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5 questions for Orioles entering 2021

@JoeTrezz
December 31, 2020

As the calendar flips to 2021, the Orioles enter the new year with an eye toward continuing to trend upward. Two full years into their long-term rebuild, progress is becoming plainer to see as more young players arrive and reposition the Orioles for the future. That future now appears closer

As the calendar flips to 2021, the Orioles enter the new year with an eye toward continuing to trend upward. Two full years into their long-term rebuild, progress is becoming plainer to see as more young players arrive and reposition the Orioles for the future.

That future now appears closer than ever. But with that comes uncertainty, new challenges and tough decisions. Here are five questions the club must face in 2021:

1) What can they expect out of Trey Mancini?
Fully recovered from Stage 3 colon cancer, Mancini resumed baseball activity this fall with the intent of being ready for Spring Training. That remains the plan, but until it happens, Mancini’s health will remain a question mark based on the severity of his condition alone.

“It’s hard to speak to that with total certainty, because he missed the whole year and there are very few cases like this in baseball history that we can point to,” O’s general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias said on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio recently. "But he’s got his weight. He looks exactly the same. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s running. He’s not experiencing any symptoms. We are fully expecting he’s going to be a Day 1 full participant in Spring Training, and it’s just going to be a normal season for him.”

Hurdles remain for Mancini to clear to turn that hope into reality. But if he does, it’ll be a huge boost to a rebuilding Orioles team that made strides last season despite playing without its top hitter.

“He was really strong mentally throughout this, as is characteristic of him,” Elias said. “I think he’s almost at the finish line and I can’t wait to see him hit in Sarasota.”

2) Does Adley Rutschman debut?
Is the future, finally ... almost here? With one fewer affiliate going forward and the entire 2020 Minor League season having been canceled, the O’s have unprecedented development decisions to make on their top prospects. None are more important than the plan for Rutschman, who has been limited to 37 professional games since becoming the top overall pick in the '19 Draft, due to no fault of his own.

In a perfect world, Rutschman -- the club's top prospect per MLB Pipeline -- would’ve spent most of 2020 at Double-A, maybe earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A and been on track to debut in '21. But that didn’t happen. Now he’ll begin '21 at Double-A, per Elias. The question is what happens after that.

“He should get here pretty quickly, and I hope has a pretty smooth ride through the Minor Leagues, but he just hasn’t played Minor League baseball yet, really,” Elias told MLB Network Radio. “The guy hasn’t played in Double-A or Triple-A. That’s really unprecedented. I think we’ve got to take it one step at a time here to try to check off those boxes.”

3) Who plays shortstop?
José Iglesias was traded to the Angels on Dec. 2 and Hanser Alberto was non-tendered, leaving the Orioles with short-term vacancies at both middle-infield spots. They have several internal options at second, but are limited to utility types Richie Martin and Pat Valaika at short.

That seems likely to change either via trade or free agency, with the O’s targeting a glove-first veteran to shore up the defense and potentially bring back value in a future deal, a la Iglesias. At this point, down-market options like Freddy Galvis and Jurickson Profar profile as the O’s most likely targets.

4) Which other prospects arrive?
Rutschman is hardly the only youngster the O’s plan to prioritize in 2021. No fewer than eight of their current Top 30 Prospects could reach the bigs next season, joining (No. 5 prospect) left fielder Ryan Mountcastle, righty Dean Kremer (No. 10), lefty Keegan Akin (No. 15) and Bruce Zimmermann in the club’s immediate plans. Do we finally see No. 8 prospect Yusniel Diaz and No. 21 Ryan McKenna in the outfield? Do No. 9 righty Michael Baumann and No. 11 lefty Zac Lowther provide pitching depth? Does No. 25 infielder Rylan Bannon win a job out of camp?

After years of developing, the first real wave of kids is set to arrive.

5) Is Hyde the long-term solution?
Though neither side has addressed it publicly, the Orioles signed Brandon Hyde to a three-year contract with a club option when they hired him to replace Buck Showalter at manager prior to the 2019 season. Whether or not the option has been exercised is unclear; if it isn’t, Hyde would manage with lame-duck status in '21.

This year could go a long way toward determining if Hyde is a placeholder or the skipper the Orioles hope to grow into contenders under.

“I think I’m in this for the long haul,” Hyde said in December. “I knew that when I took the job, that it was going to be some bumpy roads, especially early, because I’ve been through a rebuilding process before, and I understand it doesn’t happen overnight. … It takes a while to draft well, to get guys through the system, and I was very, very aware when I took the job of what the situation was going to be like.”

As first-time manager hired to oversee a multi-year rebuild, Hyde was never going to be judged by wins and losses. His success level was always going to hinge on softer factors. To that end, he’s earned positive reviews from players and upper management alike over the past two years for his leadership and communication abilities. Meanwhile, few chances to flex in-game strategy skills materialized. But maybe that changes if the Orioles surprise some people in 2021, like they did for stretches in '20.

"I just want to improve,” Hyde said. “I want to see this through, and I think it’s exciting what we have here going forward.”

Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.