After the most challenging season and one long winter, baseball is back. Spring Training is here. Orioles pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, Fla., on Tuesday, signaling the start of another season and all the hope that brings.
From increased safety protocols to the many exciting prospects looking to make impressions, it'll be a spring like no other for the rebuilding Orioles. They open their third year under the direction of GM/EVP Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde with a fresh wave of optimism, birthed from improvement the club saw in several areas during the shortened 2020 season. Much of the focus the next seven weeks will go toward identifying those best suited to keep Baltimore's competitive timeline trending in the right direction.
"There's going to be a lot of unknowns in this camp," Elias said. "These guys haven't played in a while, and that's why we're doing this. I actually think performances in Spring Training and exhibitions are probably going to be a little bit more meaningful than they have been the last few years, just because these are some guys who haven't played in a year in an organized fashion. No one has seen them in a year, really. We're going to have to watch everything and probably put a lot of stock in what happens here in a lot of cases."
With pitchers, catchers and a handful of early-arriving position players already reporting to Ed Smith Stadium, let's break down the basics about Orioles Spring Training:
Given the pandemic, how is Spring Training going to be different this year?
Several ways. The Orioles usually run two concurrent camps in the Sarasota area each spring: one on the big league side at their Ed Smith Stadium complex, and a Minor League camp at Buck O'Neil Complex at Twin Lakes. They will utilize both facilities to run one camp this spring, shuffling players back and forth to avoid overcrowding. As was the case during the 2020 season, MLB will provide regular COVID-19 testing for all players, coaches and staff on-site.
The Orioles will allow limited fans once Grapefruit League games begin Feb. 28, operating Ed Smith Stadium at 25 percent capacity and requiring adherence to health and safety protocols. The Grapefruit League schedule itself is also different this year. The O's typically play 30-plus games and travel throughout Florida each spring; this year they'll play 28 games, only against teams that also train along the state's Gulf Coast.
When must position players report?
While some are already on-site, the Orioles' full-squad report date is Sunday.
When is the first full-squad workout?
Can I attend workouts?
Workouts are closed to fans this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Can I attend Spring Training games?
Yes. The Orioles are making roughly 1,833 tickets available to each of their 14 spring home games. Birdland Memberships and 5-Game Flex plans are currently on sale at orioles.com/Spring. Single-game tickets become available for purchase beginning Saturday.
When is the first Spring Training game?
The Orioles open their Grapefruit League schedule at 1:05 p.m. ET on Feb. 28 against their spring neighbors, the Pirates, at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. This will be the first chance for several young players looking to play themselves into regular roles in 2021, and it could be the first game Trey Mancini plays since returning from colon cancer.
When does the Grapefruit League schedule end?
The O's last spring game is set for March 29 at home against the Rays.
What are the key roster/position battles to watch?
The rotation: The intrigue here surrounds an eclectic mix of names, from big-league ready prospects Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin to decorated veterans on Minor League deals like former Cy Young Award winner Félix Hernández and Matt Harvey. Journeyman southpaw Wade LeBlanc and out-of-options Jorge López are also back, and Bruce Zimmermann and Rule 5 pick Draft Mac Sceroler will get looks as well.
It's a lot of options, but there are a lot of spots open, and loads of innings with everyone coming off decreased workloads in 2020. Some have better chances at cracking the roster than others, but nothing is settled behind ace John Means.
Second base: The O's claimed former Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sánchez on waivers shortly before releasing Hanser Alberto this winter, hinting at filling the hole at second before it even opened. Now Sánchez looks like the favorite, but he will face competition from right-handed-hitting prospects like Rylan Bannon and Jahmai Jones, as well as utility options Pat Valaika and Stevie Wilkerson.
Center field: It's not hard to see Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays forming a natural platoon in center, but a strong spring would benefit either and help create more certainty at the position. No. 22 prospect Ryan McKenna presents another option in center, and Jones can play there as well.
Who is the likely Opening Day starting pitcher?
Of the Orioles' nine starting pitching candidates, three are reclamation projects signed to Minor League deals. Four others are rookies, or barely exhausted their rookie status in 2020. The only real certainty is Baltimore handing the ball on Opening Day to Means, who missed the assignment last summer due to arm fatigue. That inauspiciously began what was a disjointed season for Means, over which he went 2-4 with a 4.53 ERA while navigating minor injuries and the death of his father. The left-hander did finish with a 1.52 ERA over his final four starts, better mirroring his All-Star form in '19.
What is the likely Opening Day lineup and rotation?
Cedric Mullins, CF
Ryan Mountcastle, LF
Anthony Santander, RF
Trey Mancini, 1B
Rio Ruiz, 3B
Pedro Severino, C
DJ Stewart, DH
Freddy Galvis, SS
Yolmer Sánchez, 2B
John Means, LHP
Dean Kremer, RHP
Keegan Akin, RHP
Félix Hernández, RHP
Matt Harvey, RHP
Tanner Scott, LHP
Who are some prospects to keep an eye on in camp?
As it stands, 17 of the O's Top 30 prospects are invited to camp -- a number that could grow as more lower-level pitchers are sprinkled in at later dates. Though neither is a candidate to make the Opening Day roster, No. 1 prospect Adley Rutschman and No. 3 prospect Heston Kjerstad are headliners for what they mean to the future of the organization. Kjerstad will be a late arrival due to an episode of myocarditis; when he touches down in Florida, it'll be the first time the Orioles see Kjerstad after making him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 Draft.
Elsewhere, it's possible more prospects will be given legitimate cracks at Opening Day roster spots than during any spring of the Elias era. Kremer and Akin will battle for rotation jobs after impressive 2020 debuts. Mountcastle still qualifies as a prospect and is the odds-on favorite to play every day in left field. Bannon and Jones are in the mix for at-bats at second base (as well as third base for Bannon, and outfield for Jones). It'll also be worth keeping an eye on unranked swingman Bruce Zimmerman and reliever Isaac Mattson.
What's the story with Mancini and when will he be back?
Mancini arrived early to camp cancer-free after spending 2020 recovering from Stage 3 colon cancer. The O's will be careful to ease him back into action, but he isn't expected to have any restrictions going forward. Mancini has stated repeatedly his goal of playing on Opening Day.
Any other injury updates?
• Utility option Richie Martin will miss at least the first month of camp recovering from right hamate surgery
• Kjerstad will be a late arrival as he recovers from myocarditis
• Santander is expected to be fully healthy after his 2020 season was cut short due to a left oblique strain
• LeBlanc is back on a Minor League deal after his 2020 season ended after six games due to a stress reaction in his left elbow
• Wilkerson is healthy again after missing all of 2020 with a broken left ring finger
• Left-hander Josh Rogers is set to return to the mound after undergoing elbow reconstruction surgery in May 2019
New faces to know
SS Freddy Galvis
RP Félix Hernández
RHP Matt Harvey
2B/OF Jahmai Jones
2B Yolmer Sánchez
RHP Ashton Goudeau
RHP Mac Sceroler
RHP Tyler Wells
LHP Fernando Abad
RHP Conner Greene
OF Chris Shaw
C Nick Ciuffo
RHP Dusten Knight
LHP Zach Muckenhirn
RHP Konner Wade
RHP Spenser Watkins
Third-base coach Tony Mansolino
Any additional exhibition games before the regular season?
When is Opening Day and who is the opponent?
April 1 against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.