After an exceptionally long winter and shortened spring, Orioles baseball is back.
The Orioles play their first game of the 2022 season Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays, opening a 162-game slate that for a time didn’t seem as if it would reach that tally. Like all teams, Baltimore waited out Major League Baseball’s 99-day lockout this offseason before major league players could report to spring training, which was two weeks shorter than normal. The result was a delayed opening day and a handful of games crammed into the schedule, but it’s a grand improvement from 2020′s 60-game schedule amid the coronavirus pandemic, the effects of which lingered into the early portion of 2021.
“It’s the first time in three years that we felt like we’ve got real, unrestricted baseball ahead of us after a lot of events that have interfered with the sport since the beginning of 2020,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Thursday.
For those who perhaps stopped paying attention during the lockout — or perhaps after last year’s 162nd game — here’s what you need to know about the Orioles’ 2022 season.
The prospects are coming.
Don’t go looking for them on the opening day roster, but this figures to be the year a good chunk of the Orioles’ well-hyped farm system reaches the majors.
Catcher Adley Rutschman might have been on the season-opening roster if not for the right tricep strain he suffered just before major league camp last month, but once healthy, it might not take him long to prove he belongs at Camden Yards. By the time he joins Triple-A Norfolk’s roster, it will likely also feature fellow top-25 prospects Grayson Rodriguez, Kyle Stowers, Kyle Bradish, Terrin Vavra, Kevin Smith and Yusniel Diaz, all of whom could make their major league debuts this season.
“We’re sitting on top of the best minor league system in baseball,” Elias said, “and those players are getting closer and closer to joining Camden Yards.”
The lineup could be potent …
Although the Orioles are waiting for that prospect group to arrive, there’s already some potential pieces of their future in place.
Center fielder Cedric Mullins is coming off the first 30-homer, 30-steal season in Orioles history and finished in the top 10 of American League Most Valuable Player voting. First baseman Ryan Mountcastle slugged 33 home runs, a franchise record for a rookie. After a couple of early-season hamstring strains, left fielder Austin Hays stayed healthy and had another strong September.
Add in Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander, who preceded Mullins as Most Valuable Oriole recipients, and the upper half of the Orioles’ lineup will be solid on a nightly basis. Rutschman’s eventual ascension paired with potential breakouts from infielders Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo will deepen it further. Veterans Rougned Odor and Robinson Chirinos will also add some established presences to a lineup that has lacked them in recent years.
… but pitching remains a problem.
Left-hander John Means will make his second straight season-opening start, coming off a year in which he was one of baseball’s best pitchers through two months and threw a no-hitter. But the rest of the pitching staff is loaded with questions.
Right-hander Jordan Lyles received the largest contract Elias has given out in 3 1/2 years as Baltimore’s GM, and he’s coming off a year in which he threw 180 innings but also had a 5.15 ERA and led the majors in home runs allowed. The Orioles will deploy Tyler Wells, who went from Rule 5 draft pick to closer last season, as their third starter, but they’ll need to pair him with another bulk pitcher as he transitions to a starter.
In fact, they might use that tandem approach for each of their final three starter spots. Of a group of mid-20s starters who spent time in the majors last season, only Bruce Zimmermann has been assured a place in the rotation; the Ellicott City native will be the first Maryland-born pitcher to start the Orioles’ home opener in more than 50 years.
The bullpen is perhaps even more uncertain. Most of the seven true relievers on the team’s 28-man roster — mercifully expanded two spots into early May after the shortened spring — came to the organization via waiver claims. In trading away Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser, the Orioles left manager Brandon Hyde with only two relievers who have more than two years of major league service time.
They’ll get some help from the ballpark.
In its 30th anniversary season, Camden Yards will have a new look.
This offseason, the Orioles elected to move back the portion of the iconic ballpark’s left field wall between the left field corner and the bullpen in left-center field, with the wall’s height increasing from 7 feet to 13 feet. The changes were made to reduce the ballpark’s home run friendliness. Take your pick: Since 1992, 2002 or 2012 (and many years between), more home runs have been hit at Oriole Park than any other ballpark.
The changes are significant, with the wall moving back nearly 30 feet in some spots and taking the wall from one of the shortest and shallowest in the league to at some points the deepest of any park in that area. With the bullpens unmoved, there is sharp angle in left-center, creating a new and unique element to the historic park.
This could be Trey Mancini’s final year as an Oriole.
Mancini was on the roster for the most recent Orioles playoff game, and he would love to play in the next. But it seems doubtful that will happen.
Despite agreeing to a contract that includes a mutual option for the 2023 season, Mancini said, “I don’t think it changes my situation very much, if I’m being honest.” Mutual options, he notes, are rarely picked up by both sides, and thus it’s likely he’ll become a free agent this offseason regardless.
The Orioles aren’t expected to be competitive — the American League East features four other teams that won 90 games in 2021 and seem capable of doing so again — so Mancini’s status makes him a likely trade candidate. He’s held that status for much of this rebuild, but it’s accentuated in these circumstances. The Orioles even had Mancini, a natural first baseman, return to the outfield this spring. Him playing there not only increases Baltimore’s lineup flexibility but also shows opposing teams they can put him out there if that’s where they have a need come July’s trade deadline.
Last season’s comeback from colon cancer made Mancini one of the best stories in baseball. This year could be his final chapter in Baltimore.
Friday, 3:10 p.m.
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