Cowser stayed a slam dunk despite late slump

SARASOTA, Fla. – In lieu of having a final roster in hand, many of us are reduced to the imperfect science of reading between the lines in media scrums or casual conversations.

The Orioles don’t share the combination to the vault. They don't offer anything that could be construed as a solid clue to their roster plans.

Their last exhibition game was played on a sunny day in Fort Myers, but reporters are largely kept in the dark.

No need for pity or a flashlight. That’s the way teams usually operate.

Colton Cowser has been an assumption for most of spring training, that he’d break camp as the backup at every outfield position. He earned it based on his production at the plate and defense.

“He’s made huge strides defensively and shown that in spring training,” manager Brandon Hyde said on Friday. “A lot more confident in the outfield, playing more aggressive. I do feel comfortable putting him in center field or left field, which is as tough or tougher in our park. And you have to factor those kinds of things, also, when you’re setting your roster. Our park does play a factor in who we’re bringing from an outfield standpoint.”

Sounded like a strong endorsement for Cowser but also short of a rock-solid confirmation, and some people began to wonder. Could the 24-year-old be playing his way off the roster?

Jackson Holliday looked like a major leaguer, but he’s going to mostly play second base at Triple-A Norfolk until the Orioles select his contract.

(Connor Norby is primarily a second baseman but will have to get most of his starts in the corner outfielder and designated hitter until Holliday leaves.)

Cowser came off the bench yesterday and struck out in the seventh inning with two runners on base. He batted again in the eighth and struck out again. He’s 3-for-23 with a home run since going 2-for-3 on March 12 against the Rays and raising his average to .478 and OPS to 1.586.

The homer in Dunedin was measured at 463 feet to dead center field, after he struck out in his first three at-bats. He was hitting .351 with a 1.251 OPS.

I called him a slam dunk, but he hadn’t gotten the call into Hyde’s office. One member of the organization didn't want to talk about the projected center fielder at Triple-A Norfolk, joking that it might give away the team's intentions for the major league roster. And immediately I reached for my reading glasses and focused between those lines.

The initial instincts, however, were accurate. The Orioles waited until after yesterday’s game, when Cowser provided one of the best moments of the spring by letting us know that he made it and then worrying that he let the proverbial feline out of the bag.

A team employee nodded and said, “You’re good.” Cowser could talk about it. And make the emotional phone call home, with media asked to wait until 4:06 p.m. to post it on social media. Of course, we were happy to do it.

The Orioles are working out in Sarasota this morning before flying home, will work out again Tuesday evening at Camden Yards and rest Wednesday. They must set their roster by Thursday, letting us know who’s joining Cowser on that jog down the orange carpet – his first appearance at the ballpark since Aug. 9 against the Astros.

That was always his preference over playing center field between Heston Kjerstad and Kyle Stowers at Norfolk. No offense to his friends.

The outfield is an area of strength for the Orioles, but you also have to look down in the minors. And you should overlook some spring training numbers.

Cedric Mullins batted .111 with a .384 on-base percentage, Austin Hays .138 with a .539 OPS, and Anthony Santander .200 with a .751 OPS. Santander accounted for five of the six home runs in the group.

Mullins missed time with a sore hamstring and Hays was floored by a stomach bug.

“It was a bad one,” Hays said.

The trio is on the roster, of course. Tyler Nevin emerges as the favorite for the last bench spot, in a one-man competition unless the Orioles claim or trade for a bat.

No one had Nevin on a mock roster. I’m confident of it. But that’s why the games aren’t played on paper, or something like that.

Now we can look back in amusement at the question of whether the Orioles would carry seven infielders or five outfielders. Nevin plays the corners. He's basically both of them.

Kolten Wong was viewed as the alternative to Holliday. Julio Teheran was a serious candidate for a long relief role, with an outside shot at the rotation. They opted out and were granted their releases. Meanwhile, I initially thought both could be in Baltimore later this week.

Though the club hasn’t announced it, outfielder Ryan McKenna and infielder Nick Maton won’t make the club. McKenna was the most likely to stay and seemed to have improved odds with Holliday gone and the Orioles maybe leaning toward that fifth outfielder. But Nevin, if he sticks, is a right-handed bat with pop coming off the bench against the lefties we keep hearing about.

Nevin is a career .263/.354/.444 hitter against southpaws and a .168/.285/.216 hitter versus right-handers. But plus-speed and defense are lost with the Ferrari out of the garage and motoring down the road.

I've obviously been wrong more than once, but I'd expect a team to claim McKenna off waivers.

Also of interest to me is how the Orioles are primed to break camp without a non-roster invite making the team. They’ll clear two spots on a full 40-man roster by removing McKenna and Maton, but they weren’t in a bind.

This is the projected Opening Day roster as it currently stands:

Starting pitchers: Corbin Burnes, Grayson Rodriguez, Tyler Wells, Dean Kremer, Cole Irvin

Relievers: Craig Kimbrel, Yennier Cano, Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez, Mike Baumann, Dillon Tate, Keegan Akin, Jacob Webb

Catchers: Adley Rutschman, James McCann

Infielders: Gunnar Henderson, Ryan Mountcastle, Ryan O’Hearn, Jordan Westburg, Ramón Urías, Jorge Mateo, Tyler Nevin

Outfielders: Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, Colton Cowser

After ROY season, can Gunnar Henderson still eleva...
Cowser makes Orioles roster for Opening Day

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