For the most part, the eight Orioles position players who will trot onto the field for opening day in Boston on March 30 are known. There’s plenty of carryover from last season’s team, the one that broke out of a rebuild to push for an unlikely postseason place late into the year.
This is what it feels like for the rebuild to be over, as executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias declared earlier this month. There are fewer starting positions available, the open tryout feeling at spring training dwindles, and more established names walk the clubhouse.
But there are still eight or nine roster spots up for grabs, Elias said, including three bench roles and several pitching duties available.
“I think that’s a pretty healthy competition in camp for a team that has its starting lineup somewhat penciled out,” Elias said.
Position players aren’t required to report to spring training until Monday, but many already have. Some of them will be engaged in the most interesting camp competitions, which features openings at first base, utility infield and outfield.
Here’s a breakdown of the roster spots up for the grabs, and the likely candidates to compete for them.
Position player openings
With a 26-man roster and a maximum of 13 pitchers, the Orioles will carry four players on their bench. One, in all likelihood, will be James McCann, the backup catcher and first baseman. Another will be Jorge Mateo, Ramón Urías or Adam Frazier — whomever is the odd-man out of the infield that day.
That leaves two more bench spots and a place in the batting order for a corner outfielder or designated hitter, depending on manager Brandon Hyde’s lineup construction that day. The combinations are plentiful, but the general openings for the three position-player roles Elias mentioned would be backup first base, outfield and utility infielder.
Baltimore could opt for its backup first base role to be handled by committee, with catcher Adley Rutschman and McCann (and, potentially, infielder Terrin Vavra) taking turns behind Ryan Mountcastle.
Going that direction would free a roster spot for an additional player elsewhere with higher upside, but for the sake of argument, the three candidates who primarily play first base are Franchy Cordero, Lewin Díaz and Ryan O’Hearn. All three of them struggled from the plate last season, with Díaz hitting .169 and Cordero the only one of the three with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage near .700. Of the three, though, Díaz is the strongest fielder.
Vavra, meanwhile, has practiced at first base this offseason and had a penchant for getting on base (.258 average, .340 on-base percentage) in his 2022 rookie season. He could figure his way onto the opening day roster as a utilityman, capable of playing second and corner outfield in addition to possibly seeing time at first.
“I want to be able to show I can play all nine positions if I have to — hopefully just eight — but just want to show I can do that,” Vavra said. “If my back’s against the wall, I know it goes a long way.”
Vavra seems to have the inside track for one of the final position player roles, but he could see competition from Joey Ortiz, a prospect added to the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. Josh Lester is another potential infielder, even though the 28-year-old has just five major league plate appearances.
In the outfield, Ryan McKenna proved himself on two fronts last season. First, as has been known for some time, he is a strong defender in all three outfield positions. But he also batted well against left-handed pitching (.270 average), which could again be useful should center fielder Cedric Mullins slump in left-on-left matchups.
McKenna could be joined by either Nomar Mazara or Kyle Stowers to fill out the roster. The advantage heading into camp belongs to Stowers, though, because he’s already on the 40-man roster.
Between Stowers and Anthony Santander, the Orioles’ designated hitter role and right field can be rotated. Stowers hit .253 for the Orioles in 34 games last year, and the 25-year-old has little left to prove in the minor leagues.
Our prediction: Vavra, Stowers and McKenna
Given their experience, the only locks — or as close to locks as Elias and Hyde will commit to in February — are right-hander Kyle Gibson and left-hander Cole Irvin.
That leaves three spots for 10 other candidates, although some are likelier than others. Last year, Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish and Tyler Wells established themselves as starters, but the competition opens up again this year with Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall — two prospects — gearing up for a role.
Rodriguez, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, neared his debut last year before a lat injury sidelined him until September. There’s little left for him to accomplish in Triple-A, and a strong spring could push him over into the rotation.
Kremer turned into Baltimore’s most solid pitcher over the course of the season, completing 125 1/3 innings with a 3.23 ERA. And while Bradish struggled at times early in his rookie year, he settled down to pitch to a 4.90 ERA (3.28 from July onward).
Wells, on an innings limit, performed well as a starter. But his experience as a reliever might see the 6-foot-8 right-hander back in the bullpen. Right-handers Spenser Watkins and Austin Voth each filled gaps throughout the season, but their resumes might leave them as long relievers, too.
Our prediction: Rodriguez, Bradish, Kremer
The trickle down from a tight rotation battle could see Wells, Voth, Hall and/or Watkins land in the bullpen. It’s trickier, too, considering the injury for right-hander Dillon Tate that will likely result in him missing April. Closer Félix Bautista and left-hander Nick Vespi are also behind schedule entering camp due to injuries.
Right-hander Andrew Politi, a Rule 5 selection, must either remain on the roster or be offered back to the Red Sox. He’s never pitched in the majors but impressed with a 2.60 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last year.
Non-roster invites Eduard Bazardo, Darwinzon Hernandez and Cole Uvila are intriguing options, should injuries be a factor. But so much rides on the rotation battle, it’s difficult to project how the eight-man bullpen will look beyond Bautista (assuming health), Givens, Pérez, Baker and Akin.
Our prediction: Wells, Voth and Hall