Just like that, the slow part of Spring Training is over. Gone already are the early mornings of workouts and light bullpens, and reuniting with teammates after a winter away.
The Orioles are set to open their Grapefruit League schedule Sunday against the Pirates, welcoming fans back at limited capacity to Ed Smith Stadium. With it comes the work of parsing down their camp roster from 72 to 26, and preparing in earnest for Opening Day.
With that in mind, let’s crack open the inbox to answer some of your pressing Orioles questions about how it’ll all shake out.
Will it be a mix of players at DH?
That’s what it’s looking like. There might not be a better place of opportunity in O’s camp for players who’ve fallen down the depth chart at their positions in recent years than DH. The O’s are going to use the slot flexibly, as a way to find at bats for DJ Stewart, Chance Sisco, Chris Davis and to spell Trey Mancini in the early going. It could be an avenue for spring at-bats for higher-level prospects like Yusniel Diaz, too, given the O’s crowded outfield situation. Specifically, I see it as the best route for Stewart to everyday playing time come the regular season.
Who's the favorite to be the Opening Day closer?
This is a tricky question. Do you remember who earned the first save of each of the past two seasons? Mike Wright in 2019 and Cole Sulser in '20. Neither was the designated Opening Day closer nor held the role for very long; in fact, Brandon Hyde hasn’t once named a closer during his managerial tenure, opting instead to play matchups and ride the hot hand in the ninth.
So maybe the better question is: Will the Orioles have an Opening Day closer? I don’t think so officially. That said, Tanner Scott and Hunter Harvey look like the favorites to handle high-leverage situations, whether in the ninth inning or elsewhere. What about Cesar Valdez? He notched three saves down the stretch in 2020, but he is being stretched out this spring and probably benefits the O’s better in a bulk-innings role.
Where will we see Heston Kjerstad start the season? Will it be a few years before we see him in Baltimore, or will he rise quickly?
I think that’ll become more clear once the Orioles get their hands on Kjerstad for the first time and gauge his strength and durability after recovering from myocarditis. Yes, it’ll be a few years before he arrives in Baltimore, but that doesn’t mean he won’t rise quickly.
As for where he begins this season, it’s probably instructive to look at what the O’s did with Adley Rutschman in 2019. They began Rutschman (and all their other top college picks) at Class A Aberdeen before promoting him and others to Class A Delmarva by summer’s end. Delmarva is now the O’s lowest full-season affiliate, so I can see Kjerstad getting his feet wet there.
Do the Orioles look at Rio Ruiz as their indefinite solution at third base until someone like Gunnar Henderson makes it to the bigs? Or do you expect Rylan Bannon to receive significant time at third this year/next?
I think this is an important spring for Ruiz, and an even more important season. Henderson is still 19 years old and far enough away to have little to do with it; more important is whether Ruiz shows improvement after hitting .229/.299/.393 with 21 homers in 181 games over the past two seasons.
Now 26, Ruiz added weight and showed increased power in last season’s small sample, but he slumped and endured defensive issues down the stretch. The O’s like Bannon’s pop and will give him a long look this spring, with the chance he could form a platoon at third or second at some point this season. Beyond 2021, keep an eye on No. 7 prospect Jordan Westburg as a long-term option at the hot corner.
Who is the "surprise" who might break camp with the team for Opening Day?
I’ll go with … Bruce Zimmermann. The 26-year-old lefty is on the 40-man roster and he is a natural fit to handle some of the bulk innings the Orioles will need to cover in 2021, especially early in the season. I can see them carrying several multi-inning options for depth, given the workload restrictions their young starters will be on following the shortened '20 season. Zimmermann could also crack the rotation with a strong spring, if a couple things break in his favor.
How much longer is the organization going forward with Chris Davis on the roster?
My guess? Until his contract expires or close to it.