Plenty to ponder as pitchers and catchers set to report

SARASOTA, Fla. - One day remains before pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. One day and a healthy assortment of storylines and curiosities.

The Orioles’ roster is mostly set, but it’s always subject to change while executive vice president Dan Duquette lets the market play out. We’re usually good for at least one press conference in Sarasota, and that includes the intimate gathering in the media room after left-hander Johan Santana agreed to a minor league deal on March 4, 2014.

Pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Suk-min Yoon arrived in the spring. So did outfielder Nelson Cruz and designated hitter Pedro Alvarez. The Orioles considered Kendrys Morales before Cruz agreed to terms, and rumors persisted that they still could work out a deal.

Dexter Fowler got lost on the way. It happens. Not everyone has a GPS.

A veteran starter and defensive-minded outfielder remain on the current shopping list. Another reliever could join the bullpen competition. Duquette isn’t done. Turn away at your own risk.

In no particular order, here are some of the above-mentioned storylines/curiosities that warrant monitoring as the clubhouse doors open to the media on Monday morning. I’m not including bench and bullpen competitions and who’s batting leadoff. Let’s dig a little deeper here:

Does the backup catching job really belong to Caleb Joseph?
It’s a competition until manager Buck Showalter says it isn’t, though Francisco Pena’s removal from the 40-man roster seems to increase Joseph’s odds. And let’s not get too hung up on the RBI drought. This isn’t how Joseph is judged in the organization. He’s solid behind the plate, exactly what the Orioles seek from their backup. Let him up already.


What happens to Matt Wieters?
This is going to be newsy no matter where he signs after the Orioles made him the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. The list of players hyped with more intensity than Wieters is an extremely short one. His new home will be of interest to the local and national media and to most fans. I’m still not expecting him to stay in Baltimore - I wrote last week that there hadn’t been recent contact with agent Scott Boras - but I reserve the right to leave myself the tiniest bit of wiggle room.

How long will it take for Welington Castillo to familiarize himself with the pitching staff?
Showalter will be asked about Castillo’s decision to play in the World Baseball Classic and he’ll be diplomatic, saying that he’s supportive of any player’s desire to represent his country. However, and there’s going to be one of those, he’d surely prefer to keep Castillo in camp now that the Orioles apparently have moved on from Wieters. We have no idea exactly how long Castillo will be gone and how much it will impact his preparation. The Orioles didn’t want to find out.

Will Mychal Givens make it through the WBC without injury?
Givens is the guy who brings the most concern for the most obvious reason. He’s a young pitcher. He’s going to be thrust into a competitive environment and therefore is deemed more vulnerable to health issues. Showalter will be carrying his trademark fungo bat with fingers crossed.

Will Givens keep throwing his changeup against left-handed hitters?
The Orioles talked him into it late last season as a way to defend himself. Left-handers batted .366 against Givens and the Orioles aren’t interested in using him as a right-handed specialist. He needs to be brought into exhibition innings with lefties lined up to face him. Easier said than done, of course, with all the substituting.

Will Hyun Soo Kim break camp as an everyday player?
Every at-bat against a left-hander will be scrutinized because Kim had 22 plate appearances against them last season and didn’t get a hit. The Orioles need to determine whether he can stay in the lineup and avoid another platoon situation, especially with one happening in right field. A few Grapefruit League hits won’t solve the riddle, but it’s a start. If the opponent is starting a southpaw, Kim needs to play. He also should be sent to the minor league complex and fed a steady diet of them. It can be Wade Miley. It can be T.J. McFarland. It can be Scott McGregor. Just do it.

Will Trey Mancini take fly balls in the outfield?
The Orioles have given no indication that they want to experiment with Mancini, but he’s been preparing for the possibility by performing certain drills that could make him a more viable option. I’ll state again that it couldn’t hurt to hit him fly balls on one of the back fields, unless he pulls a hammy or groin. That would hurt. He’s blocked at first base. Let’s find out if he can play another position. But also try to find a plus-defender to place beside center fielder Adam Jones.

Will Dariel Alvarez step on a mound?
I don’t mean as he’s jogging from the outfield to the dugout. There are members of the organization who are intrigued by the idea of converting Alvarez into a pitcher. Showalter wouldn’t fight it. Alvarez is 28 years old and not projected to break camp as one of the spare outfielders unless he’s replacing an injured player. If he isn’t on the 40-man bubble, he’s close enough to touch it. The guy’s got a plus-plus arm. Doesn’t mean he can use it to throw strikes and retire big league hitters, but I’d be curious to find out. Why not let him throw off one of the bullpen mounds? It can be done out of the media’s view if the Orioles want to downplay it. But he’d obviously have to build up to it.

Will David Washington be worthy of the Jake Fox Award?
Washington is big and he hits lots of home runs. He also strikes out plenty. Every camp needs at least one of these guys. I’m pretty sure it’s the law. Like not veering your car into the bike lane at the last instant to make a right-hand turn. Learned that one the hard way a few springs ago.

Will the Orioles keep a Rule 5 pick?
Also the law. They have two outfielders to choose from in Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander. If I had to guess, I’d say Santander is placed on the disabled list - “stashed” is such an ugly word - after undergoing shoulder surgery. Tavarez is more polished because he’s played at the Triple-A level and he hit .335/.379/.506 last year at Double-A Portland. He also brings an element of speed similar to me in a spring rental car. Hopefully, neither one of us runs through a stop sign. The addition of another outfielder naturally would decrease Tavarez’s chances, though as I’ve written multiple times, Showalter may break camp with only 10 or 11 pitchers and an expanded bench due to three early off days. It would be a temporary solution. And of course, keeping Mancini and Joey Rickard would further complicate the situation.

Will the Orioles keep Logan Ondrusek?
They declined his option in 2017, then re-signed him to a one-year deal with an option for 2018. I scratched my head until it bled. Nothing against Ondrusek. I just didn’t immediately get the reasoning and thought I stumbled across an old tweet. The bullpen has room for Ondrusek, but not if left-handers again go 6-for-11 against him. He’s worth tracking this spring.

Will Chris Lee regain his full health and reposition himself for a call up?
Lee was on the fast track to the majors before his lat injury limited him to eight games (seven starts) at Double-A Bowie. The last time we saw Lee, he was at minicamp and nearing a return to the mound. I’d be surprised if the Orioles assigned him to Triple-A Norfolk, but no matter where he starts the 2017 season, he’s a candidate to make his major league debut later this summer if healthy. Anything he does in camp will be worthy of our attention unless it’s picking a sushi restaurant. (Yume Sushi on Main St. and Pacific Rim on Hillview St. are fine choices, but I digress ...)

Just how good is Jesus Liranzo?
The Orioles must think highly of the 21-year-old right-hander or they wouldn’t have protected him in the Rule 5 draft. He was a priority. The Orioles won’t put him on the opening day roster, but he’s squarely on Showalter’s radar and that’s always a good thing. I look forward to watching his bullpen sessions and taking blurry photos with my phone.

Just how good is Joe Gunkel?
We’ve seen the numbers in the minors. Everyone wants to know how his stuff translates in the majors. He needs to pitch early in games on the road before teams start removing their starters. Keep those gray pants handy and find a comfortable seat on the bus. He wouldn’t be a bad choice as a dark horse pick. The bullpen needs a long reliever/swingman and Vance Worley isn’t walking through that door. Does this put him in direct competition with Logan Verrett?

Will Brad Brach avoid an arbitration hearing?
The Orioles made a final attempt with Joseph and reached agreement with Kevin Gausman. Brach presents more of a challenge because the gap is bigger. He wants $3.05 million and the Orioles are offering $2.525 million. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla. It’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme. Brach’s under team control through 2018 and his salary isn’t coming out of your savings account. Why do we really care? But a hearing isn’t a pleasant experience and it’s best to avoid it. Just not at any cost.


Is what’s happening with Chris Tillman off the field more interesting than anything that’s happening on it?
The Orioles need to talk contract extension with Tillman’s representatives before starting the season. Don’t be surprised if they sneak into camp. The lines of communication have reopened, but nothing serious. Now, it’s time to get serious if they truly want to bring him back. Tillman isn’t pitching for a spot on the team and guys like him tend to work on things and not obsess over their ERAs. His pending free agency is why we should pay close attention to him, though I already feel bad about the number of times he’s going to be asked about it.

When is it OK to ask Showalter about his opening day starter?
No time like the present. Well, the complex doesn’t open to the media until Monday. So, no time like Monday. Showalter will make us wait a little while before confirming Tillman. He’ll ask reporters when they need news on a slow day and we’ll actually confer. It’s become a nice little tradition.

Will Zach Britton stop being perfect?
The games don’t count down here, but Britton went 47-for-47 in save chances last season and hasn’t failed since Sept. 20, 2015 at Tropicana Field. Any blown save will be blown out of proportion. Not because it matters, but because anything can qualify as a story. Remember Joseph’s truck, Ronny Paulino’s car and Brian Matusz’s wart? I actually raced to my laptop last March after reliever Dale Thayer opted out of his contract, hurdling an elderly woman so she wouldn’t take a charge. Then again, Britton may not be used in a save situation. It makes sense to insert him into a game before the starters are replaced by a bunch of Double-A hitters who may decide to go into coaching or real estate after taking a few hacks at his sinker.

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