Two years into their process, the foundational blocks of the Orioles' rebuild are becoming clearer to see. The 2020 season was defined by prospects arriving and making impacts, to varying degrees. More are on the way. The O’s aren’t contenders yet, but it’s getting easier to see what they could
Two years into their process, the foundational blocks of the Orioles' rebuild are becoming clearer to see. The 2020 season was defined by prospects arriving and making impacts, to varying degrees. More are on the way. The O’s aren’t contenders yet, but it’s getting easier to see what they could look like when they get there.
“While this sounds a little strange maybe for a team that was in fourth place last year and has not been shy about saying that it’s rebuilding, I look at the players that either are already on our 40-man roster or are soon to be on our 40-man roster, and it’s a very functional group,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said recently. “All of whom, either they have settled roles on the team or we want to audition some of these guys and leave paths open for them this year.”
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That makes predicting the 2021 Opening Day roster, even at this early juncture, more of a straightforward exercise than it has been in some time. Wild cards remain, and an entire winter still stands between the O’s and Opening Day. But let’s take a crack at predicting what that 26-man group might look like, anyway:
Catcher (2): Chance Sisco, Austin Wynns
The free-agent catching market is headlined by multiple buyers and one big fish: J.T. Realmuto. After him? Not a single catcher south of 30 years old is available. That could create opportunity for the Orioles to trade from their catching surplus, especially with Adley Rutschman getting closer to his debut. First-year arbitration-eligible Pedro Severino is the likelier candidate to be dealt, leaving Sisco the primary catching duties for Opening Day in this simulation.
First base (1): Chris Davis
Where is Trey Mancini? The Orioles and Mancini are both hopeful he will return in 2021, fully recovered from Stage III colon cancer. But predicting that happens by Opening Day, for a player who would be immunocompromised during a global pandemic? That feels like a stretch, even though Mancini resumed slight baseball activity recently. It's not out of the question, though. Davis, on the other hand, will certainly be there. He remains rooted to the roster and owed $46 million through '22.
Second base (1): Yolmer Sánchez
Projected to make around $4 million in arbitration this winter per MLBTradeRumors, Hanser Alberto is beginning to get expensive for a rebuilding club like the Orioles. But he might be a better candidate to swap positions than he is to be non-tendered, after the O’s claimed the former Gold Glove winner Sánchez off waivers from the White Sox. Baltimore will probably move Sánchez around the infield a bit, too, but he helps the club the most defensively at second.
Third base (1): Hanser Alberto
Alberto’s defensive numbers plummeted last year after moving from third to second, and Rio Ruiz’s glovework invited questions as the 60-game season wound on. For these reasons, it isn’t hard to envision the Orioles shifting Alberto back to the hot corner more often in 2021.
Shortstop (1): José Iglesias
There may be a better chance Iglesias gets traded this offseason than at next year’s Deadline, given how the Orioles would prefer to sell high on the veteran shortstop. But until that happens, he’s the undisputed everyday option at short.
Designated hitter (1): Rio Ruiz
If that happens, look for Ruiz to battle DJ Stewart and others for reps at designated hitter. What about Renato Núñez? Some Orioles regulars aren’t going to survive non-tender/arbitration season, and this prediction has the O’s parting ways with Núñez in some fashion. No Oriole has hit more homers than Núñez's 43 since 2019, but he’s also projected to get a hefty raise through arbitration, doesn’t have a true position and is one of several bat-first corner-types Baltimore would need to find regular at-bats for in '21.
Outfield (5): Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart
Nowhere on the field has progress been plainer to see during the Orioles' rebuild than in the outfield; there might not be a group of young players the club is more excited about right now than this crop. Mountcastle and Santander emerged as impact bats in 2020, while Mullins rebounded from a lost year to reassert himself as a speedy plus-defender in center. Hays can play all three spots when healthy and Stewart brings power and on-base skills in what will likely be a reserve role. It’s not difficult to envision a starting alignment most nights of Mountcastle in left, Mullins in center and Santander in right, occupying three of the top four spots in the O's lineup.
Utility (1): Richie Martin
Money is going to talk this offseason, and it’s possible the Orioles will opt not to pay Pat Valaika the significant raise he might earn in arbitration. Turning to the cheaper, more controllable Martin is an easy solution, assuming he’s fully recovered from the broken right wrist that sidelined him for all of 2020.
Starting pitchers (5): John Means, Alex Cobb, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, free agent
Only Means and Cobb are locks here, with Kremer and Akin favorites in a competitive field with Jorge López, Bruce Zimmermann and at least one veteran free agent. Trevor Cahill and Iván Nova have been floated as candidates on that front, as well as the possibility of a reunion with Kohl Stewart. Let’s give points for familiarity here and say the O’s bring Stewart back after he signed but did not pitch for them in 2020.
Relievers (8): Cesar Valdez, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, Dillon Tate, Shawn Armstrong, Travis Lakins Sr., Jorge López
The Orioles’ bullpen was one of the major surprises of 2020, going from one of baseball’s worst units in '19 to one of its best behind breakouts from Scott, Valdez and others. Now, it’s the most stable group the O’s have had in years, at least on paper. One of the bigger questions this winter pertains to Armstrong, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time. López could end up winning a rotation job out of camp or slide into a long-relief role. Guys like Isaac Mattson, Cole Sulser and Evan Phillips will likely compete for middle-relief opportunities come spring, also.
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.