Spring is officially upon us. Yesterday, pitchers and catchers reported for duty to the Orioles’ spring training facility in Sarasota, a fact whose practical significance is threefold:
First, it’s time to welcome back to your daily feed a steady stream of hype vids like this one posted by O’s social media early on Wednesday.
Second, soon actual “baseball-related” goings-on will be going on, even if this amounts to clips of bullpen sessions, on-field warm-ups, and (in two weeks) box scores from games that don’t matter, featuring lots of players you’ve never heard of!
Third, fans will return to that time-honored tradition of reading too much into little scraps of evidence to figure out who will and won’t make the 26-man roster.
The roster guessing game is always a little fun and a little futile, and this year for Orioles fans, it will also be extra cramped. Weird as it sounds for an upstart team lacking in bona fide stars or established veterans, the Orioles roster is surprisingly set already. Readers of this blog should be able to guess most of the starting lineup, as well as good chunks of the bench and the bullpen.
On that note, here is a list of the players widely agreed to be locks for the roster, and in the particular position groups listed. Whatever the opposite of sticking your neck out looks like, it’s this list:
Catchers (2): Adley Rutschman, James McCann
Infielders (5): Ryan Mountcastle, Adam Frazier, Ramón Urías, Jorge Mateo, Gunnar Henderson
Outfielders (3): Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander
Starting Rotation (2): Kyle Gibson, Cole Irvin, [*], [*], [*]
Bullpen (6): Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, Dillon Tate, Mychal Givens, Bryan Baker, Austin Voth, [*], [*]
DH/Utility (2): Ryan McKenna, Kyle Stowers, [*]
That makes 20 Orioles with cut-and-dried roster spots, and six spots up for grabs.
One is a DH/Utility slot. In the old days, it would be conceivable to imagine this team rolling with just two designated bench players in order to carry 14 pitchers (or indeed, just Ryan Flaherty to back up everybody). But a rule change implemented last June will now limit teams to a max of 13 pitchers prior to September.
That’s good news for Terrin Vavra, who I think will nab the last bench spot. This, I expect, will be a race that will come down to him and two other lefties in the 1B/OF mold, Lewin Díaz and Franchy Cordero. The Orioles could choose pop over contact ability, especially if Vavra has a cold spring, but I see his upside and reliability as greater than the two offseason pickups.
Obviously, the Orioles aren’t going to roll with eight throwers, so we also have to add five more names out of the following:
Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, DL Hall, Keegan Akin, Joey Krehbiel, Darwinzon Hernandez, Eduardo Bazardo, Nick Vespi, Spenser Watkins, Andrew Politi
Granted, the initial 26-man roster doesn’t matter a ton, as we know the Orioles will play the roster shuttle game with the bullpen and the bench at the margins of the roster. But even so, it’s crazy how many of these pitchers “feel” deserving of a slot, and will be the victims of numbers.
Three more arms will join Gibson and Irvin in the rotation (and it could be four if the Orioles embrace the swing-man option, like they’ve done in the past with Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins).
For now, my money is on Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish. Last season, Kremer vaulted himself into the tier of solid starters with his 3.23 ERA in 21 starts, including one complete-game shutout. Rodriguez is exciting so many people that even Mike Elias seems willing to give him a rotation spot without seeing him throw a single pitch this year. And while Bradish had his ups and downs in 2022, he finished strong (a 3.28 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his last 13 starts) and his stuff is too interesting to leave out of the rotation.
Among the swing-men types, I have Voth in the bullpen for now, his 3.04 ERA in 17 starts for the Orioles last season having ensured him a roster spot, and maybe an inside track as a potential sixth starter. Joining him in this role I see Tyler Wells—deserving of a starter’s spot, but also injury-prone, and so someone worth keeping on an innings leash until further notice.
The last bullpen spot should go to a lefty, making it a two, maybe three-man race between Keegan Akin, stellar in the first half of 2022 but who faded badly down the stretch, newcomer Darwinzon Hernández, and DL Hall. I think this race will come down to spring performance. My guess: if Akin shows up to Florida with his control intact, he has the edge. Hernández doesn’t have much of a track record, while I expect the Orioles will accept that there’s little cost, in terms of current competitiveness, to keeping DL Hall in Triple-A a while longer in order to hone his starter’s mix.
This leaves out guys like Joey Krehbiel, Nick Vespi and Spenser Watkins, who filled the roles asked of them admirably last year. That feels weird. It also excludes the possibility of an infield prospect like Joey Ortiz or Jordan Westburg cracking the roster. Then again, whose spot would they take? It’s hard to see anyone displacing Adam Frazier or Ramón Urías. Urías will get moved around a lot, but he’s not failing to make the team.
A weird roster crunch, indeed. Weird in that last year’s Gold Glove winner at 3B might not be guaranteed a permanent spot on the diamond. But also in this unaccustomed feeling in Birdland of realizing how much more talent is being shuffled around at this point than in the good ole days when Pat Valaika or Chris Owings or Tom Eshelman could steal a roster spot. In fact, it looks like many good ballplayers are going to get squeezed. It sucks for players; it’s good for fans. Let’s see how this all plays out.