Key Questions As The Orioles Enter Spring Training
No matter how much your team struggled in 2017, no matter how depressing the offseason has been, there is no escaping the thrill of baseball’s return this week.
The same goes for the Baltimore Orioles, who will see pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota for spring training on Tuesday, with the position players joining them five days later.
We all know the key storylines of this offseason. Manny Machado went on the block, came off the block and perhaps is back on, Zach Britton was injured and will miss a good chunk of the season, and the starting pitching staff remains pretty uncertain beyond Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy.
But there are several other good storylines to sink your teeth into this spring. Here are some of the key questions worth keeping an eye on.
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Will Dan Duquette bring in more candidates for the rotation?
The Orioles are currently set to have 35 pitchers in major league camp. Yes, nearly an entire 40-man roster made up entirely of pitchers. Only seven of those 35 have made a start in the major leagues, which further illustrates just how uncertain the pitching situation is. Frankly, it’s wise for general manager Dan Duquette to cast a wide net. And it might get even wider.
While we’ve heard a lot this offseason about potential free agent candidates for the rotation – mostly middling guys like Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas, Jaime Garcia and even Chris Tillman – there have been rumblings of late that Duquette is probing the trade market as well.
One name that has popped up in the rumor mill of late is Collin McHugh, a solid right-hander in Houston who appears to be getting squeezed out after the Astros acquired Gerrit Cole. McHugh is quite good when healthy, sporting a career 4.08 ERA, 3.76 FIP and 3.29 SO/BB ratio. He would easily slot into the No. 3 rotation spot in Baltimore. It might be tough to pry him from Houston, however, as even though they don’t necessarily need him, the Astros like having controllable assets on hand to guard against injuries and McHugh isn’t a free agent until 2020.
Another name reportedly drawing Duquette’s interest is Tampa Bay’s Jake Odorizzi, whose numbers are similar to McHugh’s but who seems to carry the air of perennial disappointment with him. Playing in the AL East, Odorizzi is well known to the Orioles and has not fared well at Camden Yards (5.44 ERA, 1.542 WHIP in nine starts). Odorizzi is also a free agent in 2020.
There are other teams – most notably the Twins — sniffing around both of these pitchers, so it remains to be seen if there is a trade fit for Baltimore.
But it seems like between the slow free agent market and the trade rumors, there is a solid chance the Orioles will be adding another rotation candidate at some point this spring.
How will the Machado-Beckham position switch work out?
Infield practice is perhaps second only to PFPs on the list of most monotonous things about early spring training. But with Machado moving to shortstop, and the counter move of Tim Beckham shifting to third base, this will be closely watched this year.
Machado is one of the top defensive third basemen in the majors and it will be interesting to see how good he is at shortstop. His career UZR/150 at short is 5.4 (per Fangraphs), but that is in the limited sample of 433 innings. Beckham’s UZR/150 at third is 30.8, but it’s hard to put much stock in that as it’s come in only 52 innings. He’s 2.7 at shortstop.
So while there is some promise that the switch could improve the Orioles’ defense, it seems best to take a wait-and-see approach. Mostly this feels like a move to help Machado expand his list of potential suitors when he becomes a free agent, but it could also help the Orioles if they decide to trade him. Either way, this will be an interesting thing to watch.
Can Jonathan Schoop avoid regression?
The Orioles’ second baseman broke out in 2017 with an All-Star season, putting up an .841 OPS and 121 wRC+. A big reason for Schoop’s improvement was that the free swinger became more selective. He was still aggressive at the plate, but he channeled that aggression into more favorable situations. He increased his walk rate for the second straight year to 5.2%, and reduced his strikeout rate to 21.0%.
These aren’t signs that Schoop is going to suddenly turn into Joey Votto, but it does show an increasing maturity as a hitter and an understanding of how pitchers are trying to take advantage of his aggression.
Schoop did fall off as the season wore on, and September was his worst month. But was that regression, or simply submission to the grind of a long season? Spring training games could provide some hints as to wear Schoop’s mindset is for 2018.
Will Chance Sisco break camp with the big-league team?
The answer to this question is most likely yes. Sisco did well in his brief call-up in 2017, putting up a 1.232 OPS in 10 games, and as a left-handed bat it makes sense to platoon him with righty veteran Caleb Joseph.
But the acquisition of Andrew Susac from Milwaukee could mean Sisco starts the season in the minors if spring does not go well. Susac was once a top prospect in the Giants system, but has never flourished in the majors. He is a career .232 hitter in 104 big leagues games, but does have a defensive edge on Sisco. Susac does have a minor league option remaining, so it could be he, not Sisco, who ends up being sent down.
Susac or Sisco? Sisco or Susac? Say that three times fast.
Is Hunter Harvey on track for the big leagues this season?
The Orioles’ first-round pick in 2013, Harvey has been an oft-injured disappointment who has never pitched above Single-A. His best season was 2014, when he managed to toss 87.2 innings with a 3.18 ERA. He has never pitched more than 24.1 innings in any other professional season. In addition to Tommy John surgery, Harvey has also missed time due to a sports hernia and a fractured shin after getting nailed by a comebacker.
Harvey is eyeing a full season this year, and he told MLB.com that he hopes that results in him pitching in Baltimore.
“The past three years rehabbing I’ve been working my butt off to get healthy and get the opportunity,” he said. “I really want to get there.”
That seems unlikely even with the Orioles being desperate for pitching, but Harvey will get a chance to show what he can do this spring, and manager Buck Showalter did say this: “Let’s put it this way – if he didn’t have options, he may not go down.”
How will O’s handle the pressure of having so many people on their walk years?
This isn’t the potential final Orioles season for just Machado, Britton, Brach and Jones. It’s also the potential swan song for both Showalter and Duquette.
What happens if the season begins to go south in a hurry? Would Showalter manage any differently? Would Duquette take on a sense of desperation in his personnel choices? Would owner Peter Angelos allow either to finish out the season, making key decisions along the way, if he plans to make changes anyway? And will the uncertainty of it all make it difficult to get players to buy in to the plan?
While it seems unlikely that the situation will affect how either Duquette or Showalter go about their business, you never know. The tone of