The Baltimore Orioles still have 53 players in their Major League camp, obviously for 25 Opening Day spots. 2B, backup C, backup INF, backup OF, and several bullpen spots are the positions with multiple players making the decisions hard, which is a good problem for any team to have. Even better for the Orioles, is that most of the spots still in question are for backups to their stacked everyday lineup.
Once again, 2B is wide open for the Orioles, as it has been since Brian Roberts' last full season in 2009.
Underachieving former Rule 5 Draft pick Ryan Flaherty is often mentioned as the favorite, after being a part of the team all of 2012 (only because he had to be to remain with the organization) and most of 2013. Flaherty's defense is overrated, and his hitting has been streaky. In 2012 and the first half of 2013, he was an automatic out. Later in 2013, Ryan seemed to finally find his offensive groove, but then his new-found momentum was pushed aside by the return of the prodigal son, Brian Roberts (now a rival NY Yankee). Flaherty may never be more than a utility infielder and stopgap.
Streaky Jemile Weeks was brought in from Oakland in the Jim Johnson trade to compete with Flaherty. Weeks was up and down with the A's, but down more than up. He has plus speed, but hasn't really mastered consistent big league hitting. His bat has not been impressive so far this spring.
Orioles top position player prospect, 22 year-old Jonathan Schoop, was projected to start this season at AAA Norfolk, and be a mid-season call-up. So far this spring, Schoop is doing his best to derail that plan. Jonathan is hitting .529 with 1 HR, 3 doubles, and 5 RBI. He also hit a homer in each of Baltimore's 2 intra-squad games. Schoop is making it awfuly hard for the Orioles to keep him in the minors to start the season, especially since 2B is open, and he is the heir apparent.
If Schoop is sent down, both Flaherty and Weeks will most likely make the team, Flaherty as the starter, Weeks as a utility infielder, depending on how the rest of the bench shakes out. If Schoop wins the job, Flaherty may start at Norfolk, since Weeks also has value as a pinch runner, although Flaherty has the proven versatility to serviceably play any position other than catcher.
Here is a definite bench spot. Every MLB team carries a backup catcher. The Orioles plan to rest starter Matt Wieters more often this year. After having a revolving door at backup catcher the past few years, the Orioles have two solid candidates in camp this year: local product Steve Clevenger, who came over from the Cubs last season along with the departed Scott Feldman, and former San Francisco Giant Johnny Monell. Both are hitting well and playing well, Clevenger at .429, 1 HR, 5 RBI, Monell at .417, 1 HR, 1 RBI. The pitching staff has fared well this spring with either player behind the plate.
Baring injury, this competition will go until the end of spring training, and the Orioles can't lose either way.
The Orioles core infield is the best in baseball, with 1B Chris Davis, SS J.J. Hardy, 3B Manny Machado, and C Matt Wieters, with only 2B in question (insert Schoop here). How many bench spots the Orioles have will depend on how many pitchers they decide to carry.
Along with Flaherty and Weeks, veteran Alex Gonzalez is another infielder with a shot at making the Orioles Opening Day roster. Gonzalez could be the Orioles utility infielder, having played SS, 1B, and 3B in his career. The Orioles have given him a lot of playing time this spring, mostly at 3B, and Alex has responded by batting .353 with 1 double, 1 HR, and 4 RBI. He is almost a shoe-in to start at 3B if Manny Machado isn't ready by Opening Day.
Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar has a lot of promise, and Baltimore would love to keep him out of Boston's system, but he is a long shot to make the team. As much as the Orioles like him, they just don't have a spot for him, unless he beats out Alex Gonzalez for 3B if Machado isn't ready for Opening Day. Being solely a corner infielder, it wouldn't be practical to make him the utility man.
With Adam Jones and Nick Markakis entrenched in CF and RF respectively, the Orioles have replaced last year's LF, Nate McClouth, with a platoon of newcomers: David Lough, acquired from the Royals for Danny Valencia, and free agent slugger Nelson Cruz. The plan is to start Cruz at DH and Lough in LF against RHP, with Cruz in LF and possibly Delmon Young playing DH against LHP.
Henry Urrutia and Steve Pearce both have an outside shot of securing backup OF/DH roles.
Speedster Quintin Berry, has a shot at being the bench outfielder if the Orioles carry one, but Lough, Cruz, and Young take the total to 5 already, and it all depends on how many pitchers the team carries. Xavier Paul and Francisco Peguero are also somewhat in the running. Cuban product Henry Urrutia needs more at bats in AAA. Briefly successful, often injured, long-time prospect Nolan Reimold is out of options and out of favor. Expect to see him in a different uniform soon, one way or another.
Barring another free agent signing (Ervin Santana anyone?), the Orioles starting rotation is pretty well set as: Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris.
Bullpen sure-things are: Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz, and Ryan Webb (Lefty Troy Patton is suspended for the first 25 games). That leaves 3-4 bullpen spots, depending of how many bench players the team carries.
Non-roster invitees Evan Meek, Brock Huntzinger, and Eddie Gamboa have been impressive so far this spring, as has out of options LHP Kelvin De La Cruz. Former San Diego Padre Brad Brach has an outside chance of making the Orioles bullpen.
The Orioles will need another Lefty alongside Matusz in the bullpen during Patton's 25 game suspension. De La Cruz, Zach Britton, and T.J. McFarland are the best options, with De La Cruz pitching the best currently. They also need a long man in the pen, with Britton, Josh Stinson, and Steve Johnson as the prime candidates. All three have struggled to pitch consistently at the Major League level, with Britton failing as a starter several times. Britton and Stinson are both out of options, and would be claimed on waivers if DFAed, most likely pushing Johnson aside for now. The O's will have a hard time keeping both Britton and Stinson. Bud Norris would move to the long man role if the Orioles signed Ervin Santana.
Expect to see top prospect Kevin Gausman and former Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland start the season in AAA Norfolk's starting rotation. Due to work visa delays, Korean free agent Suk-min Yoon will get a late start to Spring Training, and may be kept in Florida for extended Spring Training, before beginning is US career at AAA Norfolk or AA Bowie. Former 2-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana was a no risk gamble on a Minor League contract, and the Orioles won't know what they have in him until mid-season.
Outside Looking In:
This spring is the last Orioles chance for underachievers Zach Britton and Nolan Reimold. Potential only goes so far before it must be replaced by performance. You can't be a prospect your entire career. It's put up or shut up for these two out of options players, and Reimold isn't playing the right tune. Britton has to prove he can go beyond Spring Training and succeed in the Major League regular season. If they don't make the Opening Day roster, and the Orioles can't work out a trade for either of these players, they most likely will be designated for assignment, and snatched up on waivers by a team which hasn't yet been disappointed by them.
Obviously, it is too early to hand out any of the contested jobs yet. Spring Training stats are what they are, when facing many batters and pitchers who won't be in the Major Leagues this season or even ever. Injuries and further signings are always possible.
Competition is a great motivating factor, and having many answers for each question is an enviable position in professional sports.
The Baltimore Orioles currently have a Grapefruit League best 9-2 record, nice stats, and a lot of promising players. Their last-minute moves sured up the holes on their team. A lot of the "second chance" type guys are rewarding the team for taking a chance on them. Hopefully it all will translate into a successful Orioles regular season and a trip back to the postseason.
©2014 Denim McDemus