NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The very first pitch of the bottom of the first in the Orioles’ 5-0 Grapefruit League opening loss to the Braves on Saturday was topspun by Ronald Acuña Jr. and chopped high down the third-base line. Renato Núñez cut in front of the bag to backhand
NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The very first pitch of the bottom of the first in the Orioles’ 5-0 Grapefruit League opening loss to the Braves on Saturday was topspun by Ronald Acuña Jr. and chopped high down the third-base line. Renato Núñez cut in front of the bag to backhand the ball, spinning inside toward second base before uncorking a strong throw across the diamond. That it wasn’t in time said more about the footspeed of Acuña, who routinely ranks among MLB’s fastest players, than anything Núñez did or didn’t do.
An inning later, Núñez went behind the bag to corral a better-struck ball by Acuña, throwing him out at first. In a vacuum, they were two grounders in a spring exhibition game. But within the context of the Orioles' roster, they were the first of many defensive tests to come for Núñez, who is slated for more glove work this spring after hitting 31 homers as their full-time designated hitter last season. It was also telling that Núñez was one of the few regulars the Orioles brought to CoolToday Park for their spring opener.
“I’m going to play him a lot in Spring Training,” O's manager Brandon Hyde said. “Give him every opportunity to continue to work on his defense.”
That has been a directive already this spring, with Núñez getting consistent backfield work at both third base and first since the Orioles opened camp. Earlier this week, Hyde spoke glowingly of the improvements Núñez has made in practice over the course of last season, saying there was a “night and day difference” between “where he came from last spring to where he was at the end of the year.” The hope is he built on those training in Doral, Fla., this winter.
Núñez made nine of his 34 defensive appearances at third base, 24 at first base and one in left field in 2019.
“That’s one of my goals: to play the field,” Núñez said. “But as I always say, I’ll be ready to play whatever position they want me to play.”
Looking down the road, it’s not difficult to see how Núñez and the Orioles would both benefit from him increasing his versatility. He was the natural fit at DH last year, with Mark Trumbo injured and Rio Ruiz and Hanser Alberto getting long looks at third, spending the summer basically unchallenged in the role. But the Orioles have a potential logjam coming with the arrival of prospects Ryan Mountcastle (No. 4) and eventually Yusniel Díaz (No. 5).
Mountcastle would give them four bat-first corner types -- Trey Mancini, Chris Davis, Núñez and Mountcastle -- for essentially three jobs, since he is considered more of a first baseman than third baseman these days. Díaz is a corner outfielder who would push Mancini to first base, potentially forcing the Orioles to decide how to designate at-bats for Mountcastle and Núñez at DH. Since Mountcastle is a top prospect, the priority could easily go to him in that situation.
“I always like to work on my defense,” Núñez said. “The mindset is to get better at it.”
Speaking of …
… Mountcastle, Hyde further clarified the defensive plan for the 23-year-old this spring, saying he will play predominantly first base and left field. Mountcastle might also get some time at third base, Hyde said. Mountcastle on Saturday started in left, where he played 26 times at Triple-A Norfolk last season. He collected the Orioles' first hit of the spring in the fourth inning.
Back in action
Right-hander Cody Carroll had the best afternoon of any Orioles hurler, striking out two over a scoreless inning. It was his first outing in front of Orioles coaches since last spring, after he missed almost all of 2019 with back issues. Non-roster invitees Chandler Shepherd, Ty Blach and Rob Zastryzny also pitched, all allowing runs.
Hyde said John Means' spring debut would come on Tuesday, though it hasn’t been decided yet which side of the Orioles’ split-squad games he will start. The Orioles will host the Rays and travel to Fort Myers, Fla., to play the Red Sox, the first of three split-squad days this spring.
Acquired off waivers from the Indians on Wednesday, utility man Andrew Velazquez will be eased into spring games, Hyde said. Velazquez reported to Orioles camp on Friday, and he was not part of the team’s traveling contingent to North Port for Saturday’s game. He has been assigned No. 88.
Though it was unintentional, there was symmetry in new Orioles coach Fredi Gonzalez bringing out the lineup card on Saturday for what was the first Grapefruit League game at newly constructed CoolToday Park. Gonzalez, who was about to make his Orioles coaching debut, managed the Braves from 2011-16.
Veteran left-hander Wade LeBlanc's first audition of the spring comes on Sunday, when the Orioles open their home schedule with a 1:05 p.m. ET tilt against the Red Sox at Ed Smith Stadium. Davis is scheduled to make his spring debut after missing several workouts this past week due to illness. Boston will counter with right-hander Chris Mazza. The game can be watched live on MLB.TV or listened to on Gameday Audio.
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.