The batches of minor league signings that are completed throughout the offseason are aimed to increase depth and competition in the organization. Very little to get fans excited, but a necessity that unfolds all over baseball.
The winners and the rebuilders. No one is immune.
The Orioles announced a dozen names yesterday, including nine who are returning after a brief dalliance with free agency. Mason Williams was an early target after refusing his outright assignment and he’s back to compete for a reserve role in the outfield and provide some insurance behind Austin Hays.
Hays is a lock to be the opening day center fielder unless there’s an injury that kills the plan. Williams could go head-to-head with Cedric Mullins, the opening day center fielder on March 28 who didn’t play for the Orioles after April 21 and tumbled down to Double-A Bowie.
Mullins remains on the 40-man roster and a hot finish with the Baysox that spread into the Eastern League playoffs could launch him back to the majors. The Orioles still covet his speed and defensive upgrade over some other center fielders. They aren’t ignoring all the tools.
Ryan McKenna has been protected in the Rule 5 draft and offers a similar skillset to Mullins. Not a carbon copy. But speed and defense again heighten the Orioles’ interest.
With no experience above the Double-A level and a .232/.321/.365 slash line in 135 games with Bowie, McKenna is more likely to repeat the Eastern League in April than break camp with the Orioles. Projecting where players fit among the affiliates is complicated without knowing the exact level of competition.
Catchers Martin Cervenka and Daniel Fajardo are ultimate examples of minor league depth, with virtually no chance to be on the opening day roster unless there’s a series of injuries. The 40-man roster includes Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns, and the Orioles want to sign a veteran as a fourth catcher in camp. Cervenka and Fajardo are farther back in line.
The Orioles aren’t done with their offseason shopping, which could influence the odds on Rondón and Cervenka. But roster expansion to 26 players doesn’t hurt their cause and there are jobs to be won.
The questions impacting Rondón are whether Stevie Wilkerson makes the club and if the Orioles are intent on carrying one or two utility types. Rondón can play all four infield positions and has experience in the outfield. But he appeared in one game with the Orioles over the summer before they outrighted him and he wasn’t included on the expanded September roster.
They also claimed Pat Valaika off waivers from the Rockies on Oct. 30 and he fits the utility mold.
The Pacific Coast League’s roster for the Triple-A All-Star Game included Valaika, who batted .320/.364/.589 with 26 doubles, 22 home runs and 75 RBIs in 84 games with Albuquerque. However, he couldn’t avoid riding the shuttle with the Rockies and slashed .190/.356/.316 in 86 plate appearances over 40 games. He struck out 34 times and his pinch-hit home run off the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu on June 28 broke an 0-for-30 slump, the second-longest in franchise history behind Desi Relaford’s 0-for-33 in 2005.
There are no assurances that he stays on the 40-man, but he’s currently occupying a spot and the Orioles value is experience in the middle of the infield, which is an area of need that could increase depending on what happens with Jonathan Villar and Richie Martin.
The 26-man rosters can hold a maximum of 13 pitchers. The Orioles want multiple left-handers in their bullpen and Richard Bleier will be one of them as long as he isn’t non-tendered. He hasn’t been told anything regarding his status.
Paul Fry led the Orioles with 66 appearances this season, which tied for the fifth-most in the American League among southpaw relievers. He posted a 1.08 ERA and 0.840 WHIP with 10 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings in July, but he allowed nine earned runs (11 total) and 14 hits in 9 2/3 innings in August and eight runs and 11 hits with six walks in seven innings in September.
Tanner Scott keeps yo-yoing between the Orioles and minors. He posted a 4.78 ERA and 1.785 WHIP in 28 appearances and walked 19 batters in 26 1/3 innings to offset the 37 strikeouts.
The Orioles love his arm and view him as a potential weapon in the late innings. They keep waiting for the consistency.
Cervenka didn’t pitch in the majors again this summer after making 73 relief appearances with the Braves and Marlins from 2016-17 and posting a 4.69 ERA and 1.417 WHIP in 48 innings. He allowed three earned runs with 18 strikeouts in 12 innings with Norfolk.
The Orioles signed Cervenka to a minor league deal on March 13, 2018 - he had ties to former pitching coach Roger McDowell in Atlanta - and they released him three weeks later. He came back to the organization this summer and the Orioles wanted to hold onto him.