There isn’t much silver lining to be found in the Orioles being without previously-expected Opening Day starter Chris Tillman for at least all of April. With Tillman ailing, though, and the fifth turn in the starting rotation not coming up until April 15, the Orioles can at least gain a little flexibility in how they stock their bench in the very early parts of the season.
The Orioles may not end up choosing to do this, although if they don’t, that would be against the usual way that Dan Duquette operates. He may love marginal roster moves more than his children.
The assortment of fifth starter candidates - Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Gabriel Ynoa, Jayson Aquino, possibly others - can all be optioned to the minor leagues to start off the season. That means that if the Orioles carry the standard seven man bullpen and only four starters until April 15, they get to squeeze an extra bench spot until then, no matter who comes up to pitch in that spot.
The fate of one extra bench spot for nine games isn’t going to mean a whole lot for the season. That’s only 5.5% of the games in the upcoming season. But one way the Orioles have been able to exceed expectations in recent years has been their constant tweaking to have the best 25-man roster they can for each day’s game. Putting off a decision on how to trim the bench for nine games is absolutely an Orioles move.
Who could be a good candidate for a short-term fifth bench spot? Before answering that, we’d have to settle on who we think are the four bench players who will be carrying on regardless.
Two spots are easy. There must always be a backup catcher. Barring an injury in the last week of spring training, that seems like Caleb Joseph. There must also be a utility infielder. Ryan Flaherty will probably be that guy, once again standing sentinel over the Orioles infield, ready to do his thing when someone needs a day off.
Things get hazier when you start to consider the outfield. The current assumption is that the last two bench spots the Orioles will have for most of the season will go to right-handed hitting outfielders, because the O’s seem to be committed to having two corner outfielders, Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith, who need platoon partners against left-handed pitchers.
The Orioles are capable of confounding these assumptions by doing something weird and Oriole-like. They might decide, for instance, that Mark Trumbo is sufficient to man one of those corner outfield spots against left-handed starting pitchers. That would open up a bench spot for someone who may not be an outfielder at all. They could also continue to practice their “anyone can play outfield” philosophy by deploying Trey Mancini in this way.
Neither of those are good ideas, though they may be Orioles ideas. Still, for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going with Joey Rickard and Craig Gentry as the assumed bench outfielders.
Gentry is giving every indication of being the kind of guy who will try to revive his career for a year in Baltimore.
As long as Gentry’s healthy - a big if - he looks like the perfect prototypical fourth outfielder. He has speed and can play any outfield spot. He’s also a player the Orioles would need to have on the MLB team soon or they could lose him to an opt-out. When the opt-out guys have shown something, the O’s tend to give them a chance with the MLB club before losing them for nothing.
As for Rickard, well, the Orioles seem to like him. Why that is the case is an open question. Although Rickard had an exciting first week of the season last year, he went on to post a middling OBP with little power and poor defensive numbers before an injury ended his season on July 20.
At -0.7 fWAR, Rickard was actually one of the worst players in MLB last season. But he is definitely, probably, maybe, hopefully a better right fielder than Trumbo.
Another classic Duquettian move is holding onto a Rule 5 pick who possibly has no business in a key role on an MLB squad now or ever. I think this makes Tavarez the most likely guy to stick around for the nine game float period. As a lefty-batting outfielder, his skillset is redundant. They don’t have room to try to keep him if they’re platooning both Kim and Smith.
However, that’s not to say Tavarez has shown nothing in spring training. He’s been one of the players getting heavy use in the spring, appearing in 26 games, and he’s batted (for what it’s worth) a healthy .298/.377/.404. Tavarez has also stolen seven bases. The Orioles can surely use someone who can steal a base, or at least be more likely to score a crucial late-game run than one of the team’s slow runners.
If the O’s go with the Trumbo as an outfielder strategy, Tavarez might even sneak into one of the regular bench spots ahead of Rickard, who can now be optioned. And if not, they’ll want to keep Tavarez just in case there’s a real or real enough injury to one of their other outfielders very early in the season. Smith has nursed a hamstring problem through most of spring training, for instance.
A guy who can come off the bench and hit a dinger is also someone the Orioles like. Maybe Mancini will be that guy. He has minor league options remaining, so they lose very little if they keep him around for nine games in case they find a spot where he can hit a possibly clutch dinger. Then they can send him down to Norfolk where they will either continue his outfield experiment or not.
The Trumbo to the outfield against lefty pitchers plan, if used, could also benefit Mancini. That could open up a roster spot for a player who can be used as a general purpose righty bench bat. Sporadic use for Mancini may not be the best idea for the O’s, though. They might think he needs regular at-bats either to continue to develop or to showcase as possible trade bait.
Another way the Orioles could surprise us is by going with an extra bullpen pitcher for those nine games, mooting this entire discussion. That seems like a bad idea. With three off days on the calendar before they even play six games, they don’t need the extra pitcher around as insurance.
Other than that, there don’t seem to be many other choices. At some point, the Orioles will have to decide whether to bring up Pedro Alvarez. That shouldn’t have to happen by Opening Day. And they’ll likely also kick the can down the road on making a decision about the other Rule 5 outfielder, Anthony Santander, by placing him on the disabled list to start the season.
With Santander never having played above High-A and nursing a couple of injuries through the offseason and spring training, there’s no way they could confidently plug him in for even a marginal roster role right now. But if they can put off making a decision until June, they will.
Opening Day is now just a week away and after Thursday, the Grapefruit League schedule is over. Whatever the Orioles end up deciding to do, we’ll know what it is soon.