7 questions O's must answer before spring ends

March 11th, 2019

SARASOTA, Fla. -- In just two short weeks, the Orioles will be wrapping up Grapefruit League play and boarding a plane to New York. Opening Day and the Yankees await, with a lot still unsettled.

Here are seven questions that still must be answered with just a fortnight remaining in Spring Training.

Who cracks the rotation?

There are still five back-end rotation candidates in camp vying for two spots, six if you count Jimmy Yacabonis (who is being stretched out, but probably for a swingman role). Here’s how it’s shaking out so far, via small-sample size Grapefruit League ERA:

  1. Mike Wright, 0.00
  2. Josh Rogers, 2.63
  3. David Hess, 3.48
  4. John Means, 5.06
  5. Yefry Ramirez, 5.40

The reality is, all will likely start games at some point this season for the Orioles, who used 14 starters last year and are now talking about experimenting with openers. The club also doesn’t need a fifth starter until the third week of the season, meaning one of these candidates can make the rotation but still begin the year at Triple-A.

All come with their high points and question marks. Hess and Ramirez sport the most rotation experience, both having made more than a dozen starts in the Majors last season. Rogers and Means are left-handed; either would be the only southpaw in the rotation behind Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb. Wright is just outpitching everybody, which brings us to our next question ...

Is Mike Wright for real?

The righty sliced the “Jr.” from his name, began toying with a new cutter and spent the next few weeks turning heads. Now, 10 clean spring innings don’t outweigh the 5.75 ERA Wright has posted over 228 2/3 frames in the big leagues, or the fact that he hasn’t started regularly in the Majors since 2016.

But there is no question that Wright has impressed Orioles officials this spring. He is 29, out of Minor League options and fighting for not just a role but a roster spot. He’s pitching like it. Whether he keeps it up is another question.

Where does Nate Karns fit in?

It’s looking more and more like Karns will be a reliever, but the question is what kind? Karns has been rolled out in relief for one-inning stints his past two times out, and at this point, he doesn’t have time to fully stretch out as a starter. That may end up being a blessing in disguise.

Karns has always had swing-and-miss stuff, but injuries have consistently cut into his ability to use it. Karns is 31, with one full MLB season to his name, and he hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2017. A year ago, the Royals were toying with the idea of using him as their closer, before Karns missed the entire season with elbow issues.

Karns certainly fits the profile of a back-end reliever, given his high fastball spin and career 9.3 K/9 strikeout rate. It helps his cause that Baltimore’s bullpen is completely in flux. It’s also not difficult to see Karns earning multi-inning assignments, should he prove durable enough.

Will Mark Trumbo/Richard Bleier break camp healthy?

These two veterans have injury questions, though Bleier has dispelled some of his in recent days. After returning to the mound eight months removed from lat surgery, Bleier now has two weeks to build up his pitch count and prove he can work back-to-back games. There should be enough time, though the hour is getting late.

Trumbo looks less likely, even if he hits his target date of March 13 to return to Grapefruit League play. Getting at-bats for Trumbo isn’t the issue -- he can binge them on the backfields and he has already faced live pitching there for weeks. But he and the Orioles have preached caution above all else, given the seriousness of the knee surgery Trumbo had last September.

Can they keep running like this?

The Orioles’ days of waiting around for the three-run homer are over, at least so they say. Baltimore is running wild this spring and leads the Grapefruit League in stolen bases (21) and attempts (28). If the initiative carries over, it’ll mark an identity change for a franchise that has stolen an MLB-low 671 bases since 2008.

Who plays third base?

Renato Nunez actually ended 2018 with the second-highest WAR among position players still on the Orioles' roster, then he entered camp as the favorite to win the third-base job. But he’s been thoroughly outplayed thus far by Rio Ruiz on both sides of the ball. More striking than Nunez’s slow start offensively (.217, two extra-base hits) has been the discrepancy on defense. Nunez has four errors in nine games. The fact that he’s out of Minor League options, though, gives him something of an advantage.

Which prospects head north?

Even after Sunday’s cuts, the Orioles could potentially break with five Top 30 prospects on their Opening Day roster, down from a glut of 12 they opened camp with. So it’ll certainly be a few, but who?

Richie Martin and Drew Jackson have done everything asked of them; as Rule 5 Draft picks, the Orioles would prefer they break camp with the team. Austin Hays has opened eyes with his health, power and ability to play center field. He’s impressed along with Anthony Santander, who technically exhausted his rookie status in 2018 but still qualifies as something of an unknown quantity to the Orioles’ new evaluators. Avenues exist for all of them to make the club, now that DJ Stewart hasn’t.

On the pitching side, Sunday’s optioning of Dillon Tate and Luis Ortiz provided some clarity. It still leaves at least two other Top 30 prospects -- Cody Carroll and Branden Kline -- on the roster bubble. But they seem to be in good position for relief roles.