have plenty of bodies. Including the team's two Rule 5 picks, there are nine outfielders on the organization's 40-man roster entering camp, but it's a group, with the exception of Jones, that doesn't impress anyone defensively. The Orioles believe there are ways to compensate for that, but that's yet to be seen.
Though Mark Trumbo will see most of his at bats in the designated hitter spot, he might be forced to play right field on occasion against left-handed pitchers because Smith will only play against right-handers.
The biggest question is whether Kim can start to hold his own against left-handers after he was 0-for-17 with four walks against them last season. If he can, it would allow for more flexibility and possible playing time in right field, where it might be easier to play defense at Camden Yards.
One thing is for sure: Showalter will get his looks at all of his outfield candidates early on in spring training. Because of this year's longer spring — a result of this year's World Baseball Classic — Showalter said he won't play his veteran regulars often early on, which will provide plenty of innings to sort out who fits where at the corners.
Continuing to build into spring training
One of the annual rites of spring training under executive vice president Dan Duquette is when the Ed Smith stadium complex media room transforms into a makeshift news conference room for the Orioles' latest spring training addition.
Over the years, it's where the team announces 11th-hour signings. Duquette reaped the benefit of patience by netting team-friendly deals with Nelson Cruz and Pedro Alvarez. Others haven't worked out quite as well, such as deals with Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez and Suk-Min Yoon.
But Duquette is consistent in his message that he is intent on building the Orioles on a year-round basis, and that means he will still be working to add in spring training. There are no more players tied to qualifying offers to sign to below-market deals, and even though this year's free-agent market was slow to develop, there's been some quick movement in recent days as players look to find homes.
Still, there's plenty of bargain-bin shopping to be had, especially among veteran pitching. With the clock ticking until spring training, many unsigned arms might have to settle for minor league deals, which are low-risk, high-reward signings. Those free-agent swingmen still waiting calls include right-hander Doug Fister and left-hander Travis Wood. There's plenty of relievers unsigned as well, including former Oriole Tommy Hunter. Outfielder Michael Bourn, despite being another left-handed bat, could add an element this club lacks.
Staying on the subject of reunions, Wieters remains looking for a job, and the longer he stays unsigned, the more likely a reunion becomes possible. With the addition of catcher Welington Castillo and Trumbo returning to fill the DH spot, there aren't many available at bats for Wieters. But until Wieters is in another uniform, a possible return can't completely be dismissed.
The annual Rule 5 dilemma
The Orioles have done an exemplary job of plucking players out of the Rule 5 draft, and they only need look to last spring to see an example of that success in Rickard. The Grapefruit League season opened with the Orioles wondering how they'd be able to carry Rickard on the roster, and it ended with them unable to find a reason why he shouldn't be in the Opening Day lineup.
The Orioles face the same situation with two Rule 5 picks — outfielders Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander. As mentioned above, the outfield mix is crowded, so it will be difficult to carry one, let alone both.
Tavarez, 24, is the easier fit because he provides an on-base and speed element the Orioles don't have. He had a .374 on-base percentage and seven triples and stole 20 bases between Double-A and Triple-A with the Red Sox, so he naturally fills a need.
Despite not playing beyond the Class-A level, Santander, 22, will draw comparisons to fellow Venezuelan Victor Martinez, but he's coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder. That could play in the Orioles' favor because if he's not completely healthy, he could open the season stashed on the disabled list.
The Orioles open the regular season with three off days in their first eight days, so don't be surprised if they take advantage and carry one fewer pitcher to get a longer look at the Rule 5 picks in the opening week.