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Which dark horses have the best shot of cracking the Orioles roster?

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A hint: the Orioles need pitching.

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

New year, new faces … same old Orioles. The great majority of slots on the 26-man roster are as good as sewn up, but as usual, the idea that in less than a month-and-a-half, this club is going to trot out a full major-league pitching staff reminds me of that dream where you realize you showed up to school in your underwear.

Since 2018, GM Mike Elias and his team of analysts have helped the Orioles shed $100 million of payroll by trading away every Orioles veteran with any market value: starters Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner and Tommy Milone, plus relievers Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier. So while the Orioles’ farm system now looks better than it has in most fans’ memory, all those trades over the last two seasons have left a lot of immediate needs to be met.

For now, here’s my best guess at the state of the roster, and who fills the open slots:

Catcher—Chance Sisco, Pedro Severino

Infield—Trey Mancini, Yólmer Sánchez, Freddy Gálvis, Rio Ruiz, Chris Davis, ??

Outfield—Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart

Starting Pitcher—John Means, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, ??, ??

Bullpen—Shawn Armstrong, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, Cesar Valdez, ??, ??, ??

An Extra OF/DH

My assumptions here are that all of the outfield slots are set, that the Orioles start off with a four-man bench and an eight-man bullpen, and that both of those change over the season as players shuttle around between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. I think Cedric Mullins’s speed, ability to get on base, versatility in the outfield, and his strong 2020 carry him onto the roster. Lefty slugger DJ Stewart is on the bubble, but I slot him in because I think Elias and manager Brandon Hyde will give him another shot to see if the power reappears that drove a six-game, six-homer streak that led MASN to name him “quite possibly the hottest hitter on the planet” last September. Stewart’s power and lefty bat are also valuable in the DH spot, which he will share with Chris Davis.

The Utility IF spot

If DJ Stewart makes it onto the roster, that leaves the Orioles with room for one backup infielder alongside Davis. I have 2B Jahmai Jones with the inside track. A second-round 2015 draft pick for the Los Angeles Angels, LA’s former no. 7-ranked prospect has many Orioles personnel seemingly really high on his athleticism. Jones’ bat may be his limiting factor—he’s a career .258 hitter in the minors with just 7 MLB plate appearances, though I’m kind of digging his compact swing—but at just 23, and in a utility role, that won’t matter as much.

Jones and Stewart being on the roster bumps hotly-anticipated prospect Rylan Bannon down to Triple-A for the time being, but odds are he’ll debut with the team relatively soon, too. A .280 career hitter in three minor league seasons to go with an .856 OPS, Bannon offers infield versatility—plus Elias keeps strongly hinting that he likes him. (Bannon’s even been taking reps at catcher since instructional league, and we know that Brandon Hyde likes having an emergency third catcher.)

The Rotation: Two Olds and Two Newbs?

Here begins the real craziness. The Orioles have at least two rotation spots to fill (or three if they go with a sixth starter), plus at least three in the bullpen (or four if they decide not to carry an extra outfielder).

Along with third-year “veteran” John Means, I’m assuming that Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer get the benefit of the doubt, even though the two rookies have all of 14 major-league starts between them. Neither was brilliant in 2020, but they both faced some difficult teams and put up some interesting numbers (Kremer’s 2.76 FIP, for one, and Akin’s 3.27 FIP and 12.3 K/9).

If so, that leaves two rotation slots to be divided between approximately 14 candidates, if I’m counting right: seven from the 40-man roster (journeyman Jorge Lopez, Rule 5 guys Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler, plus newly-protected prospects Bruce Zimmermann, Alex Wells, Zac Lowther, and Michael Baumann), four non-roster invitees (Tom Eshelman, “King Félix” Hernández, Wade LeBlanc, and Matt Harvey), and three camp reserves (lefty Josh Rogers, former Red Sox prospect Konner Wade, and one-time Tigers prospect Spenser Watkins).

Because we currently have no access to film of bullpen sessions or anything (Matt Harvey was apparently just finishing his physical yesterday), there is precious little to base this on. For tactical reasons alone, I want to say that at least one of the (soft-tossing) veterans—LeBlanc, Hernández, or Harvey—makes the team as a veteran presence. Admittedly, LeBlanc is the most-recently least-bad, with a 3.72 ERA in 27 starts for Seattle in 2018. Likely future HOFer Hernández made at least 15 starts in each of the three seasons from 2017-2019, but his ERA ranged from 4.36-6.40 as his velocity dropped. But imagine having him in the dugout mentoring the youngsters. And wouldn’t it be fun if the two former Mariners teammates were united again?

Lefty prospect and Maryland native son Bruce Zimmermann had one start in two 2020 appearances, but I think he—along with Wells, Lowther, and Baumann—is likely to begin the season at Triple-A.

The ‘Pen: Wild Guesses Welcome

Besides the probable locks—Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong, Paul Fry, and probably Cesar Valdez, there are at least three slots open in the bullpen, maybe four. I kind of like Jorge López’s chances: he was the embodiment of hit-or-miss in 2020, but he, like Tom Eshelman, provides a long-relief or a sixth-man option in the rotation—and Hyde likes flexibility. I’m with MASN’s Roch Kubatko on Fernando Abad, a veteran lefty who could add stability.

Until we see more from the rest—and there are a mind-boggling 37 pitchers competing in camp right now— the rest is wild guessing. But, while we’re at it, righty Cody Carroll and Dillon Tate have the upside, and so does Josh Rogers, if he’s back to 2018 form after recovering from Tommy John.

Just because there are lots of arms in Orioles doesn’t mean there are lots of answers. As Harrison Jowziak wrote yesterday, “the upcoming season will require plenty of creativity” from O’s management: we could see “anything from a six-man rotation, to openers, or bullpen days, or maybe something even more insane.” The best prediction is probably just to plan for the unexpected.