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2014 Orioles Spring Training Preview: Position Battles

February 17, 2014

What a difference a year makes. A season ago, the Orioles entered spring training with almost every roster spot already spoken for, leaving few positional battles to be decided during camp. This year, though, is a different story. There could be as many as 10 or 11 roster spots up for grabs, with more than 30 players competing for them.

SECOND BASE

The departure of Brian Roberts via free agency opens a starting spot at the keystone position. The presumptive favorite to win the job is Ryan Flaherty, who understudied for the past two years and survived the 2012 season as a Rule 5 pick. Flaherty shined defensively during his 65 games at second base in 2013, but he'll need to prove he can hit capably; he struggled so mightily with the bat last year that he was demoted to the minors for a spell. Flaherty's offense improved during the second half, and at age 27, he might have his best chance for a breakout season in 2014.

One of Flaherty's competitors for the spot is newly acquired Jemile Weeks, a rookie standout for the Athletics in 2011 who fell on tough times the past two seasons. Weeks will need a hot camp to unseat Flaherty; if not, he could wind up on the bench or at Triple-A Norfolk. And the Orioles' top position prospect, Jonathan Schoop, could be the second baseman of the future, but the O's likely want him to spend time in Norfolk for more seasoning. 

LEFT FIELD

This competition might already be settled -- the O's seem to have unofficially handed the left field spot to David Lough, whom they acquired from the Royals this offseason. The Orioles have spoken highly of Lough's defensive prowess and ability to hit decently against both righties and lefties, making him as a natural replacement for the departed Nate McLouth.

But if Lough shows he can't hack it against southpaws, the Birds might pair him with a right-handed platoon partner. Nolan Reimold would be a natural fit, but coming off two neck surgeries in two years, his health is a question mark. Steve Pearce could play in left field against lefties if he makes the team, and another possibility is Francisco Peguero, an offseason pickup from the Giants who tore up the Dominican Winter League this offseason.

DESIGNATED HITTER

The DH spot was a constant black hole for the Orioles in 2013 until Danny Valencia stepped up late during the season. But now, with Valencia gone, the spot is again open to all comers. Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia -- who didn't make much of an impression during his first go-round in 2013, limited to one extra-base hit in 58 at bats -- could be poised for improvement, having added muscle and gained experience in the Arizona Fall League. If he swings a hot bat in Sarasota, he could be a top choice for left-handed DH. Otherwise, he could return to Triple-A Norfolk to continue honing his skills.

If Urrutia is the DH against righties, he'll need a platoon partner who can face lefties. Reimold, Pearce and Peguero are all options, as is veteran Delmon Young, who signed a minor league contract with an invitation to big league camp. The Orioles also have right-handed Rule 5 infielder Michael Almanzar on their 40-man roster, but because he has such limited experience -- Almanzar hasn't played above Double-A -- it's hard to see him making the team ahead of more established big league players.

BACKUP CATCHER

It seems as if it's been years since the O's had a halfway decent backup catcher, probably because whoever gets the job doesn't get on the field much (starter Matt Wieters played more games at catcher than anyone else in the majors in 2013). The Birds will attempt to snap that streak of mediocrity likely with either Steve Clevenger or Johnny Monell, the two leading candidates to be Wieters' backup in 2014.

The Baltimore-born Clevenger might be the sentimental favorite, but Monell -- coming off a 20-homer season for the Giants' Triple-A affiliate, Fresno -- likely has more offensive upside. Manager Buck Showalter seems to value defensive skills in his backup catchers, so it could be that whichever of the two flashes a better glove at camp will win the job.

FIFTH STARTER

It's an annual rite of spring for the Orioles to have at least one unsettled starting rotation job heading into camp. That could change this year if the O's sign a veteran hurler to join Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris. But if they don't, they'll open the competition to a cast of thousands, including Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson, Kevin Gausman and T.J. McFarland.

If there is a battle for the fifth starting spot during camp, the O's have to hope it will end more satisfactorily than the pitching competition of 2013, when an unimpressive Jake Arrieta backed into the job by beating out several more unimpressive candidates.

BULLPEN

The Orioles' 2013 Opening Day bullpen was nearly identical to the 2012 crew. This year, though, there could be upheaval to the relief corps. The three pitchers who appear most likely to get a spot in the 2014 Opening Day bullpen are Tommy Hunter (the probable closer), Darren O'Day and free-agent acquisition Ryan Webb.

That would leave four or five spots up for grabs. Matusz will likely reclaim his role as the primary left-handed reliever if he doesn't win a spot in the rotation. With Troy Patton suspended for the first 25 games, there's potentially a spot open for a second left-handed reliever, such as Britton (if he's not in the rotation) or minor league veteran Kelvin De La Cruz. Or the O's could forgo a second lefty in the bullpen to allow for more right-handers, such as Johnson, the out-of-options Josh Stinson or newcomers Alfredo Aceves, Brad Brach, Edgmer Escalona, Liam Hendriks or Evan Meek.

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