In similar fashion to other Spring Trainings during the Mike Elias/Brandon Hyde era, 2021 Orioles camp was about evaluation above all else. Coming off a challenging but productive fourth-place finish in ’20, the improving O’s arrived in Sarasota, Fla., not yet fully rebuilt, but thoroughly trending in that direction.
Across the diamond, pieces of an emerging core are beginning to appear, from John Means on the mound to exciting prospect Ryan Mountcastle in left field and slugging switch-hitter Anthony Santander in right. The O’s spent much of this spring figuring out their rotation picture behind Means, letting their crowded outfield mix compete and taking a long look at top prospect Adley Rutschman, among others. They also made the opportunistic free-agent signing of Maikel Franco, lost Chris Davis and Hunter Harvey to injury and welcomed Trey Mancini back to the field after a year away battling cancer.
All told, it was a camp rife with competition and themed toward the future. That future isn’t here yet, but it feels closer than it has in a long while.
“I think our players are maturing, and we have guys who were pretty fresh to the big leagues the last couple years,” Hyde said. “You are seeing growth.”
Best development: Mancini’s health
After a year sidelined beating stage 3 colon cancer, the best thing for the Orioles this spring would’ve been for Mancini to return healthy and like his old self. That is exactly what happened. Mancini arrived early to camp without restriction and methodically checked every box necessary as Spring Training progressed. He enjoyed an emotional return to the field in his spring debut, hit his first homer in mid-March and watched his body hold up playing every day down the stretch in Grapefruit League play.
Now, Mancini’s presence in the Opening Day lineup isn’t just likely, it’s expected. With his inspiring story, the Orioles get their most productive and popular player back two years removed from his breakout 2019, when Mancini hit .291 with 35 homers and an .899 OPS.
Unfortunate events: Silent springs
While opportunity existed for many youngsters to turn heads this spring, the fact is almost all the upper-level prospects who could’ve forced themselves into the roster picture struggled during Grapefruit League play. Specifically, Jahmai Jones and Rylan Bannon didn’t push their case at second and third base, respectively, and Ryan McKenna got a bit lost in a crowded outfield picture even after DJ Stewart’s hamstring injury. All might be in Baltimore before long, but it feels like an opportunity lost regardless.
Player who opened eyes: Bruce Zimmermann
Is Zimmermann the next Means? Maybe it's unfair to expect Zimmermann to parlay his strong spring into an All-Star appearance, or emerge as a future Opening Day starter. But his story this spring parallels Means’ from 2019, when Means emerged from the roster periphery to snag the O’s final roster spot. Zimmermann has outpitched everyone else in camp, compiling nine scoreless innings. And injuries to Félix Hernández and Hunter Harvey have paved the way for the O’s to bring at least one extra bulk-innings arm north with them for Opening Day. At this point, that looks like it’ll be Zimmermann, the Ellicott City, Md., native.
Wow moment: Two for Trey
It’s Mancini here again. It’s also a toss-up, between the standing ovation Mancini received before his first spring at bat and the long home run he hit March 19 against the Pirates, his first in game action since beating colon cancer. Both were positive reminders of the lengths Mancini took to get back on the field and the impact he can have on the Orioles’ lineup when healthy.
“That was a nuke,” Dean Kremer said after Mancini’s first homer. “That was hit pretty far. Everybody in the dugout was with their jaw on the floor because of how far it was hit. Everybody loved it.”
In case you missed it: The Orioles took a long look at Rutschman this spring, giving their top prospect regular at-bats in Grapefruit League play in preparation for his first full season in pro ball. Off the field, his younger sister, Josie, is also making an impact, administering COVID-19 vaccines in Oregon with an eye toward halting the pandemic.