With a new collective bargaining agreement finally in place, Major League Baseball teams are rapidly piecing together plans for the long-awaited start of spring training.
Instead of marking the 100th day of the league’s lockout, Friday instead represented the first day Orioles players could start reporting to the team’s Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Florida, with a mandatory report date of Sunday. Within the week, exhibition games will begin to prepare players for Baltimore’s April 8 Opening Day game at the Tampa Bay Rays.
Here’s what to watch for as the Orioles at last get set to start spring training.
What to know
After Sunday’s mandatory report date, the Orioles will begin an 18-game Grapefruit League schedule March 18 at Ed Smith Stadium against the Toronto Blue Jays, who they also close the spring slate against on the road April 5. Between, they’ll also play one home game and one road game against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Rays, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies and four games, two each at home and on the road, against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The league’s lockout put a freeze on any major league transactions such as free-agent signings or trades, and those moves figure to occur across the sport throughout the spring.
On the verge of the lockout, the Orioles agreed to terms with right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles on the largest contract they’ve given out under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, a one-year deal worth $7 million including the buyout on an option for 2023 that would make the deal worth $17 million. That deal will be their second major league free-agent signing since last year, with Baltimore also adding infielder Rougned Odor. With Odor still being paid from a previous contract signed with the Texas Rangers, the Orioles owe him only the league minimum.
Baltimore also added a couple of potential relief options to the organization via waivers claims in right-hander Bryan Baker and left-hander Cionel Pérez.
Certain minor league signings were permitted during the shutdown, and the Orioles made a few moves in that regard that could factor into their final roster. Given their 40-man roster has no catchers, the most notable additions figure to be backstops Anthony Bemboom and Jacob Nottingham, who will contend with top overall prospect Adley Rutschman to be catching John Means when the season begins April 8 at Tropicana Field.
Rutschman and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, the game’s top pitching prospect, are seemingly locks to be among the prospects the Orioles bring to major league camp as nonroster invitees. But the other minor leaguers who join them will speak both to which prospects Baltimore wants in the major league atmosphere and what areas they feel they use more depth during camp.
Outfielder Kyle Stowers, who showed off his power across three levels to share the organization’s minor league Player of the Year honor with Rutschman, figures to be at major league camp, and others who had high minors success in 2021, such as outfielder Robert Neustrom, infielder Patrick Dorrian and left-handed reliever Nick Vespi, could join as well.
How the Orioles handle a younger set of top prospects will be worth watching. Shortstops Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz ended 2021 in Double-A and could make it to Baltimore at some point in 2021. That’s not the case for 2021 first-round pick Colton Coswer or 2020 fourth-rounder Coby Mayo, but welcoming the two top-10 picks to major league camp could give them some valuable experience.
The most significant inclusion could prove to be Heston Kjerstad. The Orioles made Kjerstad a somewhat surprising selection with the second overall pick in 2020, but the 23-year-old outfielder has yet to play a game for them after developing the heart condition myocarditis after the draft. Despite some setbacks along the way, he’s finally a full-go this spring, and being part of major league camp would show how far he’s come and give him the chance to back up the Orioles’ belief in him.
“I could say that I’m not gonna feel the pressure, I’m not gonna put extra pressure on myself, but at the end the day, I’m gonna think about it,” Kjerstad said Thursday from minor league camp. “I’m gonna want to show everyone you know why I’m here and what I’m supposed to do for this org.”
Health pending, Means and Lyles will head the Orioles’ rotation entering the season. There are a bevy of question marks behind them.
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Top 20 prospects DL Hall, Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith were added to the 40-man roster before the lockout, and they and Rodriguez could all break into Baltimore’s rotation during the summer. But there’s also the wave of young pitching that preceded them.
Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Bruce Zimmermann all pitched in the majors last season, and although their final numbers were discouraging, each had flashes of success. With three openings in the rotation behind Means and Lyles, it’s possible half that group opens the season as starters. The Orioles could always add experienced starting candidates, similar to last season’s minor league signings of Matt Harvey, Wade LeBlanc and Félix Hernández.
For those that don’t crack the rotation, they could serve as depth at Triple-A or provide long relief out of the bullpen. That’s a group that, depending on health and performance, could already be mostly decided, with left-handers Paul Fry and Tanner Scott and right-handers Jorge López, Cole Sulser, Dillon Tate and Tyler Wells figuring to account for most of Baltimore’s relief options. It’s possible the season begins with expanded rosters following a shortened ramp-up period, a la 2020.
Unless trades or injuries dictate otherwise, five spots in the Orioles’ Opening Day lineup appear to be predetermined: Cedric Mullins will be in center field with Austin Hays and Anthony Santander beside him, with Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle splitting first base and designated hitter.
Given Rutschman’s situation — the Orioles could potentially earn extra draft picks by having him on the Opening Day roster or delay when he reaches free agency by a year if they keep in the minors for about two weeks — much of the focus in camp will be on how Baltimore handles the catching position. But the rest of their infield has plenty of intrigue, as well.
Odor is a strong defensive second baseman but also spent some time at third base with the New York Yankees in 2021. Ramón Urías led the Orioles in on-base percentage last year and has the ability to play all three infield spots. Jorge Mateo is one of the fastest players in baseball and shined in his first extended major league opportunity last year. Kelvin Gutiérrez had a strong September but is mostly limited to third base defensively.
This is another area the Orioles could look to add free agents. There’s also a group of prospects already on the 40-man roster who could break into the mix in Rylan Bannon, Jahmai Jones, Tyler Nevin and Terrin Vavra. With Henderson, Ortiz and Westburg coming up behind them, this could be the last spring for a while with so many questions on the Orioles’ infield.