Sifting through spring training storylines

One more day until Orioles pitchers and catchers are required to post at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla. The first workout is held the following day.

My first trip to Publix will come later this afternoon after my flight lands in Tampa, I hop into a rental car and make the hour drive to the hotel. I can do it with my eyes closed, but local authorities keep issuing warnings.

The offseason began with the Orioles needing three starting pitchers to fill out their rotation and more if they wanted to improve on their depth. They announced the signing of right-hander Michael Kelly to a major league deal on the final day of the Winter Meetings and selected left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. in the Rule 5 draft. The earth didn’t shake.

Cortes may work out of the bullpen if he breaks camp with the team. The Orioles will consider him for both roles.

Mike Fiers rejected their two-year offer to accept $6 million over one season from the Tigers. The Orioles remain in negotiations with multiple agents and are talking trades with several teams, including the Astros (Collin McHugh) and Rays (Jake Odorizzi). And still, the rotation consists only of Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy.

Which leads us to the No. 1 storyline of camp:

Who’s in the rotation?
We could have a repeat of the 2014 spring training when the Orioles led the league in hastily arranged press conferences, including announcements on pitchers Ubaldo Jiménez and Suk-min Yoon.

How did that work out?

Each day could bring a new arm, which will keep the beat writers on alert. But we’ll also monitor the in-house competitions that figure to include Cortes, Miguel Castro, Mike Wright and Gabriel Ynoa.

The camp roster includes 35 pitchers. The grounds crew may have to build a few more mounds, including one in the men’s room of the baseball operations center.

Executive vice president Dan Duquette set a March 1 deadline at FanFest for pitching acquisitions, though it could soften later. He’s basing it on the number of days needed to get ready for opening day.

How will Manny Machado handle shortstop?
Get ready for lots of video and photos of Machado taking ground balls in the early days of camp. Of Machado tossing balls into a bucket next to him. Of Machado flipping the ball to second base to simulate double plays. Of Machado yawning and scratching himself.

It could border on stalkerish. Creepy at the very least.

Every move will be documented as Machado reverts back to his original position. The Orioles have vowed to improve their defense, making it a priority, but they’ve decided to take a Platinum Glove winner off third base. Seems like a contradiction on the surface, but Machado could be an upgrade over Tim Beckham at shortstop.

J.J. Hardy is gone. The Orioles will find out whether Machado can handle the physical and mental grind, whether he can be the same leader as his predecessor.

How will Beckham handle third base?
Beckham’s experience at the hot corner consists of five major league starts and nine appearances. Meanwhile, Machado won two Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove at third. Beckham is filling shoes the size of duffle bags.

To his credit, Beckham insists that he’s excited to make the switch. He’d rather play shortstop, of course, but third base is better than a utility role.

Beckham will undergo the same type of scrutiny as Machado. If he plays third like Wilson Betemit, the Orioles will have a problem.

Will Austin Hays break camp with the team?
This is a question posed to me on a weekly basis.

The Orioles want to acquire a left-handed hitter to at least platoon in right field - preferably a plus defender. Hays could be the right-handed complement and back up at the other two spots, or the club could decide that he’d benefit from regular at-bats at Triple-A Norfolk.

Hays will be thrust into a competition with Joey Rickard and veteran Craig Gentry, the latter signed to a minor league deal. The camp roster also includes switch-hitting Anthony Santander, who must stay in the majors for the first 44 days of the season before shedding his Rule 5 status.

Trey Mancini and Adam Jones are locks in left and center, but right field is shrouded in uncertainly.

Who’s the utility infielder?
ruben-tejada-black-sidebar.jpgWe know of four candidates: Luis Sardiñas, Rubén Tejada, Erick Salcedo and Éngelb Vielma. Garabez Rosa received an invitation to spring training, but he’s limited defensively.

The Orioles could toss another player in the mix. They made a run at Ryan Goins before he signed a minor league deal with the Royals. They showed surface interest in Ryan Flaherty, made a late push and lost out to the Phillies.

Manager Buck Showalter would like for the utility player to excel at shortstop and have the skills to move into the outfield in an emergency. It becomes a necessity if the pitching staff swells to 13.

Flaherty’s versatility will be missed. No one expected him to win a batting title.

How will Zach Britton be treated in camp?
I’m sure everyone will be nice to him. I’m wondering about his schedule following right Achilles surgery and three appointments with Dr. Kenneth Jung of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles.

The media will want to know his daily routine and when he’s cleared to play catch. The boredom of PFPs will erode the first time Britton is allowed to participate. The first time he takes a throw and steps on first base.

Britton can expect lots of visitors at his locker. The Achilles, his pending free agency and the possibility of renewed trade talks will be hot topics. I may ask about his favorite television program, just to mix it up.

Who’s the backup catcher?
I’m working under the assumption that the Orioles aren’t bringing in a veteran starter and making Caleb Joseph the backup.

If Joseph is, indeed, the regular for the first time without an injury to someone else increasing his role, Showalter must choose between Chance Sisco, Austin Wynns and Andrew Susac. The Orioles re-signed Audry Perez to a minor league deal and invited him to camp, but he’s an extreme longshot to make the club. His signing was more about depth.

Sisco has the highest ceiling and the best bat. Wynns is the defensive specialist who might be a late-bloomer at the plate. Susac used to be the top prospect in the Giants system, but he hasn’t hit or stayed healthy.

It may not be the most intriguing competition, but it still counts and I consider it to be a spring tradition. I’ve covered teams with Chad Moeller, Craig Tatum, Jake Fox, Gregg Zaun, and Fernando Lunar trying to win jobs. It provides copy.

Will the Orioles attempt to negotiate extensions?
Second baseman Jonathan Schoop might be the most likely candidate, though he isn’t a pending free agent. The Orioles would like to extend him and avoid, as it’s now called, “a Manny Machado situation.”

Machado seems assured of testing the market next winter. The Orioles aren’t pretending that his price is going to plummet or they’re going to consider a record-shattering deal. Any negotiation likely would be brief.

“You’re looking for how much? Yeah, thought so.”

Rumors surfaced at the Winter Meetings that the Orioles floated a preliminary three-year offer at Jones. I was told it didn’t happen and he stated at FanFest that he’s heard nothing from the club. However, the Orioles could arrange a meeting with his agent in spring training.

I reported earlier in the offseason that the club talked to Britton about his possible interest in returning to a starting role, which could lead to a contract extension. They’d be more comfortable with another pay increase if he wasn’t closing. But he ruptured his Achilles and likely would prefer to stay in his current role.

Duquette and Showalter also are working on contracts that expire after the season. Showalter had zero interest in discussing his status while appearing on the “Orioles Hot Stove Show” on 105.7 The Fan. I doubt that he’ll suddenly be in a sharing mood in Sarasota.

How will Schoop explain his absence from FanFest?
This won’t be a camp-long storyline. One interview ought to do it.

Showalter and Duquette expressed their disappointment over Schoop’s decision to skip the annual event, apparently on the advice of his agent because the sides had failed to reach agreement on a contract for 2018.

Schoop eventually signed for $8.5 million to avoid a hearing. He’s a popular figure in the clubhouse and one of Showalter’s favorites. The controversy has dissipated. But it’s going to be rehashed for one more day.

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