O's face 4 questions before Opening Day
Baltimore falls to Nats in final Summer Camp exhibition
Upon dropping a 6-4, rain-shortened exhibition decision to the Nationals on Tuesday at Nationals Park, the 2020 regular season is nearly upon the Orioles. The next time they take the field against another opponent will be Friday at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, and the results will count.
“I think we’re as ready as we can be in this short sprint of a Summer Camp,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “I think we’re in a good place.”
They are in this place after 2 1/2 weeks of workouts at Oriole Park, several intrasquad games and three exhibitions -- all played without fans and under the guidance of MLB’s COVID-19 safety protocols. The roster has come more into focus during that time, as has a baseline for players and coaches alike of what to expect in the upcoming, unprecedented 60-game sprint of a season.
“I think we’re starting to get used to it a little bit,” Hyde said of playing in empty stadiums. “The last time I was here, it was a really loud place where the fans are right on top of you. Then tonight, I feel like the crowd noise, the buzz, has been very, very helpful.”
The Orioles finished 1-2 in exhibition play, beating the Phillies on Sunday and dropping both sides of their home-and-home with the Nationals the past two nights.
But there is a palpable excitement for the games to start mattering.
“We’re ready, man,” said Hanser Alberto, who doubled in a run off Patrick Corbin and crossed the plate himself in Tuesday’s exhibition. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work together, and I think we all look good right now. We know we’re going to go out there and play hard, and we’ll start the season aggressive and doing our thing.”
Still, questions remain. Let’s dig into a few the Orioles must answer between now and Opening Day.
1. What to do with Kohl Stewart?
Should the arm fatigue holding John Means out of Opening Day force him to miss more than one start, the Orioles will have their rotation depth tested immediately. That likely means turning to Stewart, who signed a one-year free-agent contract this winter but still remains enough of a mystery to the club that it juggled its pitching plans to start him opposite the Nats on Tuesday.
The former No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, Stewart is viewed as a potential starter, long reliever or someone who can come in after openers. But he was limited by shoulder issues this spring and is a durability concern due to Type 1 diabetes, which places him in the high-risk category for the virus. The club is also looking for him to show more consistent command and better sequencing with regards to his slider and changeup to complement his fastball-heavy repertoire.
"I’d love to see him get four innings, walk off the field healthy," Hyde said before the game. "I want to see strikes."
The results were a mixed bag Tuesday. Stewart pitched into the fourth, using roughly 60 pitches to record nine outs. But nearly half of those came in the first, which was halted after two outs because he reached his inning pitch limit. The righty ultimately allowed three runs on three hits, struck out a trio, walked two and hit a batter.
“I gotta come out with a better sense of urgency,” Stewart said. “I have to get ahead of more guys.”
2. Are the utility jobs locked up?
Perhaps no position player made a stronger sprint to the roster this summer than Dilson Herrera, the former top Mets prospect who has reinvented himself as a power-hitting utility option. The latest example came Tuesday, when he tripled home a run and made a sparkling diving play in left field. Hyde said afterward he’s comfortable slotting Herrera in both corner-outfield spots, third base, second and first, particularly after watching him slug several long homers in intrasquad games.
“He swung the bat really well this Summer Camp, really showed some big power in live at-bats he took off our pitchers,” Hyde said. “He adds some versatility as well as a right-handed bat we can use.”
It’s a need exacerbated by season-ending injuries to Richie Martin and Stevie Wilkerson, both of whom entered camp as front-runners to grab two of potentially three utility bench jobs. Herrera was a dark horse then, but he, Andrew Velazquez and Pat Valaika all look like good candidates now to squeeze onto the expanded roster.
3. Who will be ready for Opening Day? Who won’t?
The Orioles still need to determine the status of several potential regulars over the next few days: Hunter Harvey (arm fatigue), Chance Sisco (right triceps soreness), Dwight Smith Jr. (COVID-19 injured list) chief among them. They also have to decide if they’ll place Means on the injured list. It appears they consider Anthony Santander (late arrival due to COVID-19) probable for the game.
4. Will the real Chris Davis please stand up?
Davis, bulked back up from his offseason regimen, was a revelation of Spring Training, tearing up the Grapefruit League. He hasn’t been as hot in Summer Camp, but he’s looked more like his old self than not. Is a bounce-back season in the works? The Orioles can only hope and look for clues, like the double he lined off tough lefty Sean Doolittle to the wall in left-center Tuesday night after taking Stephen Strasburg to the right-field corner on Monday
“I think his at-bats have improved over the past couple weeks,” Hyde said. “He’s starting to swing with a little more aggression, getting in more hitters' counts. It’s all about being aggressive early, not letting pitchers go strike one on him, and him being really ready to hit from pitch one and putting his 'A' swing out there all the time. These last couple games he has put his 'A' swing out there all the time. If he does that, he’s going to see some results.”