MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles articlefeature--baltimore-orioles

Top Orioles storylines for Opening Week

Because the schedule makers at MLB have a wicked (perhaps cruel?) sense of humor, the Baltimore Orioles begin the regular season with a quick two-games-in-three-days-series against the Toronto Blue Jays, who we last saw walking off into the ALDS while a certain pitcher by the name of Zachary Grant Britton sat rested and unused in the bullpen.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

We’d rather not rehash that unfortunate event here. It’s more played out than a Katy Perry tune and frankly, we’re over it. Luckily, the first week of the regular season brings with it a whole host of fun storylines to watch as we move from a seemingly endless spring training into games that actually count.

“We’re primed,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Laying in the weeds like we always do.”

Kinda gets you excited doesn’t it? So without further ado, let’s get down to it:

The Orioles get to innovate with a three-man rotation …

OK so this is playing a bit loose with the facts. (That’s in vogue these days, right?). The Orioles aren’t really going with a three- or even four-man rotation this season, but with six off days in April, three of which come in the first eight days, they are afforded the opportunity to play with their roster a bit.

The positive aspect to that is that the O’s get to stack their roster with eight relievers and 14 position players for most of the first week. Chris Tillman starts the season on the disabled list and isn’t expected back until May. Wade Miley, rusty after dealing with a prolonged illness, joins him on the (new) 10-day DL, but should be ready to make his season debut on April 9th in the Orioles’ fifth game of the season.

That means the O’s will start with a three-man starting rotation – Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Ubaldo Jimenez. Gausman starts the season-opener on Monday, Bundy goes in the No. 2 spot (Wednesday) and Jimenez on Friday. Gausman will then be set to get his second start of the week on regular rest on Saturday before Miley steps in on Sunday.

OK so it’s not a real three-man rotation. But it does allow for the Orioles to play to their strengths (more bullpen, less rotation!) early on.

The other part of this, of course, is who will earn the fifth starter spot, and who will go to make room for whoever that ends up being. We touched a little bit on who the No. 5 starter will be here, with Gabriel Ynoa, Mike Wright, Jayson Aquino and Chris Lee appearing to be front-runners.

… which means an extended look (hopefully) at some interesting players

With just three starters and eight relievers (Tyler Wilson and Vidal Nuno are expected to join Britton, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, Donnie Hart and Oliver Drake) that means they’ll carry a five-men bench that includes not only backup catcher Caleb Joseph and utility man Ryan Flaherty, but also right-handed hitters Joey Rickard, Craig Gentry AND Trey Mancini.

It seems only logical that the O’s will end up carrying at the most two, and perhaps only one, of that last trio, depending on how deep they want their bullpen to be. Rickard and Gentry bring similar skillsets and since Gentry is out of options he would have the edge to stick. Mancini, meanwhile, would seem better suited for regular playing time in the minors as opposed to spot duty in the big leagues.

In the meantime, though, hopefully Showalter will find a way in this first week to squeeze out some playing time for these guys, particularly Mancini, who impressed by hitting .357 with three home runs in a very brief, five-game showcase last September.

It was more of the same for Mancini this spring, as he’s blasted three more homers in 60 at-bats and produced a .979 OPS.

Will Adam Jones adjust his defensive positioning?

One of the things that crossed my mind when I saw Jones make that amazing catch to rob Manny Machado in the World Baseball Classic was “Who was that?”

I’ve watched Jones play baseball for a long time and have always viewed him as a solid, but not spectacular center fielder. And while he has had some very good seasons defensively, his career UZR/150 of -2.4 appears to support that notion.

The next thing I thought about was his positioning. Jones has often been criticized for playing too shallow, and he has remained stubborn in refusing to change his ways, saying in effect that he knows which hitters to play deep and which to play shallow and he’ll play wherever he wants thank you very much.

According to Statcast, Jones started plays an average of 307 feet from home plate in 2016. That’s tied for shallowest in baseball and likely played a role in his poor defensive metrics. The same article also stated that on the catch against Machado, Jones started the play 321 feet from home plate. In his normal starting spot, he doesn’t come near that ball. Instead, he registered the most unforgettable play of the tournament and made Tyler Clippard a very happy man.

Is this a sign of Jones growing more flexible in his ways, of Jim Leyland and his staff getting through to him? Or was it simply a case of him reading the batter and the situation and positioning himself accordingly?

Time will tell, but it will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on as the season gets started.

Is Dylan Bundy finally ready to be Dylan Bundy?

My colleague Rob Shields took a detailed look at whether Gausman was ready to break out in 2017.

No less important is the need for Bundy to show signs that he is ready to be the guy the Orioles thought they were getting when they drafted him fourth overall in 2011.

This is not to take a shot at Bundy at all. You can’t do anything about health issues, and the big right-hander has had more than his share of those over the years. But with Chris Tillman on the disabled list and Yovani Gallardo shipped off to Seattle in the Seth Smith trade, it’s Bundy time whether he is ready or not.

Bundy’s numbers weren’t that great in 2016, and his 4.52 ERA as a starter raises some eyebrows. This spring was pretty horrendous for him as well, as he produced a 7.41 ERA and only nine strikeouts in 17 innings.

But not all of the data is negative. In 2016, batters hit just .230 against him as a starter and his K rate climbed above one per inning. Furthermore, batters hit just .143 against his curveball and .237 against his change. It was the fastball that they squared up, to the tune of a .280 batting average and .459 slugging percentage. Despite these numbers, he threw the fastball 61 percent of the time while using the change 20 percent of the time and the curve just 12 percent.

You have to figure that he will improve with a more varied selection, not to mention a better routine and more time under his belt.

With a career hampered so much by injuries, the most important stat for Bundy in 2016 was innings pitched and he managed to show promise while tossing a career-best 109.2. He’ll need to bump that number by a fair amount in 2017 as a fulltime starter.

We’ll get our first look at Bundy this season on Wednesday against Toronto. It’ll be far from a soft landing spot for him, but in the AL East those are hard to come by anyway.

The time is now, it’ll be fun to watch.

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Bob Harkins

Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!

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