O’s Spring Training Sleepers

Mike Yastrzemski leads off first base.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

The regular season is only one month away. It sure doesn’t feel like spring yet, at least not in Maryland. Nonetheless, Spring Training games are here and players are stating their best case as to why they should make a big league club.

Interestingly enough for the Orioles, they have many jobs open. Coming off a historically abysmal season, Mike Elias will eye diamonds in the rough that could make an impact in 2019. Below I’ve assembled a list of names of sleeper players to watch as Spring Training progresses, and the Orioles start making the tough decisions.

 

Mike Yastrzemski

Lately, I’ve seen Yaz’s name bandied about as a potential option to make this O’s club as a fourth outfielder.

I can see it. Yastrzemski (grandson of Carl), came out of the big-name program Vanderbilt, which has done nothing but churn out big-league talent (David Price, Sonny Gray, Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty – to name a few).

Drafted in 2013, Mike was probably seen as a long shot to ever make the majors, but has always been lauded for his mentoring abilities and leadership. Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (also a Vandy product) gave praise to Yastrzemski for mentoring him when Swanson was an underclassman.

Aside from the leadership, he produced on the field last year too. At Norfolk, Yastrzemski had an .801 OPS in 94 games, showing a little bit of pop. His fielding is also considered above average, with a decent to good throwing arm.

At the very least, he would provide a solid stop-gap in the outfield, until they feel Yusniel Diaz, Ryan McKenna, or another outfielder is ready. At age 28, Yastrzemski more than likely won’t have many more opportunities, so making this big-league roster would be a huge accomplishment.

 

Keegan Akin

Keegan Akin is just solid all the way around. Winning Eastern League Pitcher of the Year last year, Akin showed the industry his potential. He finished with a 3.27 ERA and more strikeouts than innings pitched, which in the hitter-friendly confines of the Eastern League, is no small feat. Akin was overshadowed by Cody Sedlock when they were drafted together in 2016, but as a 2nd rounder, he definitely had the skillset to excel.

Akin doesn’t necessarily have that one pitch to wow you, but is solid all around the board. While his fastball only touches the low to mid 90’s, scouts say it has that ‘heavy’ effect, much like the one that was in Roy Halladay’s arsenal. He also throws that pitch the vast majority of the time, as noted by Adam Pohl on a recent Section 336 podcast.

That will likely change under Mike Elias and Co. He will still throw the pitch at least 50% of the time, but will likely add secondary pitches to keep hitters honest. I think he has a good shot of making the team, if the Orioles aren’t satisfied with their current fifth starter options.

 

Jesus Sucre

Sucre is still in Venezuela where he is having visa issues, but if he can get that resolved quickly, he’ll immediately slot into a spring training spot. This veteran doesn’t have much of a hit tool, but he’s making this roster for his defensive abilities.

Sucre is also known for his framing ability, and he could easily help some of the young pitchers on this Orioles staff. Having a defensive-savvy catcher is a must for the new front office and Sucre fits the bill.

Maybe they carry Chance Sisco too for his offensive upside, but feel Austin Wynns should get every day at bats at Norfolk. If this is the case, I almost certainly think this is Sucre’s job to lose. Sucre has a strong throwing arm, with a career 32% caught stealing rate. Sisco has a strong arm too, so maybe the brass decides that no matter who’s on base, the opposing team’s runner may think twice before attempting a stolen bag.

 

Rio Ruiz

Adding Rio Ruiz, a former Houston Astros draft pick, was one of the handful of moves Elias made over the last two months. Ruiz has never been able to hit a lick in the majors, but in the minors he’s been about league average.

In 2018, for the AAA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, he had a 99 wRC+ (100 wRC+ is league average). Not being able to replicate it in the bigs is likely what caused the Braves to DFA him. Elias drafted him in Houston, so he knows the potential exists.

Ruiz will most likely be competing with Renato Nunez for the 3B job. While many may think Nunez is a lock to win that job, he was a Dan Duquette guy and there is a new regime in town. The Orioles seem likely to  value defense this year to help the young pitching, and Ruiz will provide that. Ruiz only committed two errors last year and would be a defensive upgrade over what we’ve seen from Nunez (0.1 dWAR in 2018).

The main issue is this: Renato Nunez has no options left and Rio Ruiz has two, so if the roster crunch provides enough options for the infield, Ruiz may be squeezed out, but I do expect him to be up with the big club at some point during the year.

 

Josh Osich

The Birds have many southpaw options now in the bullpen. Osich provides further depth, and he could break camp with the club if he really impresses this spring. He had a rather spectacular rookie season in 2015, posting a 2.20 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Since then, the numbers have been near disastrous.

But, here is where Sig Mejdal and the Orioles analytics staff comes into play. Osich’s fastball ranks highly in terms of spin rate (2298 RPM’s according to BaseballSavant) which puts him in the neighborhood of Chris Sale, Blake Treinen, and Trevor Bauer. Osich also has a 4-pitch mix, giving him enough that if he can hone in on his pitch selection, he has a chance to return to his rookie form.

Also, being a lefty will help his cause as he can compete with either Donnie Hart or Paul Fry for a bullpen spot.

These are just five names to watch during the Spring, but the Orioles front office actually made many smaller moves this offseason that could pay dividends in the majors by April. I’ll find it interesting what comes of the high-speed cameras that are being employed in camp. These cameras will show the trajectory of a pitch along with the grip and release point of the pitch. We could see one or even two players, sleepers if you will, make the roster simply by embracing the information gained from this new technology and hopefully it will encourage others to follow suit.

There will be many new names to Orioles fans during the 2019 season, but these are just a handful I think can make an impact.

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