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Five storylines to watch as Orioles spring training begins this week

With pitchers and catchers required to report to Sarasota, Florida, on Tuesday ahead of the first full-squad workout on Monday, Orioles spring training will begin and their preparations for another challenging season will start along with it.

Players, coaches and staff will be subject to another year of strict health and safety protocols to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the workouts that will help the team prepare for spring training games that begin at the end of February will be closed both to the public and the media.

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That will make the goings-on at the Ed Smith Stadium complex a bit more opaque, but if they were able to be seen, it’s pretty simple to figure out what would be worth looking for.

The Orioles’ strength is in their youth and their future, but spring training won’t be an avenue for anyone who is on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues to do so. Many of their most interesting spring training stories will involve familiar faces and newcomers who are hoping to replicate past triumphs.

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Here are five storylines that will be worth following as Orioles spring training begins this week.

1. How quickly will Trey Mancini look like himself?

After finding out he had stage 3 colon cancer during his spring training physical last year and missing the season after undergoing surgery and treatment, Mancini is already at camp in Sarasota and trying to make up for lost time.

When games begin Feb. 28, seeing Mancini out there will be a tremendously meaningful moment for him, his family and the Orioles. But it will be worth watching how he performs when the games begin to get a better sense of how quickly he might be able to return to the form that should have made him an All-Star in 2019.

Mancini has never treated spring training like a formality. He’s often hit well and made consistent strong contact as the spring progressed. That’s something only seeing him in games will prove one way or another, and given how he approached his return to baseball, it’s likely he will be back in that form in March.

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Seeing that level of performance for a month after missing him so badly in 2020 will be a welcome development for manager Brandon Hyde and the Orioles’ staff, with Mancini penciled into the first base job for Opening Day.

Félix Hernández warms up during Braves spring training in North Port, Florida, on Feb. 13, 2020.
Félix Hernández warms up during Braves spring training in North Port, Florida, on Feb. 13, 2020. (Curtis Compton/AP)

2. What do the Orioles’ big-name reclamation projects still have left in their arms?

Signing one-time stars Félix Hernández and Matt Harvey on minor league contracts to see what they have left to offer certainly doesn’t scream a new era of Orioles baseball, but such is the pitching market this winter that those players see an opportunity here and took the terms the Orioles offered.

Hernández didn’t pitch in the 2020 season and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last week that the Orioles didn’t see him throw after last year’s spring training, but were impressed then. Harvey’s fastball is diminished from his peak with the New York Mets, but his pitches have characteristics that fit with the Orioles’ preferences should he pitch to those strengths instead of just trying to throw hard.

If they’re going to be the struggling pitchers they’ve been the past few years, the Orioles might rue not having depth options with more recent success on their resumes. But if there’s anything left in these once-dynamic arms, the Orioles will feel like they got a steal, and their pitching staff will be in a much better place than anyone would have predicted a few weeks ago.

3. What does the Orioles’ best outfield look like?

With Mancini out last year, there was one more outfield spot for the Orioles to move players around in. They aren’t really that much closer to figuring out their best alignment there, though.

Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander have the corner outfield spots pretty well locked down, but that squeezes out DJ Stewart, who had a .907 OPS in September after a breakthrough at the alternate training site in Bowie.

In center field, Austin Hays had a .988 OPS and three home runs in 14 September games after returning from a broken rib, and Hyde thought Cedric Mullins played Gold Glove-caliber defense while putting up a .723 OPS with gap power in his return to the big leagues.

Add Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna to that mix, and both now and in the future, there aren’t enough spots for the amount of talent the Orioles will want to fit onto the field at once.

In the long-term, they could trade someone to bring back talent at other spots they’re deficient in, such as the infield. A more near-term solution would be to dedicate the designated hitter spot for one of these outfielders. The only way to ensure that spot for any of the players on the fringes will be to leave no doubt they should be on the team at the end of spring training.

4. How does Chris Davis respond to a reduced role in spring training?

As Chris Davis’ decline has continued through the first two years under Elias and Hyde, patience has worn out and neither party has any reservations about using Davis as strictly a reserve. But what does that look like in spring training? Surely, a veteran like Davis won’t be getting his gray road pants dirty and going all over the west coast of Florida to play away from Ed Smith Stadium.

But if the Orioles are intent on getting Mancini ready at first base and use the home games to give him those repetitions, it basically relegates Davis to designated hitter duties in spring. It’s only a few at-bats, but those could go to players the Orioles want to see more of or who are fighting for a roster spot.

It’s not necessarily an end-game with Davis, who has another season left on his $161 million contract after this one. But after most of the illusions about his role on the team have been dropped by the front office and manager’s office, how they handle him in spring training and how Davis responds could set the tone for the entire summer.

The Reds' Freddy Galvis fields the ball during a game against the Royals in Cincinnati. The 31-year-old hit .220 with seven homers and 16 RBIs during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
The Reds' Freddy Galvis fields the ball during a game against the Royals in Cincinnati. The 31-year-old hit .220 with seven homers and 16 RBIs during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. (Aaron Doster/AP)

5. Will the new-look infield click the way last year’s did?

With José Iglesias traded to the Los Angeles Angels and Hanser Alberto released to sign a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals, the Orioles’ middle infield will have a different look with Freddy Galvis at shortstop and Yolmer Sánchez at second base.

Each brings different skills than their predecessor, but the baseline will be steadily strong defense behind an Orioles’ pitching staff that doesn’t yet miss as many bats as they want to. Alberto and Iglesias both had their offensive pluses, and it would be nice for their successors to replicate that.

But in a year in which plenty will be unfamiliar, these two will have to quickly get used to each other and the Orioles will have to get used to them. It will be jarring, but each has the potential for his overall contributions on the infield dirt and at the plate to provide as much or more value as the exciting combination of middle infielders the Orioles had last year.

SPRING TRAINING

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Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:

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Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report

Sunday: Position players report

Monday: First full-squad workout

Feb. 28: First exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

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