It goes without saying that a strong spring training performance is not always indicative of future success at the big league level.
Then again, I just said it anyway.
Why the extra reminder? Because Baltimore’s current roster leaves a lot to be desired. The Orioles would absolutely love to see a few players take a step forward this season, and spring training will be the first opportunity for that to take place.
Tyler Young recently recalled the legend of Jake Fox when asking which Orioles player is poised to be a spring training standout? Fox famously slashed .297/.325/.797 and blasted 10 home runs across 27 games back in the spring of 2011. Fox made the team, but failed to replicate his impressive numbers at the Major League level. The Orioles optioned Fox to Triple-A after less than 30 games, and he never saw the big leagues again.
Since Young already mentioned several breakout candidates, let’s focus on players who will feel additional pressure this spring. Who needs to show up in a big way before the 2020 season kicks off?
The major difference here is that these guys could be down to their last shot to make a lasting impression. It’s year two for Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde; patience can run thin and prospects can surpass older players. So who’s feeling the heat?
The Orioles selected Sisco in the second round of the 2013 draft. Since then, there’s been one narrative that’s stuck with Sisco like a piece of Dubble Bubble. Solid bat, needs work as a pitch receiver. If you’re wondering how his reputation may have changed over the years, I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good? Sisco’s defense has closed the gap on his bat. The bad? It’s because he hasn’t delivered at the plate. Sisco hit only .181/.288/.269 across 63 games in 2018. Last year he showed some improvement, but still slashed only .210/.333/.395. The California native hit just .168 in the second half of 2019.
A career OPS of .676 may be enough to make a guy press at the plate, but is there extra pressure on Sisco this spring? Just about every organization brings in catching depth at this point of the year, and the Orioles are no different. Pedro Severino and Austin Wynns are both capable of catching at the big league level, so it would behoove Sisco to stand out from the pack.
On top of that, there’s a certain number one overall pick that’s making his way down to Sarasota. While Adley Rutchsman is not a candidate for the 26-man roster this season, he could be in 2021.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there appears to be an opening or two in the Orioles rotation. While the O’s have yet to hang a “Help Wanted” sign on the outside of the warehouse, Elias has said the Birds are open to bringing in multiple starting rotation options.
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between being open to signing pitchers, and actually doing it. Drew Bonifant recently asked if Aaron Sanchez would be a worthwhile target for Baltimore. Sanchez, or any other free agent signing, would join Asher Wojciechowski, Wade LeBlanc, Rule-5 pick Brandon Bailey, and other internal candidates for a spot in the O’s rotation.
After taking a peak at Hess’s 2019 stats, calling the righty “an internal candidate to start” may be the nicest thing you can say about him. His 1-10 record, 7.09 ERA and 1.550 WHIP are all numbers to forget. Still, someone has to start these games. John Means and Alex Cobb are the only guarantees to take the ball every fifth day, and their health cannot be guaranteed either.
David Hess could springboard his way into the conversation with a few impressive outings. However, a disastrous spring could push the Orioles closer to cutting bait with the 26-year-old who has yet to show any true potential.
Like Hess, Stewart hopes to find himself in the O’s rotation at the end of March. The Orioles inked Stewart to a split contract during the off season that gives him plenty of personal motivation to make the club. Stewart signed a one-year deal that will pay him $800,000 if he’s on the MLB team, but only $200,000 in the minors. That sounds like it might add a little pressure to me.
As a former first round draft pick, Stewart likely knows a thing or two about pressure. The number four pick of the 2013 draft posted a modest 3.68 ERA in his first eight Major League games for the Twins two years ago. However, Stewart’s ERA nearly doubled to 6.39 in nine games last season.
That was enough for Minnesota to cut ties with the 25-year-old despite the fact that he still holds options. Stewart still having an option remaining does not help his chances to break camp with the club, which only adds an extra incentive to perform right away.
Dwight Smith Jr.
The Orioles Opening Day outfield is not set in stone, but a trio of Anthony Santander, Austin Hays and Trey Mancini would likely be the favorite. Hays will have to earn the starting nod in center, but Baltimore does not have another obvious choice to man the middle. Santander showed enough last season to give him an edge entering camp, and Trey Mancini returns as the Orioles best offensive weapon.
With DJ Stewart sidelined to begin the year, Baltimore’s fourth (and maybe fifth) outfielder gig is up for grabs. Smith Jr. should have an opportunity to nab one of those spots, but it won’t be without competition. Cedric Mullins began last season as the Orioles starting center fielder, and he’ll certainly be motivated to put 2019 behind him. Mullins has an edge on Smith Jr. defensively, and Mason Williams can play all three outfield jobs as well. Any of those three could earn an Opening Day spot with a strong enough spring.
Stewart will likely push for big league time once healthy, and Ryan McKenna could come calling by the end of the season. Smith Jr. needs to strike while there’s an opportunity, and a strong spring would go a long way.
It’s rare to win a job solely from a spring training performance, but it’s a lot easier to lose one. For many of these guys, starting off on the right foot would go a long way toward a successful season.