The last time the Orioles prepared for a scheduled game, they boarded a team bus set for Fort Myers, Fla., and had barely buckled in as it departed their Sarasota spring complex, circled the block and came right back. In the few minutes since they’d left, uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic had reached a peak. Spring Training was halted and the season put on pause later that afternoon.
Flash forward three-plus months, and so much has unfolded off the field since the Orioles last stood on one. Now they are getting ready to return, with two days of medical screening Wednesday and Thursday before sanctioned workouts officially begin Friday at Oriole Park.
The 44-man player pool that descends on Baltimore will largely resemble the one that remained when camp was halted, as the Orioles stocked their initial pool with players they consider candidates to make the Opening Day roster. That’s delegated many of the most intriguing prospect storylines from early spring to the back-burner, but others have popped up in their place that are pertinent to the club.
So let’s freshen up on them. With Summer Camp on the horizon and a season slated to begin in late July, here is a look at four major Orioles storylines to keep an eye on.
1. How to replace Trey Mancini?
Some storylines are being reprised from the beginning of camp. The Orioles’ biggest came on the very last day of camp, and was unforeseeable at the start. Not two hours after their bus turned around, the club announced Trey Mancini had undergone surgery to remove a malignant tumor. Four months or so later, Mancini continues to undergo chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer and will miss the entire year.
How do the Orioles replace him? Can they? Expect DJ Stewart and Dwight Smith Jr. to siphon the residual at-bats to start off, with several utility-type candidates to get reps in right field as well. Ryan Mountcastle -- the team's No.4 prospect according to MLB Pipeline -- could potentially factor in at some point down the line also, depending how the Orioles choose to balance opportunity and development during this truncated 60-game season.
2. Rotation station
By the time Spring Training was shut down, two of the O’s more pressing storylines had largely been resolved: they’d whittled their group of eight rotation candidates down to a manageable six, and decided to move forward without Rule 5 picks Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker in the fold. Expanded rosters for this shortened season now make their pitching jumble a lesser issue – the focus shifts to stockpiling depth rather than making difficult cuts.
By mid-March, it appeared as if Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone and Kohl Stewart were all in line for backend rotation jobs, with Hector Velazquez a potential swingman option. The only thing that’s changed is how much easier its gotten to carry all -- and perhaps a few other long-relief types -- on the roster at once. The situation at the top of the rotation remains unchanged, with John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski in line for the top three slots.
3. Who’s on first?
The situation is similar with regards to the multiple utility jobs up for grabs, which constituted the O’s most intriguing position player battle of camp. Andrew Velazquez and Pat Valaika were turning heads in competition with Richie Martin and several others at the stoppage of camp. Now expanded rosters probably mean the Orioles can carry all three, though adding Valaika will still require clearing a 40-man roster spot. And with player pools housing potential reinforcements, Stevie Wilkerson, Dilson Herrera and others could an see opportunity at different points this summer. The Orioles prioritized versatility both last year and this spring, moving players all over the field during camp. It should be no different the second time around.
4. Are the prospects coming?
The Orioles won’t mix their top prospects with the pool of players set to workout at Oriole Park, putting much of their prospect intrigue on the back-burner for now. But the plan is to open a separate satellite camp at some point in the next few weeks and begin sending blue-chippers there for development purposes, a group that's likely to include top prospects Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, nearly big league-ready players like Mountcastle and Keegan Akin, and potentially 2020 Draft picks as well.
Do any of the more polished prospects get the chance to debut in 2020? Before the pandemic struck, Mountcastle, Akin and No. 28 lefty Bruce Zimmermann seemed safe bets to do so by mid-summer, with Dean Kremer (No.9) and Yusniel Diaz (No.7) looking like potential September callups. Then there are cases of mid-level prospects like Mason McCoy, Rylan Bannon and Zac Lowther who were in big league camp and are growing closer to their debuts, but still considered not quite ready. The calculus could change with regards to many of them, with opportunities for Minor Leaguers to play outside of team-sanctioned controlled environments uncertain.
What’s clear at the moment is none will be with the big league club on Opening Day, but questions abound. How many are brought in? How are their timelines affected? What happens if the team gets hot and becomes a surprise contender? Are certain guys sped up, others slowed down? It’s all worth keeping an eye on.
“I do expect we will have players from the low Minors that realistically otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to participate in the high Minor League or Major League level this year and that will be primarily for player development purposes,” general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias said this week. “Logic would dictate there would be some of our top prospects. But we’ve also got a lot of prospects that perhaps aren’t as publicly ranked as highly but they’re more proximal to the Major Leagues and we need to get them ready for eventual or possible Major League debuts this year.”
“So it’s going to be kind of a sliding scale between who you are and how close you are to the big leagues, but also filling out depth for the Major League team this year. There are a lot of considerations. That just makes it a big case-by-case, person-by-person decisions.”