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Diving deeper into the Orioles spring battles

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The start of the regular season is nearing, and the O’s still have quite a few roster spots up for grabs.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter the final full week of the Grapefruit League and begin to turn our attention towards the regular season, it feels fitting to examine the status of the Orioles roster and dive a bit deeper into the handful of battles playing themselves out all over the diamond.

Like many other teams, the O’s squad is largely sorted out. But there remain a handful of roster spots still up for grabs, or at least that is the way that the club’s decision-makers are making it seem. So, let’s talk them out and see if we can solve the puzzle that is the Orioles 2021 Opening Day roster.

Third base

For the last two seasons, Rio Ruiz has been the (largely unchallenged) starting third baseman for the Orioles. His steady hand on defense (3 DRS since 2019) has been appreciated despite subpar offensive contributions (85 OPS+) and replacement level value overall (0.7 bWAR). It wasn’t until mid-March that the Orioles brought in someone to compete with Ruiz for the major league job.

Maikel Franco was once a top-tier prospect in the Phillies system who has battled inconsistency throughout his big league career. His career .737 OPS is still lackluster for a third baseman, but it is an improvement over the .692 OPS Ruiz has posted in an Orioles uniform. The knock on Franco is his glove, which is perhaps a step below Ruiz, but it’s not worlds apart.

The question here is not really if Franco replaces Ruiz. That seems like a given as the penny-pinching Orioles have been hard-pressed to give out big league deals yet have already guaranteed Franco $800,000 in salary for the year. But when will that transition occur? There is language in Franco’s deal with the O’s that allows him to be optioned to the team’s alternate site to begin the season as he was late into camp and may need additional time to prepare.

Ruiz still has a good shot to open the year at the hot corner. But it will get interesting by the middle of the month, especially if he starts hot and Franco is ready to roll.

Final bench spot

Being a major league reserve is never a guarantee, but Pat Valaika should easily return to the role he had in 2020, when he played six different positions and posted a 114 OPS+. That earned him a $875,000 salary this season if he sticks in the bigs.

Injuries to Chris Davis (back) and DJ Stewart (hamstring) could mean, however, that Valaika is not the only super utility option on the roster.

Richie Martin finally returned to game action over the weekend after a broken hamate bone delayed his preseason. He looked overmatched back in his 2019 rookie season, and missing out on the 2020 season altogether may mean he is ticketed for Triple-A, but he he does offer speed and athleticism that few other Orioles possess.

Jahmai Jones arrived in Baltimore as part of the Alex Cobb trade with the Angels. Jones is a legitimate prospect who has a future as a starting infielder. But he has had a tough spring, and it may have been the Orioles’ plan all along to make him the starting second baseman in Norfolk for the year anyway.

Ramon Urias has a similar profile to Valaika. He is a bat-first utility option who is comfortable all over the diamond, but don’t expect him to turn in web gems on a daily basis.

This battle is rather straightforward. If Stewart is healthy, the Orioles want his bat on the roster. If he can’t go, then Urias will swoop in.

Rotation

We know that John Means is the Opening Day starter on the mound, and it seems fair to assume that Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin will join him in the rotation despite less-than-stellar spring stats. Beyond those three, the situation is unclear.

Felix Hernandez’s health concerns add another unwanted wrinkle. The six-time All-Star last pitched on March 16th, when he left the game after just an inning due to right elbow discomfort. He’s already been ruled out for his next start, and it is looking doubtful that he will be part of the club’s initial set-up this season.

Four contenders have emerged to fill those final two slots in the rotation: Jorge Lopez, Matt Harvey, Bruce Zimmermann, and Wade LeBlanc.

It’s not the most inspiring crew. There are no top prospects, or players with especially high ceilings. But that doesn’t mean they are completely without upside.

Zimmermann, in particular, has stood out. He is yet to allow a run in nine innings of work this spring, and the one hit he has given up has his opponent batting average at .036. The only reason to doubt the numbers is the competition he has faced. Baseball Reference rates the quality of the batters Zimmermann has faced at a 6.4 out of 10; that’s somewhere between High-A and Double-A.

The most intriguing arm is Harvey. He was a Cy Young contender nearly a decade ago, and has seen his career take some unfortunate twists and turns since then. But there is reason to believe that The Dark Knight has figured something out, and his velocity in Sarasota has been encouraging. There doesn’t seem to be a downside to letting Harvey take a few turns through the rotation to see what he can do.

Lopez and LeBlanc have both had nice springs as they attempt to bounce back from difficult 2020 campaigns. If one (or both) of them does miss out on starting they could be in play for a role out of the bullpen.

Bullpen

Just like Hernandez’s absence has stirred the starting pot, so has Hunter Harvey’s injured oblique impacted the relievers. The unit seemed nearly set before Harvey got put on the 60-day IL. Now, there is an opening without an obvious filler.

Any one of the four starters mentioned above could convert to a swingman role and work out of the bullpen as needed. Given the uncertainty in the O’s rotation, that seems to be the most likely route. But if Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde prefer someone else entirely, there would seem to be a trio of options.

The Orioles have two Rule 5 picks who would need to stay on the big league roster all year if they are to stay with the organization. Keeping both could prove impossible, but holding on to one is doable if the Orioles so choose.

Tyler Wells has outperformed Mac Sceroler this spring. Over six innings, the six-foot-eight Wells has struck out six and allowed just a run on six hits, two walks, and six strikeouts. Sceroler has served up five runs on five hits, five walks, and two strikeouts over 4.1 innings.

But both of the Rule 5 hurlers have been bested by non-roster invitee Conner Greene. The 25-year-old righty has a big-time fastball that made him a top 30 prospect in the Cardinals’ minor league system a few years ago. He has tossed five innings this spring, allowing one run one four hits, six strikeouts, and zero walks.

Juggling the Rule 5 picks is going to be difficult for a pitching-starved roster, and Greene has an option remaining that gives flexibility to his situation. There has been no indication here that the Orioles will do anything other than the obvious and make someone like Zimmermann or Lopez into a multi-inning piece out of the ‘pen.