Rotation, bench aren’t set as clock ticks down
Among decisions facing the team: where prized prospects will land
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Orioles spring training ends next Tuesday.
Unlike during the rebuild, expectations are higher this spring, as the club came off a surprise 2022 season and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias declared the goal is to make the playoffs.
However, the organization has several important decisions to make in the coming days, with opening day March 30 at the Boston Red Sox fast approaching.
Here are five questions facing the Orioles during the final week of spring training.
Who will be the opening day starter and what will the order of the rotation be?
The first half of this question is an easier guess than the second.
Kyle Gibson, the 35-year-old veteran the team signed for $10 million this offseason, is the clear front-runner to get the opening nod. That contract was the largest Elias has handed out to a free agent since he took over the Orioles’ front office in November
While manager Brandon Hyde isn’t announcing the team’s opening day starter yet, he said “experience” is one of his main criteria. The Orioles entered camp with 12 starters competing for the starting rotation and Gibson has pitched more major league innings (1,504) than the other 11 combined. The right-hander has also started opening day before — with the Texas Rangers in 2021 — although he recorded only one out before being bounced.
The order of the current spring training rotation might be a tell for what the sequence could be when the Orioles face the Red Sox and Rangers to begin the season. Following Gibson, who started Sunday, are: Kyle Bradish, Cole Irvin, Dean Kremer and Grayson Rodriguez.
That order could be altered this week, though, as Hyde said Tyler Wells, one of the three other pitchers competing for a rotation spot, would get another start in Florida.
April also offers several days off to give the club flexibility to make changes once the rotation is set next week.
How will the Orioles fill out their bench?
After Monday’s cuts, Baltimore has 46 players on its spring training roster. The Orioles brass will soon have to remove 20 names from that list.
“We definitely still have a big camp,” Hyde said. “We still have a lot of question marks on the pitching side as well as with the extras position player-wise. Guys are making it hard on us.”
The position player competitions
remaining include the backup outfield spots as well as the left-handed-hitting bench bat — and if any of those players can play first base, that’s a plus, too. But there likely won’t be answers until the very end of camp.
“I think we’re going to be waiting until the last day on a bunch of guys,” Hyde said. “I think there might be a couple sporadic cuts in between now and opening day, but I think that we’re gonna have these guys get as many at-bats as possible and see some of these guys throw up until the very end.”
So whether the final three bench spots are once again taken up by infielder Terrin Vavra and outfielders Kyle Stowers and Ryan McKenna — or if the club instead rosters outfielder Daz Cameron or one of the several left-handed-hitting outfielders/first basemen — is still up in the air.
Will Grayson Rodriguez break camp in the show?
Elias has repeatedly said he wants Rodriguez to be in the Orioles’ starting rotation all season. Hyde said over the weekend that the club is giving him “every opportunity” to break camp in the big leagues.
But will that actually happen?
On one hand, Rodriguez is clearly one of the Orioles’ five most talented starters. He’s a consensus top-10 prospect for a reason, and despite his up-and-down spring, the quality of his stuff hasn’t been the issue. James McCann, who has caught five Cy Young Award winners, said if the decision was based solely on the 23-year-old’s stuff, “no doubt he’s ready.”
On the other hand, he hasn’t been polished in his past two starts, especially once he gets to the second time through the order. He struggled with command in the fourth inning both times and fell into quicksand. The right-hander is also coming off a campaign in which he missed three months with a lat muscle injury, and he’s never pitched more than 103 innings in a season.
If the organization chooses to start Rodriguez in Triple-A, the other rotation options would be Wells, Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins — three pitchers who combined to start 60 games in 2022.
Will DL Hall open as a Triple-A starter or big league reliever?
DL Hall wants to be a starting pitcher. The Orioles want him to be a starting pitcher.
But how do they go about getting him there?
The Orioles seemingly have two paths with the talented left-hander: Send him to Norfolk to build him up as a starting pitcher and then call him up later in the season, or start him off in the big leagues, having him ramp up as a member of the bullpen.
Both paths have their advantages. It would be easier, in theory, to advance Hall, who had a slow start to camp with a lower back injury, through his progression in the minors. However, as Baltimore’s No. 2 pitching prospect demonstrated Monday in his 2023 spring debut, he’s a major league-caliber arm, and his presence as a lefty out of the bullpen would bolster the pitching staff.
What the Orioles choose to do with Hall will impact the other relievers vying for the final three seats in the bullpen. If Hall breaks camp with Baltimore, that could hamper lefthander Keegan Akin’s chances of making the team. If Hall doesn’t, that adds another spot for converted starter Mike Baumann or Rule
5 draft pick Andrew Politi.
Will there be a late-spring surprise?
There has yet to be a big surprise in Sarasota the past five weeks. Will the final week offer something unexpected?
For the Orioles in recent years, a shake-up typically occurs at some point during the six-week ramp-up. In 2021, the Orioles signed third baseman Maikel Franco with two weeks remaining in camp. In 2018, the Orioles signed starting pitcher Alex Cobb to a four-year contract in mid-March. In 2016, the team tried to send Hyun Soo Kim to the minor leagues after signing the Korean star to a major league contract that offseason.
There’s no guessing at what the surprise could be, if there is one at all. Perhaps the assumptions regarding the camp competitions are wrong, and players who are seen as roster locks are actually on the bubble. With the amount of depth the Orioles have for the last three bullpen spots and the final couple of bench spots, it’s certainly possible that Elias & Co. have a different take on some players than the conventional wisdom.
Either way, the last week of camp should offer more answers than questions.*