The Super Bowl is now over, and that means MLB spring training is right around the corner. Players will soon begin workouts, preparing their bodies for the six-month grind of the regular season.
Before we know it, teams will suit up and start playing games. Baseball is almost back.
One of the more interesting aspects of spring training is the small competitions each team has. There's always battles for roster spots between a handful of guys, usually consisting of experienced veterans and younger players looking to make a name for themselves.
The Baltimore Orioles, of course, are not without such a circumstance heading into spring training, as the team has a few spots open for competition. And naturally, the team has a few younger prospects who have an outside chance at making an impression during February and March.
Let's take a look at some of the guys who could be "sleeper prospects" at the O's spring training camp.
Also, keep in mind that I'm applying the term "sleeper prospect" liberally since the O's lack in prospects who would conceivably be ready by Opening Day.
Steve Johnson had a great 2012 with the O's, but then he never really looked right in 2013 for the team.
After going 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts) in 2012, he struggled to a 1-1 record and 7.47 ERA over 15.2 innings in 2013.
Which Steve Johnson is the real Steve Johnson?
The O's hope to find out the answer to that question this spring and early on in the season, and they hope even more that the real Johnson is the one who dominated in brief and sporadic MLB time in 2012. The righty dealt with multiple injury issues in 2013, which is the likely cause of his struggles. Now that he's had an offseason to heal, Johnson aims to earn a rotation spot with the O's.
With one option remaining on his contract, it seems more likely that Johnson is headed back to Triple-A rather than the MLB starting rotation, but with a strong spring, he could earn a spot in the bullpen as the long man and eventually make a spot start when the club needs it.
If he were to be sent back down to the minors, a strong spring could make a good impression and make him one of the first guys called up when the O's need pitching help.
Johnson seems to be a guy often forgotten about, but if his 2012 with the O's means anything, he could turn into a very good pitcher for the team. You'd be wise to keep an eye on him this year.
I'm including Jonathan Schoop on this list because, while it wouldn't be surprising to see him play well enough to succeed in the big leagues, it would be surprising to see him unseat other, more experienced guys such as Ryan Flaherty or Alexi Casilla at second base.
The O's have some pretty deep second base competition going into the spring, with Flaherty, Casilla, Schoop and Jemile Weeks just a handful of the names, but surely the four biggest. And because of that depth, it's likely that Schoop would not be the guy starting at second base on Opening Day.
For one, some believe that Schoop may need more minor league time, such as MASN's Steve Melewski.
Schoop was solid during his limited time in Baltimore last September, becoming only the second Oriole ever to hit a home run in his first major league game, but he only had 14 at-bats (with four hits). And he hasn't had the greatest of times the past two seasons, batting just .245 with 14 homers and 56 RBI for Double-A in 2012. He dealt with some injuries last season, though he did hit .278 with 14 homers over three levels of the minors.
It could be time for the team to find out what it has in Flaherty in an everyday role, and with capable players such as Casilla and Weeks, it presents the optimum time to let Schoop experience more seasoning in the minors. It may seem like he's been a prospect for a while, but he's only 22 years old.
Of course, if Manny Machado isn't ready to play third base on Opening Day, Flaherty could be forced to slide over there until Machado's return. If manager Buck Showalter isn't satisfied with the performances of Weeks and Casilla, he could turn to Schoop to hold down the fort.
Therefore, I view Schoop as more of a "sleeper prospect" than a legitimate candidate to start at second base on Opening Day.
Mike Wright will be an interesting name to watch over the next couple of seasons.
The O's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 put up a strong campaign at Double-A, going 11-3 with a 3.26 ERA over 143.2 innings, making 26 starts and walking just 39 batters while striking out 136. Wright ended his season with Triple-A, pitching 6.2 innings in one start and struck out two while allowing no free passes or runners to cross the plate.
Wright has only been getting better over the course of his three-year minor league career, posting ERAs of 5.72 in 2011, 4.06 in 2012 and a sparkling 3.11 last year. His innings have also risen each season, going from 45.2 to 108.2 to 150.1, respectively. And he just turned 24, putting him in a position where he could reach the majors soon, with a little more fine-tuning at Triple-A.
There's probably no way Wright makes the major league club out of spring training. But if he has a strong one, he can definitely set himself up for serious consideration for a call-up during the season. And that's not out of the realm of possibility at all. Should he dominate at Triple-A, he could force the hand of the O's decision-makers.
The right-hander should be an interesting and exciting young players for the O's and their fans to keep an eye on.
Kevin Gausman is an interesting case heading into spring training.
The righty struggled some during his first stint in the big leagues, as well as when he was sent down to Triple-A (1-2, 4.04 ERA). But upon his return to the bigs, Gausman was slotted into the bullpen and pitched fairly well.
Overall in the majors, Gausman has a career mark of 3-5 with a 5.66 ERA in 47.2 innings. While those numbers aren't good at all, Gausman has struck out 49 batters during his big league time, showing that he does have the ability to overpower hitters.
To me, it's clear that Gausman needs more minor league time to figure himself out a little bit more. He only just turned 23, so he's young, and with just over a season of professional experience under his belt, it's silly to expect him to go out there and dominate just because he was a top draft choice. I can understand why some fans may want to see him in the rotation on Opening Day, but I believe it would be better for his development if he spent more time in the minors.
Tack that on with the fact that the O's reportedly would like to sign one more starting pitcher, according to Rich Dubroff of Comcast Sports Network Baltimore, and that they're "all in" on A.J. Burnett, as tweeted by Peter Gammons, and the team may simply not have enough room for Gausman in the rotation.
Like Wright, though, if Gausman has a good spring, it could force the O's hand, especially if others struggle in the spring. He could steal a rotation spot or even find himself in the bullpen on Opening Day, or set himself up to be one of the first options to call up when the team needs help.