4 intriguing storylines to watch for the Orioles throughout spring training

With actual games on the horizon for the Orioles, here are four storylines that fans should watch for throughout February and March

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
Baltimore Orioles Photo Day / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

The end of February and beginning of March is a transitional period every year. For one, this period marks the time when McDonald's reintroduces the Shamrock Shake to the world which brings back sentimental memories of drinking a shake with my dad after school on Fridays when I was younger. This period also marks the transition into spring and warmer weather across the United States which is best represented by the return of baseball.

At the High School and College level, the season has started and is in full swing for teams in the south where the weather is more conducive to outdoor physical activities than in northern states where there is still snow on the ground. Of course, Major League Baseball returns this weekend as well as each team, including the Orioles, will participate in their first Spring Training games and mark the beginning of the 2024 season.

The Orioles enter 2024 with several new acquisitions such as Corbin Burnes and Craig Kimbrel as well as highly ranked prospects looking for a shot in the big leagues. With all of the storylines surrounding the Orioles, here are four that fans should pay close attention to throughout Spring Training.

1. Who Will Fill out the Back of the Rotation?

Tyler Wells
Baltimore Orioles Photo Day / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

After the acquisition of Burnes to begin February, the Orioles rotation seemed set with Corbin followed by Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means, and Dean Kremer. However, an injury to Bradish and a setback to Means' throwing program threw a wrench in those plans and now the team will need to find new options to replace the two at the beginning of the season.

The top of the rotation seems set with Burnes, Rodriguez, and Kremer which is similar to the top of the rotation to end the 2023 campaign. In the absence of Bradish and Means, there are several internal options to fill out the rotation. Most notably, Cole Irvin and Tyler Wells seem like the heavy favorites if the Orioles do not opt to sign an external player like Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell.

My colleague Brian Barr already wrote extensively about the internal options available who will compete for a spot in the rotation, so I will not steal his thunder. However, fans should watch to see if Irvin and Wells can bounce back after struggles last season. Both players were members of the rotation early last season but lost their spots due to struggles and the acquisition of Jack Flaherty later in the year.

If either one or both pitchers struggle in Spring Training then it is worth watching younger pitchers like Chayce McDermott. Cade Povich, and Bruce Zimmermann. Neither McDermott nor Povich have yet made their big league debuts and both were centerpieces in the 2022 trade deadline haul when the Orioles traded Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini. Povich was the key prospect in the Lopez trade while McDermott was a key part of the Mancini trade with the Astros.

2. Does Colton Cowser make the Opening Day Roster?

Colton Cowser
Baltimore Orioles v Arizona Diamondbacks / Chris Coduto/GettyImages

This Spring is vital for Colton Cowser. The Orioles continue to have a plethora of young outfielders who are capable of making an impact at the big league level and it is certainly no guarantee that Cowser will make the roster despite strong performances in the minors and his status as a top tier prospect in baseball.

Barring injuries, the Orioles have a set outfield with Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander. After a strong season, it seems likely that Heston Kjerstad would also make the Opening Day roster and see significant playing time at Designated Hitter or a corner outfield spot. The existence of Ryan O'Hearn as another strong DH option from the left side of the plate further complicates the formula. The good news for Cowser is that Aaron Hicks is no longer in Baltimore as he signed with the Angels which opens the door.

Cowser has a similar skillset to Hicks with higher potential and could take on a similar role that Hicks did if he does make the roster. Cowser is capable of playing all three outfield positions and is a strong defensive player in center field. Cowser also has plenty of offensive potential as he has shown off the ability to get on base at a high clip in the minors.

In his three minor league seasons, Cowser has never finished with an OBP below .400 and has drawn 183 walks in 259 minor league games. He does not have as much power potential as outfielders like Kjerstad and Santander but he makes up for this in athleticism and plate discipline.

Other than sheer depth, the biggest factor working against Cowser is his immense struggles at the big league level he experienced. His struggles extended beyond typical rookie struggles. Instead, he hit .115 with a .433 OPS and -0.8 WAR according to Baseball Reference.

Roster spots are limited and ultimately the Orioles need to make decisions that best help the team win as many games as possible. On Thursday, Brandon Hyde said it is undecided whether or not the Orioles will carry five outfielders. That's important for Cowser as he might be the fifth.

3. What does the infield look like on Opening Day?

Jordan Westburg
Baltimore Orioles Photo Day / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

For the seventh straight season, the Orioles will have a different second baseman on Opening Day than the season before. Last season, Adam Frazier held down second base while Rougned Odor played the position the year before. This season, the Orioles will rely on an internal option although it is not 100% certain who that option will be.

The assumption is that Gunnar Henderson will play shortstop, while Jordan Westburg could certainly move to second base after moving around the infield last year. Westburg had a solid campaign over the final few months of the season which makes it likely that he will have the opportunity to be an everyday player in 2024. In 68 games last season, Westburg hit .260/.311/.404 with a 100 OPS+. While these numbers are not eye-popping, they were enough to help the Orioles down the stretch when other infielders like Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias struggled.

Speaking of Mateo and Urias, their status for 2024 is also murky with the emergence of Westburg and other prospects. Despite extreme offensive struggles, Mateo provides value in the field and on the basepaths that can not be replicated, which makes him a likely utility option for the O's.

Urias is a similar player to Westburg in that they both had extremely similar offensive stats in 2023 and are projected to have similar stats in 2024. Compared to Westburg's 100 OPS+, Urias had a 98 mark in the same category.

They both also provide defensive value at three infield positions as Urias won a Gold Glove in 2022 at third base. The similarities play in Westburg's favor since he is a young prospect that the Orioles invested a first round pick in. Between the two, Westburg would earn a roster and lineup spot before Urias.

The most notable infield storyline this Spring is Jackson Holliday. Holliday emerged as the number one prospect in baseball after a dynamic 2023 where he shot through every level of the minors. Holliday did not celebrate his 20th birthday until this past December, which means that youth could work against him in making the Opening Day roster. Holliday is definitely talented enough to contribute to the Orioles this coming March, so it seems likely that he will make the roster and be an everyday player at either third or second base.

4. Will Ryan O'Hearn build on his breakout 2023 campaign?

Ryan O'Hearn
Baltimore Orioles Photo Day / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

As mentioned earlier, there is a log jam in the outfield and at designated hitter which means that someone will need to be the odd man out on a nightly basis. At first base, Ryan Mountcastle is a shoe-in to be an everyday player while Anthony Santander is a shoe-in in right field. This leaves one spot available for Heston Kjerstad and Ryan O'Hearn to compete.

Both Kjerstad and O'Hearn are left-handed hitters, so neither gets a platoon advantage over the other. Both players also have a similar skillset in that they are both pull-power hitters who can mash home runs onto Eutaw Street when they connect.

The reason this is even a discussion is because O'Hearn is coming off a season where he shocked the Orioles and the baseball world with his best season since 2018. Entering 2023, O'Hearn was an afterthought as a waiver claim from the Royals. He entered the campaign with a career -2.7 WAR and was solely seen as a depth piece at first base.

However, O'Hearn flipped the script after his call-up as he hit .289/.322/.480 with 14 home runs in 112 games. His emergence gave the Orioles a good problem as it was tough to squeeze him into the lineup every day with Mountcastle also mashing but the team could usually find a spot for him against right handed pitching.

All this being said, the pressure is on O'Hearn to prove that last season was not a fluke and that he is capable of giving the Orioles another productive season. This begins in Spring Training when O'Hearn will need to make use of his plate appearances to show that he can provide better offense than Kjerstad against right-handed pitching if he wants to be a part of the full-season plans in 2024.