If you were looking forward to watching Baltimore Orioles spring training games, good luck. Catching a glimpse of the roster during a road TV broadcast is going to be equally as challenging as teams across baseball refuse to broadcast spring games. But there are still plenty of roster questions facing the Baltimore Orioles as they work their way through March.
The infield is largely set, for now. We know Trey Mancini and Chris Davis are going to split time at first base (Davis injury pending), with 2019 Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sanchez at second and recently acquired veteran Freddy Galvis forming the other half of that double-play combo.
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Throwing Jahmai Jones into the mix has made following the infield spring battle much more interesting. He’s already seen a good amount of time on the field through the first few days of spring, playing second base and the outfield so far. Reports after the trade noted constant swing changes which led to ups and downs recently for Jones. With the return of the Alternate Site, sending Jones down there for more individualized instruction to finally hammer out his swing may end up being a huge benefit for the young prospect, especially if some of that magic worked on Ryan Mountcastle, DJ Stewart, and Cedric Mullins rubs off on Jones.
Yolmer Sanchez may have the glove, but what does his bat look like? He may be able to turn a smooth doubleplay, but if he’s hitting .115 two months into the season and Jones is looking good in camp, we could easily see Jones up within a few weeks. He’s already made his MLB debut and having someone else on the active roster who can play centerfield, productively, won’t hurt, with injuries seeming to always be looming for Austin Hays and Mullins having yet to prove he can be valuable across a full season. Having insurance never hurts.
Third base is a little more unsettled, but Rio Ruiz has the inside track and, unless we see a complete meltdown this spring, will be the starting third baseman, with Rylan Bannon in the mix for playing time in the near future.
A look behind the plate
We can also expect to see much of the same behind the plate. After putting up a wRC+ of 32 in 70 games with the Nationals in 2018, Pedro Severino has been a pleasant offensive surprise with the Orioles, putting up back-to-back seasons with a wRC+ of 96, an above-average mark for major league catchers. He’s not quite 28 years old and won’t enter free agency until 2024. It seems very likely that trade rumors resurface again this year, as long as Severino can continue his offensive production.
Chance Sisco could also be moved, seeing as the Orioles don’t need to keep both guys around with Adley Rutschman waiting in the wings and plenty of serviceable veterans on the roster to hold down the fort for the final few weeks of the year. But Sisco is a year younger and has a minor league option remaining, giving him a bit of roster flexibility. If one of these backstops is moved, it’s likely to be Severino.
In the meantime, we’re asking the same questions about Sisco as we have for the last three-four years. He owns a career .330 on-base percentage, but just a .205 average and 33.3 percent strikeout rate. Luckily, beat reporters have saved us from the “he’s improved his defense” narrative, which hasn’t improved much since his MLB debut in 2017. At this point, Sisco is who he is, a fine placeholder who will get on base. It’s going to be much more interesting to follow some of the younger catchers in the system this year, like Brett Cumberland, to see if one jumps out and emerges as a likely partner with Rutschman beginning in 2022.
Six-man rotation and prospect talk
The biggest questions of spring training surround the starting rotation. Recently considered a set unit, Alex Cobb’s departure has opened up another spot, with plenty of candidates in the mix to fill the final two, or three, spots.
A six-man rotation has been floated out there, which may be highly beneficial to the Baltimore Orioles in 2021. John Means, Keegan Akin, and Dean Kremer have their spots all but solidified, but Means is the only veteran who knows what it takes to get through a 162-game schedule. Akin and Kremer will need to build up their arms after limited action in 2020.
The Orioles clearly want to see what Jorge Lopez can do, but he hasn’t been able to work very deep into games. The same can be said for Tom Eshelman. As for the other two candidates to likely fill out this six-man rotation, Felix Hernandez is entering his age-35 season after not playing in 2020 and is approaching 3,000 career innings on his arm. Matt Harvey has also seen limited action over the last few years and is far from the 2013 or 2015 version of himself.
There’s a high-degree of optimism surrounding pitching coach Chris Holt and the magic he’s capable of working, but this staff is going to be a big test. The Orioles have four off days in the first three weeks of their schedule. Implementing a six-rotation after cycling through those off days would help keep this group fresh, allow for additional instruction with the young arms in Akin and Kremer, and maybe help increase any potential value of Harvey/Hernandez if they are allowed to ease their way back onto the mound.
But it won’t be long before we see a few Top 30 prospects join the mix. With the Triple-A season now being pushed back to early-May and the return of the Alternate Site, we can assume Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, Bruce Zimmermann, Alex Wells, and Kevin Smith will all be there. Zimmermann made his MLB debut last year and while he’s a candidate to earn a 26-man spot, based on the Orioles’ cautious approach to their young players, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zimmermann remain in the minor leagues for a bit longer, if only to get him back on a regular pitching schedule again.
Alex Wells has had his season delayed with an oblique issue, a big red flag for a control artist like Wells who has been stuck in Australia for the last year and Kevin Smith hasn’t been in the organization for very long, so he likely spends a significant amount of time pitching in Norfolk once they get underway. However, Zac Lowther and Michael Baumann may not be far away.
Brandon Hyde has already said that Lowther is going to get a “long look” this spring and based on what we saw in 2019, combined with reports out of Bowie last year, keeping Baumann on the outside of Camden Yards looking in is going to be difficult (starter vs reliever is another story). Both mastered the Double-A level in ‘19, saw time at the Alternate Site, and are near major league ready. If Lowther can command the strike zone this spring, and avoid nibbling around the plate as he typically does, and show that his deception and high-movement fastball can avoid major league bats, he’s wearing an Orioles uniform in June, giving Lopez/Eshelman/Hernandez/Harvey two months to figure things out (oh..LeBlanc is there as well? Yeah..no).
Will either Rule 5 pick make the roster?
What about the Rule 5 picks, Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells? Both made their Orioles spring debut already and looked as expected. Sceroler last pitched in 2019 at the High-A level and Wells hasn’t pitched in two years after Tommy John surgery and 2020 wiping out a big chunk of time. Wells would already be in the majors if not for 2020 and he fits the mold of pitchers Mike Elias has brought into the system over the winter (Ashton Goudeau, Connor Greene, etc.), but roster flexibility is going to be very important in 2021, especially for pitchers. Chris Davis is already wasting one roster spot, multiple arms like Lopez and Eshelman are going to be needed to work 3-4 inning outings, and minor league options are going to be crucial as arms are moved up and down. Combine that with a bullpen that’s largely set and the odds are stacked heavily against either Rule 5 pick making the roster, but Tyler Wells has a fan in myself, even if he ends up back in Minnesota. Speaking of Rule 5 picks, there’s also a chance Zach Pop and Gray Fenter return. We touched on that on our latest episode of On the Verge. Listen here!
Who starts in center?
Apparently, there is now a battle out in centerfield for the Orioles. Mullins has ditched his switch-hitting approach, sticking strictly to left-handed hitting from now on. This move certainly won’t hurt his chances of winning the starting job, at least a roster spot in 2021. He’s a career .251 hitter against right-handed pitching with a wRC+ of 90, compared to .147 and 26 against left-handed pitching. His defensive abilities and speed on the basepaths are big assets and his end to 2020 was admirable after being demoted not once, but twice in 2019.
But Hays has a higher ceiling, more power, and better outfield arm. Obviously, injuries have derailed the early portion of his career, but he was the first person from his draft class to reach the majors for a reason. Hays can be a true spark plug, both offensively and defensively, and cover a good amount of field out in center with Mountcastle and Santander on either side of him.
This battle is going to go on deep into spring training and might be the biggest storyline to follow. If King Felix or Matt Harvey doesn’t make the roster, oh well, but if Hays loses his starting job, it’s going to raise even more questions about the future of the outfield. Both hitters are off to notable starts and it’s unfortunate we won’t be able to watch this battle for ourselves.
Trey Mancini has us all tearing up
I believe my colleague Matt Kory summed up the Trey Mancini situation pretty well in his recent article found here, but I wanted to add my thoughts as well. I’ve appeared on a few different podcasts recently and Mancini’s name was brought up, and we’ve talked about it on our show, On The Verge, as well, but I’ve never felt satisfied with my answers and I still can’t put into words exactly how I feel about this situation.
Sticking strictly to on the field discussions about Mancini, yes, he can contribute to a winning Orioles team in two-three years. He’s a 29-year-old first base/DH with only three years of games under his belt. His career isn’t over at 30. He may not hit 35 home runs again in a season, but the adjustments made to his game in 2019 all pointed to a new sustainable approach at the plate. Chris Davis won’t be wasting space for much longer, DJ Stewart isn’t the answer at DH (or the OF), and the Orioles have virtually no 1B prospects down on the farm, leaving a future 1B/DH combo of Mountcastle and Mancini a viable and very intriguing option.
If you make more than $1 million with the Orioles now, you’re on the trade block and the organization’s recent history of handling key players has been a disaster so my optimism about the handling of Trey Mancini isn’t great, but my hope is that Mancini sticks around for a few more years. Everyone wants to know what the future holds for the current face of the franchise, but with another year remaining before he hits free agency, don’t be surprised to see this decision drag into next winter.
There’s more and more personal feelings creeping into my opinion of what the Orioles should do (extend him), but I think that in this situation, we can put the business side of baseball to the side. Mancini is now a survivor, he’s healthy, there’s a big bright light beaming at the end of the pandemic tunnel now, and I can’t think of anything better than sitting amongst fellow Orioles fans at Camden Yards with a beer in each hand as we watch Trey Mancini step back into the batter’s box.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University. Co-Host of The Verge.