One of the accepted realities of spring training is that teams don't make their star players hit the road for bus trips very often. The Orioles are no exception to this. If for some reason a person would have followed the O's across Florida this spring, they wouldn't have seen Adam Jones in any road game, and they would have only seen Manny Machado twice and Chris Davis once.
The league doesn't like it when teams take this sort of thing too far. There are rules requiring a certain number of regulars to play in spring road games and teams that repeatedly flout those rules are hit with fines. On Monday, the Fort Myers News-Press reported that multiple teams have been hit with fines over this rule over the course of this spring training.
What are the chances that the Orioles are one of these teams? The News-Press reviewed early spring road games and didn't finger the O's as one of the worst offenders, but they only followed games over the first few days of spring training, which made me curious whether things were any different since then and whether the O's might have done anything to draw MLB's ire over spring road lineups.
This is the rule:
"A minimum of four players who were regulars on the previous year's Major League team or who were platooned on the previous year's Major League team on a regular basis, or who have a reasonable chance to be regulars on the Major League Club's squad during the upcoming season should make road trips. Each of those regulars, excluding pitchers, must play a minimum of three complete innings."
The spirit of the law is fairly simple: Send real big leaguers on road games, because, as MLB spokesman Michael Teevan told The News-Press, they want to ensure "that fans can see a quality product on the field." The league wants people to keep spending money to go see games that don't count. The letter of the law allows some leeway to leave the stars at home, leeway that teams happily take.
The starting nine position players on the O's opening game of spring, which they played at Atlanta's spring home to a 4-4 tie: Ryan Flaherty, Steve Tolleson, Jimmy Paredes, Christian Walker, Hyun Soo Kim, Caleb Joseph, Henry Urrutia, Dariel Alvarez, Paul Janish
It's not a lineup you would ever want to see in a regular season game. You probably wouldn't want to see even three of those names at once in the same regular season lineup. But if you take that lineup and compare it to the rule, the O's look to be in compliance.
Flaherty, Joseph, and Paredes all played in more than half of the team's games last season and had about a half season worth of plate appearances. With the rule noting regulars or regulars in a platoon from last year, I'd say those three qualify, though it may be that none of them will be regulars this year. Kim is certainly someone with "a reasonable chance to be a regular" this season. So that's four regulars enough to meet MLB's criteria.
The News-Press analysis left out split-squad games, presumably because there is some recognition that teams having to field two teams worth of players in two different locations on one day will not be held to the same standard. A road O's split squad on March 5 had Flaherty, Kim, and Joseph in the lineup, though a March 17 road split squad had only Flaherty who would seem to count as a regular.
What's in a regular, anyway?
That's not to say that the O's have always been in compliance. Road lineups on March 4 and March 6 only get to four regulars if you want to count Joey Rickard as having a reasonable chance of being a regular.
The Rule 5 pick is certainly a regular for spring training purposes, as he has played in 17 games, but you have to stretch both the meaning of "a reasonable chance" and "regular" to think Rickard will play as much as someone like Joseph did last season.
Maybe MLB is more generous than I would be. The News-Press noted a particularly anemic Red Sox lineup from early in spring training, which Boston manager John Farrell defended by proclaiming catcher Ryan Hanigan, who played 54 games last season, as a regular. Farrell also included Travis Shaw, who played in 65 games for the team in 2015.
According to our friends over at the Red Sox blog Over The Monster, Shaw may be under consideration to supplant Pablo Sandoval at third base in what strikes me as the same way Tyler Wilson might pass Miguel Gonzalez for a starting rotation spot for the O's. So maybe Shaw counts as having a reasonable chance at being a regular.
There's no indication of whether or not MLB accepted this explanation in this case. It may be as laughable to them as it sounds to me.
If the Red Sox did get a pass for that lineup, and backup catcher Hanigan would count as a regular, maybe Rickard would count as a regular after all. If Rickard counts as a regular, the O's have trotted out a compliant lineup in eight of their nine full-squad road games. In fact, in that ninth game (March 11 at Yankees), if we are also generous about "regular," Nolan Reimold, who played in 61 games last year, may even count.
Without Rickard or Reimold counting as regulars, the O's have followed the rule in six of the nine full-squad road games.
Is that enough to satisfy MLB? That probably depends on their level of tolerance. Think about it this way. If a batter gets a hit in two-thirds of his at-bats, he's batting .667 and he's a baseball god among men. If a pitcher gives up a hit to a third of the batters he faces, his batting average against is .333 and he is terrible.
Whoever has been made to pay these fines, it's probably a safe guess they are a nuisance-level fine, so even if the O's have been levied with one or two of them, it doesn't matter all that much. But unless the league has been real sticklers about it, the Orioles shouldn't have had to pay for what they've done. They haven't sent their stars, but they have followed the rule.
The Orioles only have four road games remaining in their Grapefruit League schedule, including one later today. As the regular season gets closer, more and more time will go to the regulars and the rule won't keep being much of an issue.