Early look at positional battles

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Pic: Craig Landefeld

With a little more than a week of games under their belt, it’s a good time to take a quick look at some of the positional battles to see if any trends have shown up. Although performance is one measure, you can get a hint about how the organization feels about a player by the amount of plate appearances, innings, and opposition quality. Using Baseball Reference’s definition, opposition quality refers to opponents level of play last year: 10 – faced all MLBers, 8 – avg of AAA, 7 – avg of AA, 5 – High A, 4 – Low A and 1.5 to 3 short-season players.

Catchers

The biggest take away through the first eight games is that the Orioles are giving Bryan Holaday (1.232 OPS) a legitimate chance to make this club. He’s gotten as many PAs as Pedro Severino but has faced the best opposition quality (7.9). Chance Sisco has gotten the most PAs (12) and has put up a .417 OBP against 6.8 OppQual. Austin Wynns appears to be the odd man out at this point getting just 7 PAs against 6.3 OppQUAL. He’s a prime candidate to be DFA’d to make room for Holaday if he makes the team. It’s worth noting that Severino was battling some sickness early in camp. The Orioles number on pick last year Adley Rutschman has played again 5.3 OppQual and is yet to get a hit in 7 PAs.

First Baseman

It’s pretty obvious that the team intends to play newly bulked back Chris Davis at first base this year as the only other player to get significant playing time at first base so far is AAA bound Dilson Herrera. Davis struggled badly last spring but this year has been back to his old crush ways slashing a out of this world .800/.875/2.000/2.875 with two home runs and three walks in his 8 PAs. Interestingly, Trey Mancini has played only RF so far this spring. Speaking of the 27-year old Herrera, he has shown to be a very good glove at 1B and has slashed .286/.333/.571/.905.

Second Baseman

Hanser Alberto will most likely be the everyday 2B as he’s slashed .385/.385/.385/.769 in his 13 PAs against 7.8 OppQual. Interestingly, non roster invitee Pat Valaika has been given 11 PAs against 7.4 OppQual while playing two games at 2B, and one at SS and 1B. Ramon Urias has played only 2B but has come in late in games and has just seven PAs against a 5.9 OppQual.

Shortstop

One of the few positions where there is not a competition is at shortstop where Jose Iglesias is going to be the everyday starter. He’s only received 8 PAs but against a position player team lead of 8.3 OppQual. Last year’s starter Richie Martin though is having a very good spring slashing .385/ .429/.846/1.275 in 14 PAs against 7.1 OppQual. He’s played four games at SS and one at 2B. If he keeps playing well he could work his way onto the team in a utility role.

Third Baseman

An interesting battle between Rio Ruiz and Renato Nunez is occurring at third base. Both are getting equal playing time at 3B and against similar OppQual (7.4 and 7.1 respectively. While Ruiz is the better defender at 3B, Nunez has a much superior bat and once Ryan Moutcastle is brought up, Nunez going to have to play 3B to stay in the lineup. This could be a situation where they platoon at 3B with Nunez DHing on the days he’s not at 3B, but a decision will need to be made when Mountcastle comes up because he’ll either be LF or DH. Nunez though has to improve his footwork on throwing.

Left Field

Manager Brandon Hyde has said he expects Anthony Santander to start the year as the everyday left fielder, but the team has been taking it easy on his sore shoulder by DHing so far this spring. Top prospect Ryan Mountcasle, who most believe will start the season in AAA until the Orioles can get another year of control (mid-late April) , has received the most PAs of anyone (16) and is showing the Orioles that he ready now by slashing .438/.438/.813/1.250 while playing mostly LF (one game at 1B). When Mountcastle comes up, he’s going to play everyday in LF or DH. Dwight Smith Jr. has received 13 PAs against 7.0 OppQual, but he’s been poor defensively in LF and doesn’t have the versatility to play other positions and that makes him a DFA candidate unless an injury occurs. Ryan McKenna has received 12 PAs but against 6.4 OppQual playing games at all three outfield positions. He’s heading back to the minors though.

Center Field

Another position where there’s no real competition is here in center where Austin Hays will be the opening Day center fielder and probable lead off man. Cedric Mullins and Mason Williams are in completion for the 4th outfield position but would be potentially bumped up to starter if an injury occurred to Hays.

Right Field

The Orioles appear to be ready to play Trey Mancini in right field this year though he will move over to left when playing in places like Fenway Park due to the smaller ground to cover there.

Designated Hitter

Last year Renato Nunez was the everyday DH, but with the Orioles needing room for Mountcastle at some point in April, he may need to move to 3B at some point this year full-time. If Santander’s shoulder doesn’t get better it could force him to DH which would open up an opportunity in LF until Mountcastle arrives, which can mean a reprieve for Smith Jr. or a bump in playing time for Mason Williams. Mancini could see some time here as well.

4th Outfielder

The key to being a 4th outfielder is the ability to play decent in CF which gives Mason Williams a leg up with the current competition. Cedric Mullins has made some noise so far as well but his lack of arm strength would make it tough for him to play right field. I can’t see Smith sticking as the 4th outfielder because of lack of versatility, though if Andrew Velazquez makes the team as a utility player, it lessens that burden because he can also play center field.

Utility Players

This is an area where there is really an open competition so it’s interesting to see the early results. The Orioles would like Andrew Velasquez to make the team because of his ability to play SS and CF. He’s faced 7.0 OppQual but only 7 PAs after getting camp late due to be picked off waivers after camp started. Richie Martin and Pat Valaika seem to be the guys who also have a chance at sticking as utility guys.

Starters

With Alex Cobb, John Means, Asher Wojciechowski all but assured spots in the rotation barring injury, there are two spots up for grabs and it appears a three man race for those spots is starting shape up. Both Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc threw well in their first starts and Brandon Bailey leads the team with four IP already so they seem like the early favorites. Both Malone and LeBlanc are non roster guys so that goes into consideration, but they were brought in to eat innings and that could be in the rotation or as a long reliever in the pen. Bailey has already shown enough that it would be surprising if he doesn’t make the team in some role, though the team may want to use him in relief at first before giving him a shot at the rotation. In theory Tom Eshleman is in the competition, but his statcast numbers from last year were so awful that it’s doubtful he’s going north with the team barring several injuries.

Relievers

The relievers that have jobs locked up like Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier have not pitched all that much but that is not uncommon. Hunter Harvey has been slowed by a sickness and has not thrown yet this season but is getting close to game action. The Orioles last year tended to give the game action to the pitchers they want to take a look at. David Hess has been given 3.1 IP but has allowed seven base runners and three earned runs against 7.1 OppQual. Left hander non roster pitcher Ty Blach has been given 4 IP against 7.9 OppQual and has allowed just one run so he could be given a longer look. Dean Kremer, who is most likely heading back to AAA has looked good in his outings but he’s pitched against just 5.7 OppQual. Rule 5 pick Michael Rucker has thrown three shutout innings, but against just 5.7 OppQual. Look for him to start getting earlier opportunities in games so he can face major league competition. Cole Sulser has faced 7.2 OppQual in his two innings of work and has yet to allow a hit. Paul Fry has a good chance to make the team as well and has faced 7.3 OppQual over his two outings. Shawn Armstrong has not allowed a hit against 6.9 OppQual in his two innings of work. Tanner Scott is struggling with his command once again this spring, but on the bright side, Cody Carroll, who missed all of last year after back surgery, has tossed two shutout innings against 6.8 OppQual. Dillon Tate, Evan Phillips, and Travis Lakins have all struggled early this spring.

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Tony Pente
Tony has owned and operated Orioles Hangout since 1996 and is well known for his knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles organization from top to bottom. He's a frequent guest on Baltimore-area sports radio stations and can be heard regularly on the 105.7 FM The Fan. His knowledge and contacts within the Orioles minor league system and the major league baseball scouting industry is unparalleled in the Baltimore media and is known as an expert on the Orioles prospects.