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Four Orioles questions to open 2024 spring training

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Everyone longed to hear those special words during Wednesday’s holiday. 

Orioles pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota. 

With preparations for the 2024 season officially underway, below are four questions for the start of spring training: 

1. When was the last time you were this excited for a new season? 

New ownership on the way. 

The trade for a legitimate ace not seen in these parts since Mike Mussina. 

The consensus top prospect and No. 1 farm system in baseball — again. 

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And, oh yeah, a 101-win club mostly intact from a year ago and aiming for back-to-back AL East titles for the first time in 50 years (1973-74). Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, and the rest are a year older, and that’s a positive for a team with so much young talent under manager Brandon Hyde. 

No, it hasn’t felt this good to be an Orioles fan in a long time, and that was before the late January news of Baltimore native David Rubenstein and an investor group buying the control stake in a franchise that’s been dragged down by the Angelos family for the better part of three decades. A couple days later, general manager Mike Elias traded for 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes to lead a rotation already featuring 2023 breakout right-handers Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez and 2019 All-Star lefty John Means. 

There was optimism last spring, but that was accompanied by the disappointment of a quiet winter. Underwhelming offseasons were a staple of the Dan Duquette era despite three postseason appearances from 2012-16. The 2004 season may have brought the arrivals of Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, and Javy Lopez, but that club had lost 91 games the previous year and was never going to be more than a fringe playoff contender even if everything went perfectly.   

To find a comparable level of optimism, you might have to go all the way back to the spring of 1996 after the hirings of general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson and the acquisitions of Roberto Alomar, Randy Myers, David Wells, and B.J. Surhoff. And that club still didn’t have as much going for it as the current Orioles from a baseball operations standpoint. 

2. What will happen with Jackson Holliday? 

It’s been less than two years since Elias drafted an 18-year-old Holliday, reflecting how remarkable his climb through the Orioles system has been.

Though not able to drink legally until December, the top prospect in baseball enters spring training with a legitimate chance to be on the Opening Day roster. Some legitimate questions must be answered first, however.

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After tearing up Delmarva, Aberdeen, and Bowie last year, the lefty-swinging shortstop looked more human at Triple-A Norfolk, batting .267 and slugging .400 in 91 plate appearances in the International League. Still, Holliday walking nearly as many times (16) as he struck out (17) speaks to an approach being well beyond his years. The Orioles will want to see how he handles established major league pitching in Grapefruit League action before deciding whether to bring him north to Baltimore. 

The bigger question could be where Holliday plays in the majors with Henderson expected to continue manning shortstop as his primary position. Elias has indicated Holliday will see extensive action at second base this spring after making a total of 20 starts there in the minors last year. There’s no reason to think Holliday won’t become a quality second baseman, of course, but a contending club that values defense won’t want to rush him if he’d benefit from a little more defensive seasoning in the minors to open 2024.  

Holliday being in the Opening Day lineup wouldn’t shock anyone at this point, but those boxes must be checked. 

3. How will the late-inning relief take shape behind new closer Craig Kimbrel? 

Even if the Orioles get the best version of Kimbrel in his age-36 season, he’s no Felix Bautista, which leaves the bullpen as Baltimore’s biggest question mark entering 2024. 

The arrival of Burnes gives the Orioles their best starting rotation on paper in decades, but Elias sending lefty DL Hall to Milwaukee to complete the trade subtracted significant swing-and-miss ability from a bullpen that needed more of it in the wake of Bautista’s elbow injury last August. Of course, Kimbrel will help in that department after averaging 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings for Philadelphia last year, but what will the rest of the back end of the bullpen look like? 

Right-hander Yennier Cano was one of the best stories in baseball last year, but he wore down in September and pitched more like a good middle reliever over the second half than the incredible All-Star setup man we watched over the early months of 2023. What will the 28-year-old do for an encore? 

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Lefties Danny Coulombe and Cionel Perez stepped up in high-leverage spots late last year, but the 2024 bullpen’s X factor could be right-hander Tyler Wells — assuming he’s not in the starting rotation. Upon returning to the majors last September, Wells struck out nine batters in 8 1/3 scoreless innings, which included three appearances in the postseason. 

After missing all of 2023 with forearm and elbow problems, right-hander Dillon Tate returns and pitched to a 3.05 ERA two years ago, but he’s averaged just 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings over his major league career, which doesn’t scream late-inning relief. The 29-year-old also needs to show his arm problems are fully behind him. 

None of this is to suggest the Orioles bullpen won’t be good — the incumbents did an admirable job in Bautista’s absence last September — and you never know who else might emerge along the way, but adding another high-leverage arm between now and the trade deadline would boost this club’s October profile, which is what truly matters.

4. Will the outfield begin evolving? 

Barring injury, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander are expected to be the Opening Day outfield for the fourth straight year, but might we begin to see that landscape change?

It would be difficult to argue heralded outfield prospects Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser have much left to prove at Norfolk, but is there room for both on the 26-man roster? If so, how do you keep everyone sharp and productive while optimizing the defense? 

Hays has worn down in the second half of back-to-back seasons, Mullins is coming off an injury-plagued 2023, and Santander is scheduled to hit free agency next winter. That’s not to suggest anyone is rushing these popular veterans to the bench or off the roster, but Kjerstad and Cowser forcing the organization’s hand with strong spring performances would be a great problem to have in the big picture. 

The Orioles infield appears set to include Henderson, Holliday, and Jordan Westburg for years to come, but their long-established outfield could begin looking different sooner than later. 

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