The inviting storylines awaiting the media at spring training, less than a week before it begins, include the competitions at third base and right field and behind the plate.
Other candidates can be tossed into the mix as executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias attempts to swing a few trades and/or snatches up a couple of free agents lingering on another sluggish market. One-year deals become more attractive to players as we move through February.
Manager Brandon Hyde can figure out whether he’s comfortable starting Renato Núñez or Rio Ruiz at third base or going with a strict platoon. He also could push for an upgrade if one is available and affordable.
Núñez was shaky defensively upon his arrival in July, living up to a reputation that’s followed him in the minors. A strong arm that’s known to unleash inaccurate throws. The footwork can be clumsy. But we saw improvement over the final weeks of the season as he continued to work with former infield instructor Bobby Dickerson.
The bat always has intrigued and it keeps getting him opportunities. He slashed .275/.336/.445 with 13 doubles and seven home runs in 60 games and posted a 1.2 WAR.
The Orioles ranked last in the American League and 29th in the majors with a .298 on-base percentage. Núñez, who no longer has a minor league option, stood out as an exception.
Elias grabbed Ruiz off waivers at the Winter Meetings, providing a left-handed bat as an alternative at third. The former fourth-round pick of the Astros hit .189/.282/.302 in 72 major league games with the Braves distributed over the past three seasons.
There’s the obvious Astros connection between Elias and Ruiz, who has one minor league option remaining.
Ruiz batted .269/.322/.390 with 25 doubles, four triples, nine home runs and 72 RBIs last summer in 130 games with Triple-A Gwinnett. Perhaps most impressive is how he started 49 games at third base, 33 at first, 19 in left field and 11 in right. He isn’t a true utility candidate without professional shortstop experience, but his versatility is an attraction to a club that craves it.
Camp infielders also include Steve Wilkerson, Hanser Alberto and Jack Reinheimer and invites Jace Peterson, Ryan Mountcastle, Zach Vincej and Chris Bostick. The utility competition should be fierce, with Mountcastle the exception because his glove doesn’t fit the mold. He’s trying to become established and trustworthy at third.
Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson, the latter acquired in a trade, will compete for the shortstop job if Jonathan Villar is playing second. Otherwise, they’ll try to make the club in a utility role.
A veteran could be signed to play right field, sort of like the Colby Rasmus deal last spring, though hopefully with better results. Otherwise, assuming Trey Mancini stays in left, we’re looking at a field of candidates that could be headed by former first-rounder DJ Stewart, who made his major league debut in September and went 10-for-40 with three doubles, three home runs, 10 RBIs and four walks.
Joey Rickard, bringing a speed element, has to be mentioned for right field or as a backup at all three spots. Anthony Santander disappeared after fulfilling his Rule 5 obligations and batted .258/.293/.402 in 54 games with Double-A Bowie. Austin Hays has recovered from ankle surgery, but is he ready for the opening day roster? The Orioles are going to find out.
Díaz turned 22 in October and hasn’t played above Double-A, and his production decreased after the Orioles acquired him from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade. McKenna turns 22 on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t played above Double-A, and his production decreased after moving up from Single-A Frederick to Bowie - though he was sensational in the Arizona Fall League. Yastrzemski is 28 and still hasn’t reached the majors, and he appeared to fall out of the Orioles’ plans while threatening to become organizational filler.
Yastrzemski, a triples machine whose health issues slowed his ascent, including core and hip labrum surgery, batted .221/.312/.369 in 94 games with Norfolk in 2016 and .240/.322/.417 in 81 games in 2017. Left exposed again in the Rule 5 draft, Yastrzemski slashed .250/.339/.414 in 94 games and was an unexpected addition to the camp roster, giving him a chance to at least vie for a backup role.
Does anyone project as a major league starter at this stage of his career?
I can envision multiple pairing scenarios here. Fresh eyes could prove most beneficial to Sisco after a lost 2018 season that included two demotions and lost confidence. Susac also could use those eyes after the Orioles optioned him and later put him on the restricted list, though the decision to outright him last month was made after Elias’ hiring.
Cervenka might be the longest shot, based on his lack of experience, though his work behind the plate and his “presence” drew high praise over the summer. Susac is trending in the wrong direction, but he has a puncher’s chance if able to stay healthy.
Pérez and Sucre seem interchangeable. They have solid defensive reputations, though the metrics don’t always match up. Sisco stands out from this group because of his offensive accomplishments in the minors and the need to prove himself behind the plate.
How Sisco performs in spring training will be one of the most interesting storylines, but we’ll also be reminded how he raked last spring and it didn’t carry over into the regular season. If he sticks around, the Orioles might want to pair him with one of the veterans, which would push Wynns back down to the minors.
Wynns stood his ground last year as a rookie, gained the trust of the veteran pitchers and has earned a longer stay with the Orioles, but there are possible pairings that exclude him. Having minor league options can work against him, but he’ll certainly be given the chance to win a job.