The Orioles’ roster went through significant transformation this winter, and more is on the way.
Now at the start of their third season in a long-term rebuilding project, the Orioles welcomed an exciting wave of prospects last summer and are expected to shepherd in an even larger group over the coming months. They’ve cut ties with a few regulars, sprinkled in some big-name veterans on Minor League deals and are anxiously anticipating the return of their top slugger after a year away. Change remains in the air at O's camp.
By Opening Day, it’s possible most of Baltimore's starting rotation, its entire middle infield and good chunks of its bullpen will look different than a year ago. All of which makes predicting what the 26-man roster might look like a challenge, but let’s take a crack at it. (Note: please check back throughout the spring for regular updates.)
Catchers (2): Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco
Severino looked like a trade candidate this winter with top prospect Adley Rutschman on the way, but nothing materialized on that front. Rutschman will be in camp, but he isn’t a candidate to debut until at least late 2021, and probably later. That leaves Severino and Sisco returning behind the plate in more or less a platoon situation, with Sisco a candidate to get some at-bats at designated hitter as well.
First base (2): Trey Mancini, Chris Davis
The emergence of Anthony Santander in right field has the Orioles planning on slotting Mancini back in at his natural position of first base more regularly this season, his first since missing all of 2020 recovering from Stage 3 colon cancer. Davis remains rooted to the roster by virtue of his contract, which runs through '22.
Second base (1): Yolmer Sánchez
The 2019 American League Gold Glove Award winner at second base, Sánchez has the inside track at the position after the Orioles claimed him off waivers and released Hanser Alberto this winter. Sánchez will face competition this spring from prospects Jahmai Jones and Rylan Bannon. Sánchez can move around the infield a bit if necessary, but he helps the team most defensively at second.
Third base (1): Rio Ruiz
Starting basically every day at the hot corner over the past two seasons, Ruiz hit .229 with 21 homers and a .692 OPS over that span. He displayed increased power in a small sample in 2020, but he probably needs to show more consistency to hold onto the job throughout '21. His competition this spring will come from Bannon; by midseason, the two might form a platoon.
Shortstop (1): Freddy Galvis
A durable nine-year veteran, Galvis signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal in January to replace José Iglesias as the O’s everyday shortstop. Barring injury, that’s what he’ll be.
It’s not hard to imagine Mountcastle, Mullins and Santander starting most days from left to right, while occupying three of the top four spots in the O’s order. Mountcastle is an AL Rookie of the Year Award favorite after his impressive 2020 debut, Mullins rebuilt his value as a table setter and impact defender in center and Santander broke out enough to see his name pop up in trade rumors this winter. Without dealing Santander, this is the likely outfield arrangement on Opening Day, with Hays siphoning at-bats from Mullins against left-handed pitching and at DH. The odd man out might be DJ Stewart, unless he outperforms Hays in camp.
(Note: We are not listing a designated hitter in this projection because at this point it looks like the Orioles will rotate several players through that spot rather than have an everyday DH).
Utility (1): Pat Valaika
Valaika showed versatility and pop in a utility role last summer, hitting eight homers and playing six positions in 52 games. He is the leading candidate to reprise that role, especially with Richie Martin set to miss the first month of camp recovering from left hamate bone surgery. Others in the mix include Stevie Wilkerson, Ramón Urías and Jones.
Starting pitchers (5): John Means, Félix Hernández, Matt Harvey, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin
The Orioles took fliers on big-name reclamation projects Hernandez and Harvey, in part to ease workload concerns on Kremer, Akin and other rookies who enjoyed impressive 2020 debuts but won’t be pushed innings-wise in '21. Depth will be paramount for every team in a season with at least 918 more innings to cover than the season before, but especially for a rebuilding club like the O's set to audition youngsters throughout the summer.
Akin and Kremer should get first crack by virtue of their 2020 debuts, and let’s assume Harvey and Hernández show enough to slot in behind projected Opening Day starter Means. Baltimore is still going to use more than five starters this year, making the other arms in the mix here important figures. They include: old friend Wade LeBlanc, swingman option Jorge López, Rule 5 Draft pick Mac Sceroler and Ellicott City, Md., native Bruce Zimmermann.
Relievers (9): Cesar Valdez, Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey, Paul Fry, Shawn Armstrong, Dillon Tate, Travis Lakins Sr., Thomas Eshelman, Jorge López
The shortened 2020 season was good to the Orioles' bullpen, which improved from one of baseball’s worst units the year before to one of the best. Was part of that sample size? Perhaps. But another part was the steps forward taken by hard-throwing lefty Scott, former top prospect Tate and setup man Fry, as well as the finding of Valdez. If Harvey can stay healthy and those improvements continue, this is a unit that could surprise some people, particularly on the back end.
It’s also certain to evolve from a personnel standpoint throughout the year, as the Orioles look to fill innings with swingmen, bullpen days and other creative solutions. As it stands now, the first seven names listed appear on stable ground roster-wise; there is a chance LeBlanc, veteran Fernando Abad, rookie Isaac Mattson and/or knuckleballer Mickey Jannis find their way into the mix as well.