Searching for a sign that winter is truly over? Don’t look for the groundhog. Look at the stream of pitchers and catchers reporting to the Orioles’ spring training facility in Sarasota, Florida.

They will arrive at the Ed Smith Stadium complex today, beginning a six-week crash course in preparation for a 162-game grind of a season. By next week, the full squad of players will arrive, and the first full-team workout is Feb. 20.

And soon after that, spring training games begin with a matchup against the Boston Red Sox on Feb. 24.

Here’s what to expect — and what you should still be wondering about — as spring training begins.

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What we think we know

Corbin Burnes will show he’s an ace

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 13: Corbin Burnes #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning at Target Field on June 13, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Corbin Burnes, #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers, delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning at Target Field on June 13, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (David Berding/Getty Images)

The biggest offseason move for the Orioles solved their biggest need. When Executive Vice President and General Manager Mike Elias swung a deal for right-hander Corbin Burnes early this month, he added a proven ace to Baltimore’s burgeoning rotation.

Between Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means, Dean Kremer and Tyler Wells, there were high-value arms already in place. But Burnes — a Cy Young Award winner with the Milwaukee Brewers — is a class ahead.

He has an early chance to show his stuff in spring training as he ramps up for another 200-inning season. Burnes, 29, has made three straight All-Star rosters. He’s coming off a season in which he pitched to a 3.39 ERA in Milwaukee, and his WHIP of 1.069 was the best in the National League.

Baltimore will be counting on Burnes to replicate the sort of success that has become his standard since 2020. A major part of that will be Burnes’ cutter, curveball and slider. The latter pitch he redeveloped midway through last season by sacrificing speed and adding additional sweep, according to an analysis from Pitcher List, and the change vastly improved Burnes’ whiff rate with the pitch.

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The Orioles’ pitching coaches may have some tweaks for Burnes. But there aren’t any major overhauls for a pitcher who has the chance to elevate Baltimore’s rotation to the next level.

Jackson Holliday will impress

All eyes will be on a 20-year-old.

The No. 1 prospect in baseball, Jackson Holliday has the chance to earn a place on Baltimore’s opening day roster with a strong camp performance. This will already be his second major league camp invite, just two years after he was drafted first overall.

“I see Jackson being able to bounce back and forth between second and short, depending on the day’s alignment,” Elias said on MLB Network Radio last week. “I think you’re going to see him at second base a lot during Spring Training, and I know [manager] Brandon Hyde is going to try to put the kid in a position to make the team and give him a real shot for that.”

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Holliday is in this position because of his rapid rise through the minors. Last season, in his first full year as a professional, Holliday jumped four levels. He finished at Triple-A Norfolk, where he hit .267. Overall, across four levels, Holliday finished 2023 with a .323 batting average, a .941 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 12 homers.

“We’re bringing him into camp with a chance to make the team, and he’s going to be laser-focused on making the team,” Elias said.

There will be unexpected injuries

Each spring, Elias opens his first press conference by issuing an injury update for any players returning from the winter with limitations. Last year, Elias revealed several bullpen issues the first day: right-handers Dillon Tate and Félix Bautista and left-handers Nick Vespi and DL Hall were each limited.

Tate never threw a pitch for the Orioles last year because of a forearm injury, although he said at the Birdland Caravan that he was fully ready to pitch at spring training and in 2024.

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As of mid-December, Elias said there were no new injuries to report. Bautista is already out for the season after Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in October, and he underwent a follow-up operation last week to clear scar tissue and free a nerve in his elbow. It remains to be seen whether any other players enter spring training with an injury.

What we don’t know yet

The next bullpen standout

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Yennier Cano smokes a celebratory cigar in the locker room after clinching the AL East division on Thursday, September 28, 2023. The beat the Boston Red Sox, 2-0, to secure control of the division.
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Yennier Cano smokes a celebratory cigar in the locker room after clinching the AL East division on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. The Orioles beat the Boston Red Sox, 2-0, to secure control of the division. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

There’s always room for a breakout star. Last year, right-hander Yennier Cano didn’t make the team out of spring training but soon arrived with the Orioles and earned an All-Star nomination.

The bullpen is an ever-rotating place. The eight relievers in the opening day group won’t be the only ones used this season, and there’s a chance a reliever stands out during spring training.

Tate, healthy once again, hit 100 mph during a recent bullpen session and could be in line for a bounce back year. He was a force in 2022 with a 3.05 ERA and a 58.9% ground ball rate.

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Another potential standout could be left-hander Nick Vespi, who has added a one-seam fastball to his repertoire to provide arm-side run compared to an arsenal mainly full of glove-side sweep. Vespi has sparingly featured in the majors, but with Hall headed to Milwaukee, there could be an opening for another southpaw.

Right-hander Wandisson Charles also has big-time stuff. He hasn’t made his major league debut yet, and his results in the minors and winter ball are rather volatile, but a fastball that can reach triple digits in velocity makes him an intriguing nonroster invite.

The last outfield spot

The starting outfield is just about set, barring an injury: Anthony Santander, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins. There’s an opening for a fourth outfielder, however (or even a fifth, should Elias choose).

The options are plentiful, with prospects Colton Cowser, Kyle Stowers and Heston Kjerstad battling with more experienced options Ryan McKenna, Sam Hilliard and Daniel Johnson.

Part of the consideration is whether a player can back up Mullins in center. Hays and Cowser can play the position, as well as McKenna, Hilliard and Johnson. Stowers and Kjerstad are likely limited to playing corner-outfield spots and designated hitter. Infielder Jorge Mateo could also play in center, freeing Elias up for a more offensive-focused backup outfielder.

The fourth outfield position is one of Baltimore’s most uncertain aspects entering the spring.

An open closer competition

Craig Kimbrel, #31 of the Philadelphia Phillies, pitches during the 93rd MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard at T-Mobile Park on July 11, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Elias signed possible future Hall of Famer Craig Kimbrel with the expectation he would replace Bautista as the closer in 2024. Kimbrel comes with a long track record — the 35-year-old has 417 saves in his career — but if his performances aren’t steady in the spring, there could be an open competition for the closing role.

Kimbrel, signed for $13 million, is the clear front-runner for the job. He earned an All-Star appearance last year for his 3.26 ERA. But he wavered in the postseason, allowing four runs in six innings for the Philadelphia Phillies, including one blown save.

Other closing options could include Cano or Tate. Tate saved five games in 2022 and Cano saved eight last year.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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