BALTIMORE — The first starting lineup coming out of the All-Star break hardly carries the prestige of Opening Day, but it reflected notable changes for the Orioles since late March.
Despite being activated from the injured list last Sunday and serving as the club’s cleanup hitter for the March 30 opener in Boston, Ryan Mountcastle was on the bench in favor of Ryan O’Hearn, one of the surprising stories of the season’s first half. And after starting just one of the final six games prior to the break, Jorge Mateo — arguably the club’s best player in April — opened the second half of the season on the bench with Gunnar Henderson again manning shortstop.
With infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Colton Cowser being summoned to the majors recently and Baltimore beginning post-break action with 14 position players and just 12 pitchers on the active roster, Mountcastle and Mateo are among several incumbents who have to be wondering what the second half holds in regards to their status. The Orioles wouldn’t figure to be able to go with only a dozen pitchers for too long, but they’ll let it ride for the time being.
“Our bullpen’s fresh. Right now, we’re just carrying an extra hitter,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Hopefully, we can do that for a while, but things change quickly. We’re just kind of taking it day to day roster-wise.”
So, what happens when the Orioles need more length in a bullpen currently lacking a long reliever?
Barring extreme pitching woes over the weekend, Baltimore would figure to have left-hander and current No. 5 starter Cole Irvin available in relief, especially as many speculate about the possibility of top prospect Grayson Rodriguez being recalled sooner than later. The Orioles wouldn’t need a fifth starter until Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, so that could be the day when general manager Mike Elias is potentially faced with an interesting roster decision.
There are currently seven infielders on the 26-man roster, which looks like one too many on paper. Hyde could elect to platoon O’Hearn — who has just nine play appearances against lefty pitching this season — and Mountcastle since the latter has posted a 1.029 on-base plus slugging percentage against southpaws in 2023, but carrying two first basemen doesn’t leave as much positional flexibility coming off the bench. Mountcastle also has minor-league options remaining as he’s in the midst of the worst season of his career with a .267 on-base percentage and .691 OPS overall.
Mateo’s speed and defense are attractive traits to have coming off the bench late in games, but a .151 batting average and .387 OPS since the start of May have resulted in him losing his starting job. The 28-year-old is out of options and could prove difficult to carry for such a specialized role over the next 2 1/2 months.
Adam Frazier was in Friday’s lineup and is owed the remainder of an $8 million salary for 2023, leading one to believe the lefty-swinging second baseman isn’t the most likely to be jettisoned for a 13th pitcher. However, one could certainly question how much playing time he warrants with a .232 average and .299 OBP coming out of the break, especially with Westburg now in the majors.
There’s also Ramon Urias, who remains the best fit to serve as a true utility infielder since he’s started at least seven games at three different infield positions and carries experience at shortstop in previous seasons. The 2022 Gold Glove third baseman is out of options and has also performed more consistently at the plate than Mountcastle, Mateo, or Frazier in the first half.
Of course, removing an infielder for a 13th pitcher isn’t a guarantee as it was noteworthy that 33-year-old Aaron Hicks started in right field over Cowser for Friday’s series opener against Miami. The former New York Yankee has performed well since arriving in early June and may still be viewed as a preferred short-term option, but optioning Cowser back to the minors would be a difficult pill to swallow after he only debuted last week and carries greater long-term upside as one of the organization’s top prospects.
Such roster crunches often have a way of taking care of themselves when factoring in injuries and potential trades leading up to the Aug. 1 deadline, but the decision may not be easy. It’s a good problem to have as the Orioles eye their first postseason appearance since 2016.
Hyde said left-handed pitcher John Means (upper back/elbow) is “progressing extremely well” and once again threw off a mound on Friday as he aims to make a late-season return from last year’s Tommy John surgery. … Lefty reliever Cionel Perez (left forearm) will begin a rehab assignment with Double-A Bowie on Saturday. … Right-handed reliever Austin Voth (right elbow) is throwing side sessions and could begin a game progression next week. … Right-hander Mychal Givens (right shoulder) has begun throwing bullpen sessions in Sarasota and is still considered a few weeks away from a potential return, according to Hyde. … Righty Dillon Tate (right elbow) was once again shut down after receiving a second opinion on his right elbow and forearm, leaving no timetable for his potential return to game action.