Baltimore Orioles Spring Training To-Do List
Lockers are full, seeds are being spit and players are preparing to prove themselves all over again.
Spring training has begun.
The Baltimore Orioles are a team with few question marks. They have a strong, young and experienced core of players, and almost everyone on the team knows their place and what's expected of them.
But just like any team, they do have some questions that need answering. There are a few uncertainties on the roster and some players may need to step into roles they haven't previously filled.
Let's take a look at the to-do list for the Orioles this spring.
The DH Situation
The Orioles have no set DH. They haven't had a set DH in years.
Over the last few years, the team has been using the DH spot to rotate players to give them a break from the field, and platooning players depending on the matchup with the opposing pitcher.
This year, the O's figure to use the same strategy, spare a new acquisition. The team has some internal options, such as Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar and outfielder Henry Urrutia (pictured). They'll be able to platoon and mix and match as they see necessary.
The biggest thing the O's need to do in that regard this spring is to figure out the primary DH candidates and determine whether some guys are ready to go, such as Urrutia, who tore up the Arizona Fall League (.377, three homers and 15 RBI in 18 games).
The team has plenty of options to choose from when it comes to the DH slot. It just remains to be seen as to whether any of them will be effective.
Who Will Be the Closer?
The Orioles traded their closer of two years, Jim Johnson, to the Oakland A's back in December in an obvious salary dump. They have since spent those saved funds elsewhere, but did not sign a replacement closer.
With some in-house candidates to fill the role and no real difference makers available on the open market, it looks like the Birds will look to fill the opening internally.
The leading candidate is righty Tommy Hunter (pictured), who, in a one-inning role, can touch the upper '90s with his fastball. The trick will be whether he can limit home runs as the closer, something he's had trouble with in the past (11 in 86.1 innings last season, 32 in 133.2 innings in 2012).
If Hunter struggles, the O's have other options in Darren O'Day, newcomer Ryan Webb and even Bud Norris. But obviously, the team needs to decide who gets the ball in the ninth inning on Opening Day.
Sort Through the Left Fielders
One of the positions up for grabs for the Orioles is left field, and they have no shortage of candidates.
As mentioned before, Henry Urrutia is an outfielder by trade, but could use some work on his fielding. He probably is better suited for the DH spot. The team added Delmon Young through free agency, and while he's better suited as a DH as well, he can play left field if need be.
Francisco Peguero was brought in from the San Francisco Giants organization earlier this offseason, and provides depth in the corner outfield positions.
But the man considered the favorite for the job come Opening Day is newcomer David Lough (pictured). The Orioles sent Danny Valencia to the Kansas City Royals for Lough, who had a solid rookie season last year, hitting .286 with a .311 OBP, five homers, 33 RBI and five stolen bases in 315 at-bats in 96 games.
Lough has a well-rounded game both at the plate and in the field, so he'll likely be in left field on Opening Day, unless he injures himself or manager Buck Showalter doesn't feel playing him would be smart, considering the pitching match up (Lough bats left-handed).
The O's have some outfield depth, but they also have an obvious front-runner for the left field vacancy.
Name the Opening Day Starter
A few days ago, there was no question who would be on the bump for Opening Day: Chris Tillman (pictured).
The righty had a very nice year in 2013, pitching to a 16-7 record with a 3.71 ERA in 206.1 innings. This came after a season in which he made 15 starts to close the year, going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA.
It's safe to say that Tillman has become the O's pitching leader.
However, the Orioles agreed to terms on a four-year, $50-million contract with free agent Ubaldo Jimenez on Monday, giving the team another top-of-the-rotation option. While Jimenez has been somewhat inconsistent throughout his career, he's a solid starter overall, capable of being virtually unhittable any time he toes the rubber.
Jimenez went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 182.2 innings for the Cleveland Indians last season, and the O's hope that that's the Jimenez they'll be getting, as opposed to the one who threw to a 5.40 ERA and 9-17 record in 2012.
Tillman has been with the Orioles for years and has been their best starting pitcher for the last two seasons. He's earned the right to start on Opening Day. On the other hand, Jimenez may have more potential to be brilliant every time out, even if he's less consistent. That could convince Showalter to slot Jimenez at the front of the rotation to go toe-to-toe with the best starting pitchers of opponents early in the year.
It will certainly be an interesting battle to watch this spring.
Who Is Playing Second Base?
Like left field and DH, the Orioles have some candidates to fill the second base hole.
They may not have more depth anywhere else in their organization than they do at second base.
The team added Jemile Weeks, a former first-round draft choice, in the Jim Johnson trade with the Oakland A's. Weeks struggled last year but provides depth at second base and a last-resort option in center field. They also resigned Alexi Casilla, who was the team's utility man last season and has a nice glove and good speed on the base paths.
Top prospect Jonathan Schoop could be in Baltimore at some point during the 2014 season. But the team may opt to let him have more minor league time when the seasons starts since they have so much depth at the position.
And then there's Ryan Flaherty (pictured), who may be the favorite to win the job. Flaherty showed nice progression with his glove at second base last season, and smacked ten home runs in 246 at-bats. The power and ability to hit a fastball is there. In order to be an effective every day player, Flaherty needs to improve on recognizing off-speed pitching and bringing up his .221 career average.
Figure out the Top of the Lineup
With both Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth signing deals with other teams, the O's have no obvious leadoff hitter. And outside of right fielder Nick Markakis (pictured), the team doesn't really have anyone with a ton of leadoff experience.
Markakis is a career .292 hitter, and though he doesn't offer great speed on the base paths, he is probably one of the best Orioles at pitch-recognition and working the count. In addition, he has no trouble with lefties, despite being a left-handed hitter. His career OBP of .360 would certainly justify slotting him at the top of the lineup.
Outside of Markakis, though, the team doesn't have many other obvious candidates. Lough could be a possibility, but he may not have the on-base ability a team needs from a leadoff man. Weeks and Casilla have speed, but aren't historically the best with batting average and OBP.
It will be interesting to see how the top of the lineup plays out during spring training and going into the regular season.
Rounding out the Rotation
The O's have some rotation depth, and that's a good thing. But they also have some question marks.
Even after agreeing to terms with Jimenez, the team has no true ace. And while four rotation spots are virtual locks, the fifth spot is up for grabs.
Tillman and Jimenez figure to front the rotation with lefty Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez slotting into the three and four spots. For the fifth spot, the O's have some serious competition between Bud Norris, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman and newcomer Suk-Min Yoon.
Norris was in the O's rotation last season after the Birds traded for him at the July 31 trade deadline, so he does have that to back him. Britton is out of options, and could be stashed in the bullpen if he doesn't make the rotation, especially when you consider that lefty Troy Patton will miss the season's first 25 games due to an amphetamine violation.
Gausman may have a fighting chance at winning the fifth rotation slot, but since he's still young (23 years old), the O's could decide he will benefit from more minor league time. And Yoon has experience and success in both the starting rotation and the bullpen while pitching in Korea, giving the O's some flexibility.
The battle for the fifth spot in the rotation will be one of the fiercest in all of spring training for the Orioles.