For better or worse, and after last year’s 47-115 record it’s more likely to be worse, the march towards the 2019 Orioles season has begun. Pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota today to mark the beginning of spring training. In another 44 days, a 25-man roster will be assembled from the camp competitions and they will play a real game.
It’s going to be a different atmosphere surrounding the team this spring. Last year, there was the sense that things were coming towards an unknown end - a gruesome one, as it turned out. This time around, something new will be beginning, but we don’t know what is getting started or how long it will take before it bears fruit for the Orioles.
An obvious reason for the change is that there are many different players than the core we came to appreciate in the Dan Duquette/Buck Showalter era. Now, as a Camden Chat commenter whose name I don’t recall put it in the aftermath of last July’s trades, the “I like our guys” Orioles have become the “Who the f— are our guys?” Orioles. When the most recognizable players left are Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, and Trey Mancini, it’s no wonder the team still hasn’t put out a schedule of promotions and giveaways for the season. There’s hardly anyone worth putting on a bobblehead.
With or without any household names, the Orioles have to put together a team between now and the end of next month. The spring training schedule may not answer all of their questions because spring training stats don’t count for much, but the new decisionmakers, GM Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, will have take how players have looked before and how they’re looking now to figure out how they might look in the near future.
As far as the 2019 season is concerned, the pressure is not on. There is no illusion that the Orioles might be anything other than a bad team at the MLB level while they fix everything that broke under the hood during the Duquette/Showalter days.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to figure out for this season. The new Orioles brain trust will be gauging a number of things as they try to set up for future success, including which veterans have trade value and which should just be cast aside, and which young players are deserving of chances in MLB and when to give them those chances.
In no particular order, key things for the O’s to get a handle on as they head towards games that count:
Chris Davis’s performance
The $92 million elephant in the room, with an additional $42 million deferred. Can Davis, after an offseason to refocus and a spring spent with a smarter Orioles staff, manage to return to any kind of positive contribution at all? If he looks great in spring, that will not tell everything, but if he still looks lost, it’s going to be harder to imagine any regular season rebound.
There probably won’t be any final decision made on him by the end of March. It might be obvious which way the wind is blowing, though.
Mark Trumbo’s health
Throughout the offseason, Trumbo has not sounded like a guy who’s guaranteed to be on track for Opening Day after knee surgery that ended his season last year. From the Orioles standpoint, there’s no reason for him to rush back to play in important games.
As soon as Trumbo does get healthy, the O’s will have to decide how to handle the positional logjam at first base/designated hitter of a struggling Davis, Trumbo, and a hopefully-not-in-left-field Trey Mancini.
The outfield of the future
With non-roster invitees Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna in camp along with 40-man roster outfielders Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart, and Austin Hays, there are almost two full outfields. If another NRI, third base prospect Ryan Mountcastle, ends up in the outfield, there are two full outfields.
We will probably get a sense through the spring of how the new O’s leaders view these young players. If Diaz, regarded by a number of publications as the top O’s prospect, looks close to MLB ready, whoever is in his position on Opening Day may not be there for long.
Should Mullins’s platoon splits to date relegate him to a part-time player? His poor performance against lefties at the MLB level last year is in line with his minor league numbers.
If Hays is back and healthy, where does he fit in? How long will they make him cool his heels in the minors to prove he’s back? Will the new regime be as fond of Stewart as the old seemed to be? Not all of these questions will be answered conclusively by the end of spring, but it’s going to be interesting to see how Elias and company seem to be leaning.
The analytics are coming
The biggest potential source for optimism about the 2019 Orioles is that maybe the new coaching staff, armed with data from new front office nerds who know what is important to focus on, will be able to spark some improvement from returning players.
Perhaps the new people can bring out the best in someone like Dylan Bundy, who has yet to live up to hopes placed on him by his draft status. Maybe Alex Cobb regressed last year due to the Duquette/Showalter people not knowing what to encourage him to do. Maybe somebody can show Tanner Scott how to throw a strike. Maybe there’s someone who can finally make Mike Wright Jr. look like he belongs at the big league level.
This stuff may not be figured out in the spring as it will take some time to percolate. If by the middle of March there is someone looking like a brand new version of themselves, though, perhaps that’s a sign of a player who was just waiting for a smarter front office to show up and polish them.
Dream as big of a dream as you can stand being crushed in the icy fist of reality. The good news is that unless someone gets hurt, your dreams won’t start being crushed until Opening Day.