More thoughts on Holliday's reassignment and some unexpected spring developments (lineup vs. Rays)

SARASOTA, Fla. – To say that Jackson Holliday’s exclusion from the Opening Day roster is a stunning development wouldn’t be accurate. I felt like I kept advising people to brace for bad news, that it wasn’t a sure thing.

It ain’t on ‘till it’s on.

I gave Holliday less than a 50 percent chance before the Winter Meetings, jumped into the 60-70 percent range while flying out of Nashville, and came back down as Holliday’s strikeouts rose.

The improved at-bats and overall impressive play moved me again, but never to the point of feeling secure in his placement on a mock roster. I straddled that fence until it left permanent marks. Take my word for it.

One reason for my hesitancy in thinking that Holliday would be in Baltimore March 28 is how it went against the club’s usual cautious and deliberate handling of a top prospect in making the jump from Triple-A to the majors. This isn’t new. Or have we forgotten the Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson watches?

They can dart up the system but how many players with 18 games of Triple-A experience break camp the following spring?

The club knew over the winter that Holliday batted from the left side and would be playing second base, but those were a few stated reasons yesterday why he’s no longer here. He needs more at-bats against quality lefties, which will be prevalent early in the schedule, and he’s still learning a new position.

There isn’t much more that Holliday could have done to convince the Orioles that he should join them at Camden Yards besides learning to also bat from the right side. He didn’t control lineups last season that mostly kept him at shortstop.

Asked recently whether Holliday looked like a big leaguer, manager Brandon Hyde said, "It's hard to say he doesn't." That, too, unintentionally fueled assumptions that Holliday made it.

The Holliday promotion could come quickly. For all we know, it could happen after the front office determines that the club matches up better with future opponents if there’s an extra left-handed bat. And, of course, that's gonna heat up the service time manipulation theories. They hang heavy in the air, like last night's storm clouds.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias kept tossing out reminders that the Opening Day roster isn’t permanent. A player who’s out of options could have a short shelf life.

Elias couldn’t come out and say that Holliday might have his contract selected in a few weeks and to be patient, because that’s a deafening backfire if it doesn’t happen for some reason. But yeah, it might have calmed some fans.

Not everyone, of course. Folks are predictably riled because they wanted this badly and became convinced that it would happen. They watched Holliday, read about him, heard about him, and fell in love all over again. Heart-shaped pupils were more popular than the winking Natty Boh guy.

We should pause here to also salute Coby Mayo, an expected cut who still deserves mention for batting .326/.426/.543 in a team-leading 22 games with a club-high seven doubles, one home run and 11 RBIs. His work at third base also earned raves.

And buy a bouquet for Connor Norby, who got a late start due to side soreness but went 7-for-26 with two doubles, a home run and a .345 on-base percentage in 13 games. He’s gonna hit. Will be the same story in Triple-A as in 2023.

Mayo and Norby weren’t making the club because there wasn’t a spot for them, though the desire for right-handed bats for at least the first couple series … well, never mind. But there are plenty of spring developments that I didn’t foresee happening during the winter.

Here’s a starting nine. I’ve got others in reserve.

Gunnar Henderson is staying at shortstop.

A decision made by the club over the winter goes against its passion for flexibility and moving players to other positions.

The Orioles gave Henderson four more starts at third base than shortstop during his award-winning rookie season and figured to keep him mobile, as they’d do with Jordan Westburg, Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo, and could have done with Holliday. As they could do with Anthony Santander between right field and a smidge of first base. And Ryan O’Hearn between first base and a smidge of corner outfield.

But no. Henderson isn’t going to third unless it’s a mid-game adjustment to the infield, per Hyde. Shortstop is Henderson’s natural position and his obvious preference, but that hasn’t influenced the Orioles in the past. This is a special exception because he’s a special talent, and 10 of his 13 defensive runs saved last summer came at short.

Henderson won’t be nailed down there, but the Orioles are taking off the wheels.

Colton Cowser moved ahead of Heston Kjerstad.

Kjerstad will play in the majors in 2024 and probably far beyond given his bat skills and improving defense. He’s got sick power. But Cowser will head north as the fourth outfielder, and there’s a chance that the Orioles don’t carry a fifth on Opening Day.

Cowser is batting .325 with a 1.174 OPS, five home runs, 11 RBIs and seven walks in 16 games. His 14 strikeouts are second on the club behind Holliday and Westburg (15), but that’s inconsequential. And his ability to play all three outfield positions makes him hugely important, especially with the team considering a 26-man roster with seven infielders.

Everyone knew that he’d hit in the majors and his .115/.286/.148 line and zero home runs in 77 plate appearances with the Orioles last season were a mirage. He kept raking at Triple-A and hit the go-ahead grand slam in the championship game. He wasn’t taken as the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft because Elias owed someone a favor. But Cowser wasn’t on the expanded September roster for more than a couple days, until Aaron Hicks was reinstated from the injured list. Kjerstad impressed in a brief audition and made the Division Series roster.

On paper, Kjerstad seemed like a surer bet to be with the Orioles on March 28, but Cowser is a lock.

He’s also gonna help to keep that clubhouse looser than John Goodman’s old pants.

Dillon Tate was nearly perfect.

Tate didn’t pitch for the Orioles in 2023 due to his elbow/forearm injuries, in case you somehow missed it or forgot. I’m here to tell you that the media won’t let it happen.

Because he has two minor league options, Tate was largely viewed as nothing more than in the mix for a bullpen spot and perhaps at a disadvantage based on last summer’s disappearance and the many relievers who can’t be sent down without passing through waivers.

Tate quietly went about his business, because he’s a quiet guy, and proved that he’s healthy and every bit as good as the 2022 version.

The numbers don’t lie. He’s made six appearances covering six innings and allowed one hit, with one walk. No runs. He can be a ground ball machine on a team with plus defenders in the infield.

I don’t see how he’s left behind when the Orioles break camp. And there was no way to know it before they arrived.

Albert Suárez leads the Orioles in strikeouts.

Suárez fanned 19 batters in 15 2/3 innings during his five appearances, including three starts, before the Orioles reassigned him. That puts him three ahead of confirmed No. 4 starter Dean Kremer, who’s worked 16 innings in five games.

We know Dean Kremer. We were learning about Albert Suárez when pitchers and catchers reported.

Suárez will start for the Norfolk Tides and hop into the Orioles’ rotation or bullpen if they need him. And it would be his first major league appearance since 2017 with the Giants.

He’s been in Japan and Korea for the last five years. The Orioles signed him to a minor league deal in September and hardly anyone noticed.

“That’s a great pickup for us and we’re excited about him,” said manager Brandon Hyde.

“He’s pitched in a lot of different places, and I know he’s really appreciative to be here and we’re appreciative that we signed him. The coaching staff is They did a great job scouting him.”

Do not try to convince me that you knew he’d strike out this many batters, walk only two, and still be in camp with only a few days left. I’ll need proof.

(Suárez still had his locker in the clubhouse yesterday and was walking around in workout clothes. The locker for Andrew Suárez is empty except for his chair that's folded inside, but he remains on the camp roster. Confused? You aren't the only one.)

Tyler Wells is the No. 3 starter.

Makes more sense now, but go back to January.

Pick a month that isn’t March.

Wells seemed destined to return to the bullpen, but Kyle Bradish’s elbow injury and news that John Means also would begin the season on the injured list changed everything.

I had Wells and Cole Irvin filling out the last two spots in the rotation. I felt confident that Wells would be fourth after he allowed two runs in 10 2/3 innings. But third?

My mind had Kremer in the middle, which also was a wonderful sitcom. But Hyde said Wells gets the ball for the finale of the opening series.

Hyde earlier put to rest the idea that the Orioles could limit Wells’ innings in order to improve his chances of staying in the rotation for an entire season. He won’t be handled with that much care.

The club could be faced with a pleasant problem later when Bradish and Means return. Means will arrive first, of course. He isn’t injured. I can’t stress this point enough. But the Orioles remain hopeful that Bradish avoids surgery and is reinstated early in the first half.

He’s trending in the right direction.

So is Wells’ career as a starter.

Keegan Akin was one of the best pitchers in camp.

Some might argue that nobody did it better.

Akin was in a similar situation as Tate, except he did pitch in 2023. But a back injury kept him out of the majors after June 28.

The Orioles managed to get by without Akin, who registered a 6.85 ERA and 1.775 WHIP in 24 games. I didn’t have him on any mock Opening Day rosters. Did you?

I’ll need proof.

Akin looks like a lock after tossing 7 1/3 scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and 10 strikeouts. His velocity is up. The stuff is improved. And Hyde has seen the good side of Akin, so it didn’t come out of nowhere.

Hyde’s memory has been jarred this spring.

Akin’s minor league option brings the kind of flexibility that the bullpen needs, but he won’t get sent down if he keeps pitching like this.

Tyler Nevin is hitting like a major leaguer.

The Orioles reacquired Nevin from the Tigers over the winter, and the move could best be described as puzzling.

Nothing against Nevin, but he’s out of options and no one could find any holes in the corner infield and outfield. There just didn’t seem to be a need for him.

Nevin has done nothing but hit since he arrived in camp. I can imagine him lining a couple singles on his days off. He’s slashing .346/.382/.500 in 21 games. Only Mayo appeared in more. No one had more at-bats than Nevin’s 52.

This isn’t a tiny sample size.

Nevin’s chances of making the club appeared small because, again, there’s such a crowd at his positions. But he remains in camp while others packed their bags. The Orioles definitely want him to remain in the organization if they don’t bring him to Baltimore. But yeah, he’d have to pass through waivers.

In the meantime, I didn’t think Nevin would put up these numbers and make such a bold statement for inclusion. He deserves to receive another chance in the majors.

Jorge Mateo hits and stays.

Mateo was draped in uncertainty throughout the offseason. Would the Orioles non-tender him? Would they try to trade him? How did he fit on a team with so many infield prospects?

Well, Mateo blocked it out and hit .343/.425/.571 in 14 games. Hyde praised him at every opportunity. The hints were strong that Mateo didn’t need to worry.

The speedster didn’t lose a step or a job. He’s prepped to play multiple positions, though his three total starts in the outfield are fewer than anticipated.

The Orioles could keep seven infielders. Hyde calls Mateo the “wild card” in this scenario, with the level of trust in his outfield play increasing the odds.

Craig Kimbrel threw a changeup.

I thought there was a better chance of Albert Belle showing up in camp and throwing a fit.

“It was nasty, too,” Hyde said.

But enough about Belle.

Kimbrel is fastball/knuckle-curve, an older dog who didn’t figure to be learning new tricks or dusting off one.

Statcast shows Kimbrel using a changeup in one game in 2018. But he struck out the Phillies’ Bryson Stott Wednesday night and left everyone in shock – none more than Stott, whose expression was priceless.

Kimbrel isn’t. The Orioles are guaranteeing him $13 million. They already named him the closer as soon as the ink dried and love that he might be adding another weapon.

Here's the split-squad lineup against the Rays in Port Charlotte:

Kolten Wong 2B
Colton Cowser LF
Ryan McKenna RF
Tyler Nevin 1B
Coby Mayo 3B
Nick Maton SS
Connor Norby DH
Michael Pérez C
Daniel Johnson CF

Julio Teheran RHP

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