Over the past few months, I’ve come up with eight questions confronting the Orioles in no particular order of importance. They existed as the club trudged through the offseason.
One decision has been made with catcher Austin Wynns added to the 40-man roster to protect him in the Rule 5 draft. They like his defense and think he could be a major league backup in 2018. And he became more valuable to them after Welington Castillo declined his $7 million option and signed a two-year deal with the White Sox, and Francisco Peña and Audry Perez entered free agency.
The other questions I posed centered on whether the Orioles should push to extend Manny Machado’s contract during the season rather than cut off any talks after spring training, should reliever Brad Brach be on the trading block if they’re intent on keeping closer Zach Britton, where should Ryan Mountcastle play in order to hasten his arrival in the majors, whether Tim Beckham is the leadoff hitter, whether Mike Wright is a starter or reliever, whether catcher Chance Sisco is ready for the majors and whether Miguel Castro should be in the rotation or bullpen.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette said last week that the Orioles needed to figure out this offseason whether Machado would stay in Baltimore. He seems reluctant to remove important pieces from his bullpen, though I wouldn’t label Brach as “untouchable.” Mountcastle figures to stay at third base to open the season, with the possibility of moving again. Beckham would be the leadoff hitter if the season began today, but it doesn’t.
Wright is out of options and the Orioles will give him a chance to win a job in the rotation or bullpen, with concerns about the latter because of the belief that he requires a certain amount of recovery time between outings. Sisco will have to earn a job in spring training, but he’s the current favorite to join Caleb Joseph as the catching tandem. Castro will work as a starter in camp, giving the Orioles the flexibility to put him in the rotation or return him to the relief role that he handed so efficiently over the summer.
Let’s tackle four more questions this morning. Just don’t lead with your helmet.
Is Chris Lee a starter or reliever?
The easy answer is he’s a starter because that’s what he’s done for the majority of his professional career and the Orioles have a more pressing need in their rotation.
Life isn’t simple.
Lee recovered from a lat injury this year, but he got off to a miserable start at Triple-A Norfolk and eventually settled into the bullpen, where he’d piggyback whomever took the ball in the first inning. He worked as a second starter of sorts and improved his results, leading team officials to ponder whether he should remain in that role.
There are some special challenges for Lee that separate him from other pitchers. He’s legally blind in his right eye, which requires him to wear protective goggles, and the Orioles wonder how the condition might impact him as a starter. But he posted a 3.29 ERA with three teams in 2015 and was 5-0 with a 2.98 ERA at Double-A Bowie in 2016 before the lat injury.
The Orioles need three starters to join Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. They want at least one left-hander, a point that Duquette emphasized again last week. Lee emerged as one of their top pitching prospects following a trade with the Astros that cost them ... wait for it ... international signing bonus slots. He’s only 25 and still lined up to be a contributor in 2018.
The rotation comes first and that’s where Lee figures to stay. At least to start, so to speak.
Should Mark Trumbo get more starts in right field?
This idea contradicts the need to improve defensively and ease the strain on center fielder Adam Jones. However, let’s examine it a little closer.
Assuming that Trumbo isn’t traded, he might have to vacate the designated hitter spot on occasion while the Orioles work in a left-handed bat. Duquette has stated that there’s room for one in the outfield and at DH.
Trumbo could move to first base or take a seat on the bench, but the more likely scenario places him in right field. He’s not going to fall into a strict platoon situation.
There’s also the matter of Trumbo’s slash lines, which further cuts to my point. He batted .207/.268/.367 in 111 games this year as the DH and .331/.368/.508 in 31 games as the right fielder.
Trumbo is a career .226/.287/.416 hitter as a DH and a .279/.336/.521 hitter as a right fielder, so his 2017 production isn’t an aberration. And though he won’t replace Machado, he’s 8-for-27 (.296) as a third baseman.
Putting Trumbo in the field could bring out the best in him at the plate. His slippage this year contributed to the last-place finish. The Orioles need to get him right, even if it means playing him there.
Is the utility infielder already in the organization?
Ryan Flaherty is a free agent and it’s always possible that he doubles back to the Orioles, which would equal his total for the 2017 season. Manager Buck Showalter values Flaherty’s defense and versatility, though the shoulder injury this year reduced the trust factor at shortstop.
The replacement for Flaherty could come from the Rule 5 draft, via trade or free agency, or in their own backyard.
I’ve mentioned former Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins as a possibility after he was non-tendered. Other names will surface at the Winter Meetings.
The Orioles pretty much know what they’ve got with Rubén Tejada, who appeared in 41 games for them this summer and has 657 games of major league experience. They’re intrigued by Luis Sardiñas and Erick Salcedo, who played at the upper levels of their farm system and were re-signed as minor league free agents. And while they left Steve Wilkerson unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, they believe he can be a utility player if his glove work improves at shortstop.
Tejada, Sardiñas, Salcedo and Wilkerson should be in play, and the Orioles also signed former Phillies farmhand Angelo Mora, the fourth switch-hitter in the group, to a minor league deal. But they need to figure out whether there’s a better option.
Don’t underestimate the importance of it, especially as they attempt to upgrade their bench and give Showalter more choices - and more chances to rest his regulars.
Should they use a roster spot on Anthony Santander?
The rules state that they must do it for the first 44 days of the season while Santander retains his Rule 5 status. He can’t be optioned without going through waivers and being offered back to the Indians, who’d take him.
Santander appeared in only 13 games this summer after coming off the disabled list in August, a small sample size that can only reveal so much. They’re also left to rely on scouting reports - including the 2016 season at Single-A Lynchburg that led to his selection in the Rule 5 draft - and whatever they see in spring training to determine whether he should break camp with the team. His ability to play the outfield at an acceptable level hasn’t been determined.
Being a switch-hitter is a plus. He owns a .347 on-base percentage in six minor league seasons, and he belted 20 home runs in 128 games with Lynchburg last year, five in 15 games with Double-A Bowie during his rehab assignment and one more with Salt River in the Arizona Fall League.
I’d be surprised if a healthy Santander was excluded from the opening day roster. Stick it out for 44 days and send him down if he isn’t ready. The system gladly will absorb a prospect with his skill set. But the decision grows more difficult if a bubble player has to be cut who could contribute from the outset, and if the Orioles try to carry another Rule 5 pick following next week’s Winter Meetings.
An improved bench has limited space for a stashed player. The Orioles need to figure out whether he can contribute, and if not, whether they can make enough room for 44 days without hurting the cause.
Shameless plug alert: The “Orioles Hot Stove Show” returns tonight on 105.7 The Fan from 6-7 p.m. at the Orioles Grille at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel. Trey Mancini is joining us to talk about his rookie season and anything else we toss his way.