O's Spring Training battles coming down to wire
Baltimore's final roster spots will be decided shortly with Opening Day approaching
SARASOTA, Fla. -- While it may be hard to believe with the recent snow in Baltimore, the Orioles will head north in less than two weeks for their Opening Day game against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox on March 31.
Manager Buck Showalter announced Chris Tillman as his Opening Day starter and Ubaldo Jimenez as the club's No.2 starter, but there are still questions that need to be answered and plenty of spring competition. Here's a quick look at some of the more pressing topics out of Sarasota.
How do the Orioles cover from the likely loss of third baseman Manny Machado to start the season? And what does this mean for Jonathan Schoop?
I've been writing this all winter, but it bears repeating: Ryan Flaherty will move to third if Machado isn't ready for Opening Day. Machado's recent setback -- he hasn't been able to run due to some scar tissue in his left knee -- makes it more likely that Flaherty will indeed be at third base, but how does that affect the rest of the infield?
It doesn't necessarily mean top prospect Schoop will make the club. Schoop has done everything you'd want this spring, batting .400 with five extra-base hits, but it remains to be seen if the organization will start the youngster out in the Major Leagues. Schoop would start at second base either for the Orioles or in Triple-A Norfolk. He's not a candidate for the utility role off the bench, as that would stunt his progress. With Flaherty over at third base, Jemile Weeks and Alexi Casilla are also options, though neither has had a particularly good Grapefruit League campaign. Casilla in particular was thought to be a a front-runner for the utility spot coming in, but he's been slowed by a pair of injuries and has just five at-bats.
Alex Gonzalez, who is predominantly a shortstop but has played first and third at the Major League level, is a darkhorse for the utility spot since he could back up J.J. Hardy. The best option -- at least internally -- still seems to be having Schoop start the season at second base, at least until Machado returns. The O's want to see what they have in Flaherty, and Showalter acknowledged on Monday they'll know by the end of the year if the versatile player can be an everyday big leaguer.
How does the rest of the rotation shake out after Jimenez? And where does that put Zach Britton?
Showalter wouldn't divulge the rotation past Jimenez, but if I were a betting woman, I'd go with the order of Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris.
That puts Britton in the bullpen to start the season, where he can serve a bunch of roles -- giving the club another lefty and a multi-inning reliever. Britton also presents a starting option should the Orioles have an injury or someone struggle out of the gate. He's thrown incredibly well this spring, and at least two scouts have chided their respective organizations for not going out to get Britton when he was available prior to last year's Trade Deadline with his stock so low. The O's could still trade Britton, though it doesn't seem likely before Opening Day, unless they're blown away by an offer.
Assuming Britton has a spot, who claims the other two bullpen openings?
First, let's go through who has a spot. Along with Britton, lefty Brian Matusz and righties Ryan Webb, Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter all figure to be in the 'pen. Josh Stinson is out of options and has thrown six scoreless innings, so I'd put him in there right now. The last spot is a bit of a wild card, with no one really separating themselves. Alfredo Aceves (five runs over eight innings) and Brad Brach (two runs over 5 1/3 innings) are options. T.J. McFarland and Steve Johnson present more of a flexible bullpen given that both guys can go multiple innings and have Minor League options available to be sent down when the bullpen is taxed. And non-roster invitee Evan Meek is also a strong candidate.
Showalter also wouldn't rule out the possibility of starting the season with 13 pitchers and 12 position players, which would give them two more spots to fill. Top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman has thrown very well this spring, but I'd be surprised if he makes the club with the organization wanting him to be a starter and likely putting him at Triple-A. But if Gausman keeps throwing like he has been, it probably won't be for long.
Suk-min Yoon won't be ready to start the season and Edgmer Escalona was shut down for three weeks with shoulder inflammation to take him out of the race. Kelvin De La Cruz is also still in camp, having allowed two earned runs over six innings.
Who gets the edge in the backup catcher race?
This is a really, really hard read, because Showalter has made it clear that the backup catcher will be determined almost exclusively based on defense. So comparing the offensive stats of Steve Clevenger and Johnny Monell isn't going to help. There's also been the lingering rumor that the Orioles could go outside the organization for Matt Wieters' backup, making this competition easily the toughest outcome to predict.
Who gets the other bench/DH spots?
With the starting nine, including Nelson Cruz as designated hitter, plus a backup catcher and utility infielder, there's at least one more spot for an outfield/DH type, probably two unless the Orioles go with 13 pitchers. Nolan Reimold is a front-runner for one of those as the team re-signed him this winter looking to give him one more shot and see what they have. The right-handed-hitting Reimold is expected to make the Opening Day roster, and he has been going to Minor League camp to get extra at-bats after spending most of the past two seasons rehabbing from neck surgery and a corrective procedure following that.
Could the final spot be another right-handed hitter given the wealth of O's regulars who bat from the left side? Non-roster invitee Delmon Young is 6-for-27 this spring (.222), while Showalter has praised Steve Pearce, who is 9-for-36 (.250) with a homer. Pearce could also back up first baseman Chris Davis, which Showalter said last week isn't a separator "just yet" but could help if things are close. Francisco Peguero has been slowed with a wrist injury, which hurts his chances. Lefty hitter Henry Urrutia is batting .310 in 10 spring games, while speedster Quintin Berry presents an intriguing option for a club with no real stolen-base threat. Xavier Paul, another left-handed hitter, is also still in camp and is 6-for-28 (.214) so far this spring.
When will some of these races become more clear?
Very soon. The Orioles had planned on making cuts following Monday's split-squad games, both of which were rained out, so expect them to pare down the roster in the coming days. Also, don't rule out a few minor trades by executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. This end-of-spring time, when a lot of moves go unnoticed, is right in his wheelhouse for making some smaller acquisitions.