A new season offers hope for any team when spring training arrives. With a clean slate comes the opportunity to turn the page, change narratives or alter the course of a franchise. For the Orioles, spring training is a chance to build off their 101-win season a year ago and set the tone for a team with realistic World Series aspirations.
Last year’s promising campaign ended with a thud in the American League Division Series, but the Orioles’ front office responded by addressing the club’s biggest need, acquiring former National League Cy Young Corbin Burnes from the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this month.
With a new ownership group set to take over, the Orioles are in position to be one of baseball’s most exciting teams in 2024. But first, they must report to Sarasota, Florida, and determine which 26 players will be coming back north with them for opening day. Ahead of pitchers and catchers reporting Wednesday, Baltimore Sun reporters Jacob Calvin Meyer and Matt Weyrich break down which spring storylines they’re keeping an eye on.
Which roster battle will be the most interesting?
Meyer: There are two open outfield spots behind veterans Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander. How will the Orioles fill those spots? The competition seems to be between Swiss Army knife Ryan McKenna, waiver claim Sam Hilliard and prospects Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad and Kyle Stowers. For the past three seasons, McKenna has served as a reliable backup outfielder who can play all three spots, be a defensive replacement for Santander, enter as a pinch runner and hold his own against left-handed pitching. Hilliard, a left-handed hitter the Orioles claimed off waivers from the Atlanta Braves, has excellent tools, can play all three spots and has the most experience of this group. Cowser, a top-100 prospect, and Stowers, who was on Baltimore’s opening day roster last year, have both struggled during brief stints in the majors, while Kjerstad hit well after his debut in September. It seems likely the Orioles pick one of the prospects to serve as a fill-in for Hays, a left-handed-hitting DH and a pinch hitter versus righties while supplementing the outfield with McKenna or Hilliard. But it’s also possible the Orioles choose to go with two prospects to fill out their outfield to have more pop on the roster.
Weyrich: Just how open is the competition for Baltimore’s fifth starter job? Dean Kremer is the presumptive favorite heading into camp after posting a 4.12 ERA over 32 starts last season. The 28-year-old doesn’t miss a lot of bats, but he limits walks and works efficiently enough to provide length for the back end of the rotation. Behind him, Tyler Wells showed promise in 2023 as well with a 3.64 ERA over 25 appearances (20 starts) while Cole Irvin owns the longest track record of the group and doesn’t have any minor-league options left. Offseason waiver claim Jonathan Heasley could be in the mix as well. While it’s likely that all four pitchers start games for the Orioles at some point this season, how each of them looks in camp will go a long way in determining who gets first crack at a rotation spot.
Top prospect Jackson Holliday has a chance to be on the Orioles’ opening day roster. (Karl Merton Ferron)
Will Jackson Holliday make the opening day roster?
Meyer: No. We’ve been here before, folks. Last offseason, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias repeatedly said he wanted Grayson Rodriguez to make the opening day roster. Then, after an up-and-down spring training, Rodriguez opened the season in Triple-A, and the team used his choppy camp as reasoning. Now, to be clear, that seems to have been the right decision in hindsight. Rodriguez struggled to begin the 2023 season after joining the Orioles because of an injury to Kyle Bradish, and the rookie only began pitching like himself after returning from an extended trip to Triple-A Norfolk. But just because Elias said Holliday making the opening day roster is a “very strong possibility” doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion. He is just 20 years old with fewer than 100 Triple-A plate appearances under his belt. Perhaps it’s best to let him start the year strong in the minors before calling him up, and, to say the quiet part out loud, it can’t be forgotten the likely service-time benefits that would have for the club.
Weyrich: If Holliday doesn’t make the team out of camp, something has gone horribly wrong. The Orioles will be looking for any reason not to give him a starting infield job just in case he’s not ready and Holliday won’t give them any. The consensus No. 1 overall prospect is expected to get reps at both shortstop and second base in camp, giving him ample opportunity to earn everyday playing time. Holliday has mastered every level of professional baseball he’s seen so far and that should continue in Sarasota.
Aside from Holliday, will a nonroster invitee break camp with the Orioles?
Meyer: The likely answer is no because the Orioles have few open roster spots. But the best opportunity is for a relief pitcher. The Orioles are bringing Tucker Davidson and Andrew Suárez, two left-handers with four years of big-league experience apiece, to spring training, and with DL Hall now a Brewer after the Burnes trade, one of them could have an opportunity to pitch himself into the club’s bullpen. Let’s go with Davidson, who has been on an opening day roster each of the past two seasons, ended 2023 with the Royals and has a platoon-neutral profile after adding a sweeper and splitter last season.
Weyrich: It might not be clear yet, but there is a path for Coby Mayo to make the Orioles’ opening day roster. The corner infielder has certainly shown he’s ready for the opportunity, posting a .974 OPS with 29 home runs in 140 games between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk last season. The question is where the Orioles could fit him in. It might come down to beating out Jordan Westburg and Ramón Urías for playing time at third base, or they just like his bat enough to give him a roster spot over the out-of-options Sam Hilliard. If any infielder injuries do pop up in spring training, Mayo should be first in line to step in.
How Orioles pitcher John Means fares this spring will be worth keeping an eye on. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)
Which player could most benefit from a standout spring?
Meyer: For most of the Orioles’ established players, spring training is mostly a time to get ready for the season, not to focus on results. But for those competing for roster spots, it wouldn’t hurt to knock a few out of the park or rack up some punchouts. Jorge Mateo slumped for the vast majority of 2023, but he still has a solid chance to break camp with the Orioles given his speed and defensive ability. If he can show improvement at the plate, it would go a long way in him solidifying his spot.
Weyrich: John Means is going to get his chance to pitch a full season for the Orioles in 2024 after Tommy John elbow reconstruction sidelined him for most of the past two years. While the most important development for Means this spring will be getting through camp healthy, his fastball velocity will bear watching when he does take the mound for Grapefruit League play. Means impressed in limited action last season with a 2.66 ERA in four starts, but his fastball averaged just 91.7 mph compared with 92.8 in his last full season of 2021 and 93.8 in 2020. A return to his previous levels will be a significant factor in his ability to contribute in 2024.
What storyline will you be following this spring?
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Meyer: How can I be expected to just pick one? There’s Holliday’s chase to make the team, the battle for the No. 5 starter spot and how many speeding tickets the Orioles’ press corps will get while driving up and down Florida’s Suncoast. OK, maybe not that last one. Actually, one of the most intriguing players entering spring training is Dillon Tate, whose 2023 season was as perplexing as it was disappointing. Tate, who appears to be healthy, could play a massive role in Baltimore’s bullpen if he is healthy and can return to his 2022 self.
Weyrich: What are the Orioles going to do with Cowser and Kjerstad? Barring an injury, Baltimore’s starting outfield is already set between Hays, Mullins and Santander. Kjerstad notably earned a spot on the Orioles’ ALDS roster last season, and his 92.3 average exit velocity will play at the major league level. Cowser is the better all-around prospect, though his first stint in Baltimore left plenty of room for improvement. They each have tremendous potential as everyday outfielders, but it’s up in the air right now whether the Orioles bring one, both or neither when they return to Baltimore for opening day.