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The Orioles faith in their minor league system will be put to the test

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There are too many holes to fill with free agent signings, which could mean a lot of rookies in Baltimore.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

This offseason has been a bit of a dud across all of Major League Baseball, but few organizations have matched the ineptitude of the Baltimore Orioles. Spring Training starts next month, and yet the O’s have made just one free agent addition (minor leaguer Michael Kelly), selected three players in the Rule 5 draft, and made no notable trades despite endless rumors.

In recent winters, the Birds have made a habit of striking late on big-name free agent signings. That strategy hasn’t always worked out (see: Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez), but it’s what they have done with Dan Duquette at the helm. The difference this year is that just about every other team is waiting out the market as well, so there could be fewer “bargains” to be had.

Whether the Orioles sign players now or later, they have enough holes on their roster that they will be forced to look inside the organization to fill out at least a few positions. Baltimore’s farm system has been widely criticized by analysts in recent years, while many in the front office, and beyond, have expressed continued support of the youngsters.

Starting at the top

The organization’s top two prospects, Chance Sisco and Austin Hays, have already made their way to the majors. They would seem to be in line for bigger roles in 2018, and will surely be joined in the Charm City by some of their minor league teammates.

Sisco, the Orioles number one prospect according to MLB Pipeline, has been the heir apparent backstop in Baltimore for a few years now. Matt Wieters signed with the Nationals last winter, and Welington Castillo inked a free agent deal with the Chicago White Sox this winter. This clears the way for Sisco to split time with Caleb Joseph, or possibly take the starting job outright.

The O’s outfield desperately needs an infusion of athleticism. Adam Jones has had a great career, but his speed and fielding ability is dwindling. If he is to stay in center field, which it seems he will, he needs to be flanked by players with range to spare. Hays has exploded up the prospect ranking charts since being drafted in 2016 and made his MLB debut last summer as a 22-year-old. He looks to be the starter in right field entering the 2018 season.

Where the rest of the kids fit in is a bit murky. The bullpen has a few openings. Do the O’s need a fourth outfielder? And don’t even get us started on the void that is the starting rotation.

Bullpen woes

Zach Britton’s torn Achilles is terrible for many reasons. At a baseball level, it shortens the Orioles bullpen, one of the team’s strengths. Brad Brach now moves to the closer’s role with Mychal Givens presumably taking the eighth inning and everyone else falling in behind. The rest of the ‘pen is a mystery.

Darren O’Day is 35 and wobbling more than he used to. Miguel Castro could be headed to the rotation, although his peripheral stats are a bit disconcerting anyway. And Richard Bleier was great in 2017, but seems unlikely to repeat that performance. Even if all three guys stick around, the team needs to add a couple more players to the relief corps.

The one real “prospect” that has a chance to make the bullpen on Opening Day is Tanner Scott. The lefty has a 100 mph fastball and was fantastic at double-A Bowie in 2017 (2.22 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 69 innings), but he was awful in the Arizona Fall League (13.50 ERA, 7 strikeouts, 11 walks in 9.1 innings). He may need a great Spring Training to make the team, but he will be in Baltimore at some point in 2018.

However, an MLB bullpen is rarely made of young prospects. Instead, it’s usually a motley crew of the “other guys”. They tend to have deficiencies of some kind, but are still able to get hitters out in bunches. For the Orioles, that will likely come down to hurlers like Jimmy Yacabonis, Mike Wright and Donnie Hart. All three are products of Baltimore’s farm system. All three have flaws. But all three could play a huge role in this bullpen.

Around the outfield

As it stands, the Orioles likely outfield has Trey Mancini in left field with Jones in center and Hays in right. Mark Trumbo is the designated hitter (ugh) and Joey Rickard serves as the fourth outfielder.

But what if Trumbo does get dumped on some other club? Mancini would make the move to DH, but do we really want to see 162 games of Rickard in left field? He’s a useful player with speed and above-average fielding ability, but the 26-year-old is not an everyday player in the bigs. The O’s would need to find a full-time left fielder.

There are plenty of free agents that could come in and do a job as a stop gap, but left field has been a problem in Baltimore for years now. They need a long-term solution, and they need a left-handed bat. Luckily, the O’s already have two (possibly three) internal candidates for the job.

Anthony Santander is the 23-year-old switch hitter that the Birds selected in 2016’s Rule 5 draft. He missed most of last season with a forearm strain, but needs to stick in the big leagues this season or else the club must offer him back to the Cleveland Indians. He will get the first crack at the job.

Another option that has flown under the radar is former top draft pick D.J. Stewart. He has just turned 24 and showed impressive offensive skills at Bowie in 2017. In 126 games, he slashed .278/.378/.481 with 21 home runs and 79 RBI. He is a reliable left-handed bat with outstanding on-base ability and he will be about average with the leather.

The most unlikely option for the job is Cedric Mullins. The speedy switch-hitter out of Campbell is one of manager Buck Showalter’s favorites. He has good power for his size (5-foot-8, 13 home runs in 76 games) and is a natural athlete in center field. But he had injury troubles last year, and looks more in-line to learn at Bowie or Norfolk and make his debut in September as a late-season call-up.

Rounding out the rotation

The Orioles starting pitching stinks. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are the only two sure things on the 40-man roster. Everything else is a crap shoot. There are plenty of free agent starters on the market, and Baltimore will likely sign at least one, but that still puts a lot of pressure on the guys in-house.

In addition to Castro mentioned earlier, the O’s could look to Alec Asher and Gabriel Ynoa. The entire trio were given starts in 2017. They didn’t all go so great. That is a battle worth watching in Spring Training, but they are known commodities.

What is possibly more intriguing, is the unknown. Yefrey Ramirez impressed with the Baysox down the stretch. Chris Lee struggled in Norfolk, but was highly regarded prior to the season. And both David Hess and John Means are starting to impress a bit at double-A, but won’t wow anyone.

The big elephant in the room is Hunter Harvey. The first-round draft pick in 2013 has oodles of ability and will be coming off of a healthy off-season for the first time in years. He is still just 23 years old and has yet to pitch about low-A in Delmarva. He won’t begin the year in Baltimore, but there seems to be optimism that he won’t take long to plow through the minors.

If the Orioles don’t get active with trades and free agents, they will have no choice but to look internally for options. Perhaps this was Duquette’s plan all along? It would be quite the vote of faith in an organization’s scouting and development teams, but if it pays off, it would be well worth it. Of course, that’s a mighty big “if”.