Spring Training begins later this week, and with its onset comes the recurring hope, for most teams, that this will be “their year.” Of course, the Orioles don’t have to worry about pesky things like “hope” in 2019. But difficult decisions still face the club when it comes to determining who will make up their 25-man roster on Opening Day next month.
Mike Elias, Brandon Hyde and company have nearly 60 players in-house to choose from. In addition to the 40-man roster, they have also invited 19 additional players to camp in Sarasota in order to compete for a spot on the big league squad. There is always a possibility that they add more names between now and the day that everyone shows up in Florida, but here is the current list of invitees:
-LH Sean Gilmartin
-RH Gregory Infante
-RH Dean Kremer
-LH Chris Lee
-RH Josh Lucas
-RH Zach Pop
-RH Bo Schultz
-RH Gabriel Ynoa
-C Martin Cervenka
-C Carlos Perez
-C Jesus Sucre
-C Andrew Susac
-INF Christopher Bostick
-INF Ryan Mountcastle
-INF Jace Peterson
-INF Zach Vincej
-OF Yusniel Diaz
-OF Ryan McKenna
-OF Mike Yastrzemski
It’s mostly a mix, as spring invite lists often are, of fringe veterans looking to latch onto a big league team one more time and highly-regarded prospects hoping to finally reach the majors for the first time. Last year, four non-roster invitees made the Orioles Opening Day roster. It would be surprising to see that many end up on the roster again in 2019, but there is a good chance that at least one NRI does make the cut.
Kremer, Pop, Mountcastle, Diaz and McKenna all fit into the “highly-regarded prospect” category. Mountcastle was in O’s camp last year, while Diaz earned an invite to Dodgers camp. The other three will be making their MLB pre-season debuts.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see anyone in that group follow in the footsteps of Cedric Mullins or D.J. Stewart, both of whom spent last spring in Sarasota before playing most of the regular season down on the farm followed by late-season cameos in Baltimore.
None of the five prospects mentioned has spent any time above Double-A to this point, and the Orioles have no reason to rush them. For both developmental and compensation reasons, don’t expect any of them to head north with the Birds at the end of March.
Pitching staff in flux
The name among the pitchers that jumps off of the page is Lee. Not long ago, the lefty was climbing the Orioles prospect lists after coming over in a 2015 trade with the Astros. Then he had an injury-riddled 2016, a disastrous 2017, and more injuries in 2018, resulting in him being dropped from the 40-man followed by a disappointing performance in the Arizona Fall League. Unfortunately, it seems injuries have sapped him of his effectiveness.
Gilmartin is another southpaw that should be familiar to Orioles fans. He appeared in 12 games last season, striking out 15 and walking 11 over 27 innings while compiling a 3.00 ERA. The 28-year-old could fit as a lefty specialist as he owns a career .231/.296/.301 slash line against same-handed competition. It will be interesting to compare Gilmartin to the other left-handed relievers (Paul Fry, Donnie Hart, Richard Bleier) during camp.
One pitcher that was expected to compete for a substantial role on the pitching staff last year, but never got the chance. was Ynoa. Recurring injuries to his shin put the right-hander on the shelf for all of 2018 after a 2017 season in which he flashed. Ynoa is still just 25, and could be a good fit as a swingman or possible opener if the O’s employ that strategy.
The final chunk of the pitchers in camp (Infante, Lucas, Schultz) have each had multiple runs in the bigs, but have been unable to stick. Infante was impressive with the White Sox back in 2017 (.226 BAA, 3.13 ERA, 49 SO, 20 BB in 54.2 IP), but flopped in 2018 (.354 BAA, 8.00 ERA, 6 SO, 8 BB in 9 IP). Lucas has struggled with walks (13 BB in 21.2 IP) during his brief major league appearances. Schultz is the most intriguing of the group.
Schultz has not pitched in MLB since 2016. He spent all of 2017 rehabbing from a torn UCL (Tommy John) in his pitching arm. Then he played in the Pirates organization last year, pitching to a 1.43 ERA, striking out 32 and walking 14 over 37.2 innings while allowing a .221 batting average against. Not all of those numbers are eye-popping, but they are impressive for a 33-year-old coming off of an arm injury. On top of that, he is a Northwestern University graduate, where he earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. At the very least, he would make for a feel good story.
A crowded lineup
The older position players (Bostick, Peterson, Vincej and Yastrzemski) each face extreme uphill battles to break camp with the big league team.
Peterson has the longest track record of the bunch. The 28-year-old has position flexibility and the ability to steal bases, but he can’t hit much and has never been better than average in the field no matter which glove he’s wearing. He fits best as organizational depth in Norfolk if he’s willing to stick around.
Bostick has 35 games of MLB experience; Vincej has 10. Since being drafted in 2011, Bostick has played for five different organizations. He’s got an intriguing offensive game, coming off of a .295/.354/.414 minor league slash line in 2018. Vincej is a glove-first option in the Paul Janich mold. A big spring for either one could squeak them onto the roster, but the infield is the most crowded area on the team, and it may prove tough to beat out Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson among others.
Yastrzemski’s best shot at making the team out of the spring likely hinges on the health and productivity of one player: Joey Rickard. Yaz profiles as a fourth outfielder like Rickard, and 2019 is the only year he has before many of the club’s top prospects make their way to Baltimore. Even if everything does break well for the 28-year-old, there remains a chance that the Orioles opt for a cheap big league veteran on a one-year deal over the longtime minor leaguer.
Behind the dish
The clear favorite to make the big league team out of all of these non-roster invitees is among the catching group. Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns are the only two backstops on the 40-man roster. Combined, they have 115 games of major league experience. Neither of them cemented their place as major leaguers long term with their 2018 performances, though Wynns did a heck of a lot more than Sisco.
For a similar reason, Cervenka would seem unlikely to beat out his older competition. It makes little sense to add a rookie into the mix at this point. The 26-year-old has yet to play above Double-A and may need the seasoning prior to emerging in the big leagues.
That leaves Susac, Perez and Sucre. Susac spent time with the Orioles last year, but couldn’t hit a lick (.115/.115/.154), struck out a ton (46.2 percent) and then had a weird situation where he left Norfolk without permission while injured. Perez had a Susac-like batting line (.143/.178/.214) with the Braves and Rangers, but is thought of as an above-average defender. And then there is Sucre.
The former Ray signed a minor league deal earlier this month that could be worth $850,000 if he makes the big league team. Like every other catching option here, the soon-to-be-31-year-old can’t hit much (.209/.247/.253 in 73 games last year). But he is solid behind the plate (84.5 mph throwing speeding, thrown out 32 percent of basestealers in his career) and has a reputation for working well with his pitchers. On a team that is expected to have a lot of moving parts and young hurlers getting their first taste of the bigs, it would be reassuring to have a knowledgeable and charismatic figure helping to mold the inexperienced arms.
There are a lot of variables at work during spring training. Players get hurt. Others get released by teams unexpectedly. In this era, trades and free agent signings are happening closer and closer to Opening Day. There is no guarantee that any of these non-roster players will be on the team by the end of February let alone March.