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Which Orioles players face a make-or-break year in 2021?

DJ Stewart, Jorge López and other players will begin the year under pressure to perform. With multiple prospects knocking on the door, will any prove they are worth keeping around?

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

The Orioles will begin this season with several young prospects knocking on the door. Pair them with the young guns that have already arrived in Baltimore, and the O’s youth movement appears set to turn a corner.

Despite low expectations for the unit as a whole, Orioles fans have plenty to be excited about. Will Ryan Mountcastle continue at the same offensive pace as 2020, and can Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin cement their places in the O’s rotation?

They might.

Which player from the young group of arms will receive the first audition? Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Bruce Zimmermann will all head to Sarasota with aspirations of a spot on the 26-man-roster.

They’ll all get a shot at some point this season.

The thought of finally seeing what Yusniel Díaz can bring to the table and the pipe dream that is Adley Rutschman in a big league uniform this season are both fun to dwell on. But there’s another question to consider that isn’t quite as sexy.

When all these guys show up, whose spots are they going to take?

While Birdland may be fantasizing over the end of one player’s contract, there are a few others that may see their time in Baltimore come to an end. Who needs to perform this season?

DJ Stewart began last year with a brutal 0-14 stretch at the plate. After a predictable demotion to the team’s alternative camp, Stewart began to figure things out. He returned in early September and blasted seven home runs in a 10-day stretch. Unfortunately, his Ruthian effort at the plate was short lived.

The Orioles will certainly look for more consistency from Stewart if he manages to make the team. The time for Jekyll and Hyde shenanigans has come to an end with the return of Trey Mancini and the emergence of Mountcastle.

Stewart’s inability to play center field makes him a marked man in outfield depth. The 27-year-old must use his bat to overcome a lack of versatility and justify a coveted spot on the O’s bench. If the former first-round pick has not put it all together by the time Díaz gets the call, Stewart’s time in Baltimore may come to an end.

Rebuilds often leave players on the current roster some margin for error. After all, if the team had better players to replace them with, they would. Stewart has benefited from that sentiment, but not as much as the O’s only option at the hot corner.

Rio Ruiz may have felt a sense of urgency last season prior to a hot start. He slashed .300/.333/.750 through the first five games and played the hero in an early victory against the Red Sox. You can probably guess what happened next.

Ruiz cooled down during the dog days of the summer. He slashed a measly .222/.286/.427 over 54 games in the shortened season. After blasting three home runs in the first week, he tallied just six more for the remainder of the year.

Ruiz will once again arrive in Sarasota as the favorite to start at third. Ruiz has played less than 200 games in an Orioles uniform, but another full season of baseball should provide a large enough sample size for the Baltimore brass to make a decision. Without a step forward, his pre-arbitration salary will not be enough to justify a spot on the roster. Recent addition Tyler Nevin and overlooked prospect Rylan Bannon could push Ruiz out the door.

The Orioles claimed Jorge López last August to provide some much needed pitching depth. López flashed plenty of potential in the Royals’ organization but failed to deliver too many times. A lack of consistency and minor league options led to a plane ticket to Baltimore for López.

The O’s need for pitching depth has not changed, but neither has López’s lack of options. The 28-year-old could begin the year in the rotation or as a swingman. Regardless, Lowther, Zimmermann and others are on their way. López is a pre-arb player that would remain under team control until 2025, but he must show the Birds he’s worth keeping.

The same could be said for Rule 5 picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells. While the two pitching prospects are not in make-or-break years professionally, they both have a limited amount of time to show the Orioles they are worth keeping. Can either show enough to demonstrate they are worth a longer look? Only time will tell.

The Orioles farm system has slowly evolved into a nationally respected organization. When the kids show up, they will need a spot to play. That’s baseball. Will any of the guys mentioned above avoid the purge? We’ll find out soon enough.