It’s never a good idea to take too much out of the first two weeks of spring training, but it is a good time to take a look at who may have taken a step forward and who hasn’t here in the early going.
Obviously records this spring don’t mean much with shortened games and roll over innings being a thing, but the Orioles have struggled as a team going 3-9-1 over the first 13 games of the spring. As longtime message board poster “Frobby” noted, “Thirteen games played and they’ve been outscored 72-45 on their way to a 3-9-1 record. Allowing 5.5 runs a game is terrible, Scoring 3.5 runs a game is worse. And the defense appears to have been terrible as well.”
So even though the team has struggled as a whole, let’s look at some of the early good news stories:
1. Adley Rutschman Looks Like the Real Deal
Sure, small sample size alert, but the Orioles top prospect has settled in quite nicely this spring going 3-for-9 with three walks and two doubles for a nice .333/.500/.556 slash line. Manager Brandon Hyde has limited his work behind the plate in order to save him for the long season by DHing mostly, but even some of his outs were on the warning track. Rutschman will probably open the year in Bowie (AA) but he certainly does not look out of place in a big league lineup.
2. Cedric Mullins drops switch-hitting, outfield situation crowded
It’s been known for a long time that Cedric Mullins was not an effective right-handed hitter. So his decision to forego switch hitting and focus on hitting left-handed only was long overdue, but the early returns have been pretty good. Mullins has played often this spring in center field (team high 24 PAs) and has slashed .333/.333/.542 with a team leading three doubles and one triple. He hasn’t walked this spring, but has only struck out two times and as the team’s best defensive outfielder, very well may be working his way into regular playing time.
Currently the presumed everyday outfield consists of Ryan Mountcastle in left field, Austin Hays in center field, and Anthony Santander in right field. The team is at it’s best defensive with Hays in LF, Mullins in CF, and Santander in RF, but Mountcastle is the prized prospect here and brings the most potential with the bat. However, with DJ Stewart struggling with a hamstring injury this year, Mountcastle could be moved to DH, but the team really wants to give him every opportunity to gain experience in LF since he provides more value if he can become an average defensive outfielder out there.
Mountcastle has struggled defensively at times this spring, but has also shown some improvements by making some nice catches at the wall and after running a good distance tow3ard left-center. He has the foot speed to be a decent outfielder, but the previous Orioles leadership that kept playing him on the dirt for years, wasted opportunities for him to have more outfield experience.
Either way, Mullins is getting a lot of looks in CF and Hyde seems to be very comfortable batting him leadoff and Hays 2nd. At worse Mullins should be a good 4th outfielder this season, spelling Hays and Mountcastle occasionally against tough righties, and will most likely be in the rotation in the outfield with Mountcastle and Stewart getting some DH time.
3. Zimmermann making a run at the starting rotation
It’s only been three outings and five innings pitched, but left-hander Bruce Zimmermann has been the hands down best starting rotation candidate this spring. Sure, he hasn’t been scored on and has allowed just one hit and on walk with six strikeouts, but it’s the stuff. Zimmermann’s fastball averaged 94 MPH and showed good spin on his slider and curveball. The change has been a little firm this spring, but that should improve as he regains the feel for the pitch. He already looks much more like the guy the Orioels saw last spring then the one who made two appearances late in the year last year after getting ramped back up after having COVID.
4. Bullpen has some good competition
While the rotation candidates have struggled (more on that later), other than losing Hunter Harvey (will start year on IL and will miss at least a month) with an oblique injury, the bullpen has a chance to be pretty decent. Tanner Scott and Cesar Valdez couldn’t be more different stuff wise, with Scott touching triple digits already this spring and Valdez tossing up the dead fish changeup, but both look like they will get lots of high leverage and save opportunities.
While fellow expected members, Shawn Armstrong, Dillon Tate and Paul Fry have struggled this spring, but stuff wise they look to be where they were last year so it’s expected they will rebound once they get some mound time under them this spring.
But this is where the interesting part comes in, especially if the team decides to keep nine relievers due to work load concerns. This would mean there are four reliever positions open so let’s take a look at them.
Cole Sulser (RHP) – With his high spin fastball, Sulser struggled with his command last year but this spring he looked good, walking none and striking out five in his three innings of work.
Travis Lakins (RHP) – With average stuff and two options, Lakins could be on the bubble, and the fact he’s only gotten two innings should be a concern for him.
Tyler Wells (RHP) – One of the two Rule 5 picks, Wells has been up to 96 MPH and has shown decent off speed pitches at times. He could provide some long relief if needed and as a little upside so the Orioles may choose to keep him on the roster this year. The Orioles pitched him two innings in his last outing which could suggest a look at that long reliever role.
Fernando Abad (LHP) – Has spring stats look “a bad” when you look at them but most of that damage was done in one awful outing. If the Orioles decide they want a third lefty, Lakins or Sulser could be the odd man out, with both of them having options available,
Eric Hanhold (RHP) – The Orioles have been giving this 27-year old righty a long look this spring with five innings in a team high five innings pitched. He’s allowed just one earned run on three hits and walk with four Ks. He’s been 96-97 MPH on the gun with a nice slider. He doesn’t seem to miss a lot of bats though and is more of a one inning guy like Sulser and Lakins.
Conner Greene (RHP) – Hard thrower with questionable command in his minor league time as a starter, Greene has allowed just one run on two hits and no walks while striking out five. Greene’s fastball sits 96-97 MPH and he throws two high spin breaking balls in a slider (85mph) and hard curveball (80). As a former starter in the minors, he could provide some length in the pen, but he’s been impressive this spring.
Mac Sceroler (RHP) – In the perfect world, Sceroler would be in the system since he does have some promise, but his command and stuff doesn’t suggest he’s going to be able to stick with the team as a Rule pick and will probably be offered back.
Matt Harvey (RHP) – If Harvey doesn’t stick in the rotation, there is a chance he could break with the club as a long man.
Aston Goudeau (RHP) – Could be in the running still for a long reliever spot, but would need some guys to really fall off. Has a better chance of starting the year in AAA and then earning a shot later in the season.
Jorge Lopez (RHP) – Another potential long man, Lopez looks like he may have put himself back in the rotation conversation especially with Felix Hernandez looking like he doesn’t have much left in the tank.
Wade LeBlanc (LHP) – LeBlanc actually is a good fit for the pen as a long/swing man type of guy because of his changeup mix. He’s still in the rotation mix though.
Greene and Hanhold to a lesser extent have been guys that look like big league relievers with their high 90s fastballs. With neither Sulser of Lakins being pieces of the future, the Orioles very well well may option both and give Greene and Hanhold a look. If Wells can continue to put together some decent outings, he could stick, and then the Orioles would need to make decisions on Abad and Harvey with Abad giving them a third lefty and Harvey giving them some needed length.
Tomorrow we will take a look at some of the bad news stories of the spring so far.
You can follow all the spring training activity at the Orioles Spring Training Tracker.