BALTIMORE — While their potential opponents for the American League Division Series began fighting for their playoff lives in St. Petersburg, the top-seeded Orioles practiced in a setting that felt part spring training, part pandemic season at an empty Camden Yards.
Players taking part in Tuesday evening’s workout who were not on the active roster by the end of the regular season included outfielder Ryan McKenna, relief pitchers Mike Baumann and Bryan Baker, and catcher Anthony Bemboom. That’s not to suggest any of them will be part of the ALDS roster, but general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde need to have a taxi squad ready just in case.
Grayson Rodriguez threw two innings of live batting practice, which included a strikeout of fellow rookie standout Gunnar Henderson and little contact from the other hitters he faced. Such work five days ahead of Sunday would put Rodriguez in line to potentially start Game 2. We’re all expecting staff ace Kyle Bradish to take the ball for Saturday’s opener against Texas or Tampa Bay, but we’ll see if Hyde confirms that when he speaks with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
The Orioles certainly appreciate the opportunity to set their pitching staff and exhale after a 162-game grind that resulted in a 101-61 finish, their best regular season since 1979. But five straight days off are about as un-baseball as it gets with even the All-Star break lasting just four days. Rest is great, but hitters also don’t want to jump back into the most competitive and intense environment of the year with 95 mph fastballs suddenly looking like 105 after five days without real games.
The Orioles weren’t tearing the cover off the ball for much of the season’s final three weeks either.
Ask the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers and 101-61 Atlanta from a year ago how much they liked the first-round bye offered by the new playoff format after they were each bounced from the NLDS in four games. In contrast, Houston and the New York Yankees both advanced to the ALCS after their extra rest last October.
This is still a good problem to have, if for no other reason than to avoid the best-of-three wild-card round that amounts to little more than a coin flip between two good clubs.
Much discussion persists about Baltimore’s ALDS roster, which will revert to the 26-man limit and must be set by Saturday. For what it’s worth, all four AL clubs in last year’s ALDS round carried 14 position players and 12 pitchers while three of the four clubs advancing to the NLDS went with a balanced 13-13 split.
That roster construction will be influenced by their ALDS opponent with the Rangers entering Wednesday with the opportunity to sweep the Rays.
Should the Orioles choose to carry 14 position players, the final spot would likely come down to rookie Heston Kjerstad or veteran outfielder Ryan McKenna. McKenna has the experience edge and brings speed and plus defense off the bench for the late innings, but Kjerstad’s powerful left-handed bat would be an intriguing pinch-hitting option.
On the pitching side, there are 11 presumed locks, which include the five starters concluding the regular season — Bradish, Rodriguez, John Means, Dean Kremer, and Kyle Gibson — and relievers Yennier Cano, Danny Coulombe, DL Hall, Cionel Perez, Jacob Webb, and Tyler Wells. With Kremer or Gibson projected to be in the bullpen for the ALDS, would the Orioles prefer a lefty long man in Cole Irvin or would they want to roll the dice on the swing-and-miss upside — and accompanying downside — of the maddening Shintaro Fujinami or ex-starter Jack Flaherty? Or could Baltimore pivot back to someone like Baumann or Baker, who pitched well for stretches earlier this season before struggling and falling out of favor after the All-Star break?
In sizing up a five-game series that includes off-days after Games 2 and 4, I’m inclined to carry a fifth bench player and to be content with an eight-man bullpen. If being honest, we’re not exactly loving the Orioles’ chances if carrying two of Irvin, Flaherty, and Fujinami proves all that consequential to this series, are we?
As Buck Showalter always liked to say, our curiosity will be satisfied soon enough.