BALTIMORE, MD — Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is earlier on the calendar than ever before. On Thursday, Mar. 29, the Baltimore Orioles return to Camden Yards to begin the 2018 regular season with a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins.

The first few months of Baltimore’s offseason did not feature many headlines, but following some splashes in free agency made during Spring Training, along with announcing a “Kids Cheer Free” initiative, there’s some excitement suddenly surrounding the Orioles.

Key Additions: As mentioned, the Orioles made some splashes in free agency, mainly after Spring Training began. When the Orioles first reported to Sarasota at the end of February, two starting pitchers made up their rotation. Since then, general manager Dan Duquette inked pitchers Andrew Cashner (two years, $16 million), Chris Tillman (one year, $3 million) and Alex Cobb (four years, $57 million), turning a significantly weak rotation into one that has the ability to compete with American League East foes.

Along with the rotation, veterans Colby Rasmus (outfield) and Danny Valencia (infield) will make the Opening Day roster and will contribute early in the season. Rasmus provides solid depth while top prospect Austin Hays recovers from an injury and continues to develop in the minors. Valencia owns a career .313 average against left-handed pitching.

Another veteran who could make an early impact is Pedro Alvarez, who will make the team as Mark Trumbo recovers from a Grade 2 quad strain suffered during Spring Training.

Rule 5 extravaganza: It’s no secret that Duquette loves his Rule 5 picks, and it appears that three Rule 5 players will make the Orioles’ opening day roster. This spring, outfielder Anthony Santander batted .292 with 19 hits, four doubles, four home runs, and 18 RBI in 65 at-bats. Santander played in 26 games with the Orioles last season. Pitcher Nestor Cortes, originally a 2013 draft pick by the Yankees, pitched to a 4.67 ERA in 17.1 innings. Finally, pitcher Pedro Araujo tossed 9.2 innings and tallied a 3.72 ERA.

Uncertainty looms: Although the optimism for the 2018 Orioles stands much higher than it did at the start of spring training, there are some important decisions to make in the warehouse this season. Both Duquette and manager Buck Showalter’s contracts expire at the end of the season, along with the contracts of superstar Manny Machado and team leader Adam Jones. Former All-Star pitchers Zach Britton and Brad Brach are set to become free agents as well.

If the Orioles end up contending, the chances of them dealing a big name like Machado go down. However, there have been no extension talks between the team and Machado, and almost no one believes that the Orioles will spend what Machado will ask for after the season.

Decisions like whether to deal Machado or not will become increasingly crucial as the season goes on. If the Orioles don’t start off well, the pressure to deal Machado will go up. Contending with the Yankees the Red Sox could be a large challenge this season. If the Orioles find themselves contending for a Wild Card spot, for instance, they still run the risk of not making the playoffs and getting nothing back for Machado. This is just an example, but all eyes should be on everything going on off the field this season, in addition to what’s occurring on the field.

Daunting April slate: Five of the Orioles’ first seven series this season are against 2017 AL playoff teams.

  • MIN (Mar. 29-Apr. 1)
  • @HOU (Apr. 2-4)
  • @NYY (Apr. 5-8)
  • @BOS (Apr. 13-15)
  • CLE (Apr. 20-23)

Flashback: Last season, the Orioles went 2-5 against the Twins. From May 22-24, Minnesota swept Baltimore at Camden Yards in what would turn into a seven-game losing streak for the O’s.

Game Times and Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: Thursday, Mar. 29, 3:05 pm – Jake Odorizzi (2017 w/TB: 10-8, 4.14 ERA) vs. Dylan Bundy (2017: 13-9, 4.24 ERA) – MASN, 105.7 The Fan

Game 2: Saturday, Mar. 31, 7:05 pm – Kyle Gibson (2017: 12-10, 5.07 ERA) vs. Cashner (2017 w/TEX: 11-11, 3.40 ERA) – MASN 2, 105.7 The Fan

Game 3: Sunday, Apr. 1, 1:05 pm – Josè Berrios (2017: 14-8, 3.89 ERA) vs. Kevin Gausman (2017: 11-12, 4.68 ERA) – MASN, 105.7 The Fan

Notes on the Twins:

  • After breaking out in 2017, centerfielder Byron Buxton looks to dominate the Orioles like he did last season. In 22 plate appearances versus Baltimore in 2017, Buxton hit .364 with eight hits, two RBI, and two walks.
  • The Twins got a bit of good news last week when the team learned that third baseman Miguel Sano will not be suspended for assault due to insufficient evidence. Sano posted career highs in hits (112), home runs (28) and RBI (77) last season.
  • Like the Orioles, the Twins spent some money on their rotation this offseason. Along with Odorizzi (1 year, $6 million), Minnesota added veteran Lance Lynn (1 year, $12 million). Sure, this is nothing compared to what the O’s spent, but Baltimore has their acquisitions beyond 2018.

Notes on the Orioles:

  • Although Cobb missed virtually all of Spring Training, the Orioles are hopeful that he can make his Orioles debut as early as April 9. Baltimore does have a day off on Mar. 30, but if they need an extra fifth starter until Cobb can contribute, Mike Wright seems to be the favorite.
  • Cashner comes into 2018 with a 2.57 ERA at Camden Yards. However, he has only pitched there twice. Against the Twins, Cashner is 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA.
  • Chris Davis dealt with some elbow soreness in Spring Training. In four games since his return, Showalter penciled Davis in the leadoff spot to get him as many at-bats as possible. Davis is not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but Showalter has been unorthodox with lineups in the past. It’s hard to read into this, but seeing Davis in the leadoff spot could happen early in the season.

Up Next: The Orioles embark on a seven-game road trip. The first three games of the expedition take place at Minute Maid Park, home of the defending World Series Champion-Houston Astros. Houston starts their season on the road in a four-game series against the nearby Texas Rangers. The Orioles went 1-5 versus the Astros in 2017, including going 0-3 at Minute Maid Park. The O’s have not won a game in Houston since Jun. 4, 2015.

Image Credit: Flickr