The satisfying smack of leather on leather has returned, random but rhythmic as battery mates line up under many watchful eyes. The crack of ash, maple, hickory, or even birch lumber will soon be ringing through the Florida air. A time of renewal, when every team is undefeated and stories of players in the best shape of their lives inspire hope. This is why we love spring training.
But alas, this year hope has been overtaken by despair. A long suffering fan-base tantalized by a five year stretch of winning baseball watched as the 2017 Orioles limped to a last place finish. Those same fans agonized as the pitching-needy Orioles addressed those needs in the least aggressive way possible. Three Rule 5 draft picks (Nestor Cortes, Pedro Araujo, and Jose Mesa Jr.) and a MLB minimum deal for a minor league free agent (Michael Kelly). Add in three extremely minor trades for a left-handed version of Joey Rickard (Jaycob Brugman), and two DFA candidates (Andrew Susac and Engelb Vielma) and you have the totality the 40 man roster additions from outside the organization. All those moves are extremely low risk and not to be ridiculed, but they aren’t the type of thing to get the average fan’s blood pumping. They aren’t the sole moves of a team trying to go from last to first.
The angst in Birdland is rising, and maybe it should be. This team is in a spot where it would make sense to either got all-in for Manny’s last year under contract or tear it down and build for the future. There are no signs of either thus far and that is frustrating. But that isn’t what this article is about, like Spring Training, this article is about hope.
Every beat writer and blogger will have a Spring Training story lines to watch article. They’ll wax poetic about position battles and veterans attempting to redeem themselves after a poor season. I don’t like beating dead horses, so I’m going to take a different angle. 10 actual baseball things to watch for in game, with a focus on prospects and unproven players. Why prospects and unproven players? Well if this team is going to be exciting, it’ll be because of those types of players. So without further ado, I present…
Orioles Spring Training: 10 Things To Watch
1. Chance Sisco‘s work behind the plate.
Sisco has a sweet left-handed swing, but that’s not what the Orioles brass will be looking for out of the young catcher. He improved his receiving/blocking skills in 2017, has he made further strides in the off-season? He has a decent arm but how will his footwork look when attempting to throw out runners? It has been poor in the past. Will he frame pitches well? Will he earn the trust of the pitching staff?
2. Austin Hays‘s patience.
Hays is an all-out, high intensity player. Can he reign in his aggressiveness to avoid mistakes and let his plus arm and above average speed play in RF? When he’s at the plate he uses his strong wrists to get the bat to almost anything, but can he be more selective and wait for his pitch? He’s a great bad ball hitter, but it’s harder to hit pitcher’s pitches in the majors than in AA.
3. Nestor Cortes‘s funky deliveries.
Cortes is all about deception. Pay attention to his varying arm slots, ranging from high 3/4 to sidearm. Also watch for him messing with hitters timing by incorporating pauses and quick pitches. His curveball will run anywhere between 59-76 MPH as he manipulates the shape. Cortes has used these tactics to baffle AAA bats, will it work against big league hitters?
4. Tanner Scott‘s control.
The lefty flamethrower will show you a 100+MPH fastball, but can he repeat his delivery and throw strikes? He’s never going to be a pinpoint command guy, but with his stuff he doesn’t need to be. His improved slider is also something to watch, it really improved in 2017 and he made Ronald Acuna (arguably the best prospect in baseball) look silly with it in the AFL Fall Stars game.
5. Tim Beckham‘s defense at 3B.
It’ll be interesting to see how Manny looks back at SS, but I don’t think anyone thinks he’ll be bad there. It’s more a debate of whether he’ll be solid or excellent there. However, Tim Beckham is another story. He had shown himself to be an athletic if inconsistent SS, with plus range but trouble making accurate throws. At third, he’s sure to have some of the best range in the majors, but how will he react to balls hit at a different angle? How will his throws across the diamond look?
6. Cedric Mullins‘s right-handed swing.
Mullins has major league ready defense in CF and that’ll be fun to watch, but the switch-hitter’s biggest weakness is batting against LHP. His right-handed swing isn’t as quick and smooth as from the left side and his numbers bear that out. If he wants to be a full time player, it needs to improve. Also, it’ll be nice to see his plus speed on full display now that he’s healed up from the nagging hamstring issues he battled in 2017.
7. DJ Stewart‘s athleticism.
The Orioles 2015 1st round pick had been written off by many as a bust. He’d gained some weight on his already running back shaped body and was in the process of losing his extreme crouch batting stance. In 2017, he looked to be back around his college weight and got comfortable with his new workable swing. Stewart is much more athletic than he looks. He’s fun to watch, he hustles, he’s a good base-runner, and can run a ball down in LF. In the batter’s box, he doesn’t get cheated, he swings hard and still manages to keep strikeouts under control. Will he show he’s ready for a major league role in 2018?
8. Miguel Castro‘s change-up.
The Orioles will at least attempt to stretch Castro out for a chance to win a rotation spot. One thing Castro will need to show in order to be an effective starter is more confidence in his change-up. He struggled against LHB in 2017, and one of the reasons was his reluctance to use his change-up frequently. Will it develop into the weapon he needs to get lefties out?
9. Ryan Mountcastle‘s bat speed.
Yeah, his defense at 3B is probably more important to his future outcome. Will he be able to throw well enough at the hot corner to stick at the position? The bat speed is a more exciting thing to watch for though. He may have the quickest bat in the organization, enjoy watching him turn on premium velocity. As he fills out his frame, watch for all the doubles he hit last year to start clearing the fences with more frequency.
10. Hunter Harvey‘s potential.
I wanted to make sure to end on a positive note. Harvey returned from Tommy John Surgery in 2017 and not only did he show pre-injury velocity and stuff (which Bundy still hasn’t gotten back), but he also got to it with a much easier delivery. This bodes well for his command and health going forward. He’s got a fastball touching 97MPH with a plus or better curveball and a solid change-up (at least in bullpen sessions, we’ll need to see it against live hitters). That adds up to the kind of top of the rotation upside the Orioles sorely need. I suggest the O’s resist the temptation to rush him to the majors and let him build innings with the goal of competing for a rotation spot in 2019.
What do you all think O’s fans should be watching for in Spring Training?
Express your thoughts here.