As Richard Bleier discussed how difficult it is for a left-hander without premium pitches or eye-popping velocity to establish himself as a major leaguer, he couldn't help but apologize to fellow former New York Yankees farmhand and possible Orioles teammate Nestor Cortes Jr., who was standing within earshot at the team’s minicamp in Sarasota, Fla.
But it's nothing they hadn't heard before. For a variety of reasons, some legitimate and some perceived, it seems the only way to know a crafty lefty can succeed in the big leagues is for him to do it. From Bleier and Cortes, the Rule 5 draft pick with a career 2.08 ERA in the minors, down to the likes of recent high draft picks Keegan Akin and Zac Lowther, the Orioles have a lot invested in the idea that they've picked some of the right ones.
There's really only one way to know for sure.
"For every situation like me, where I had a little bit of success, I think there's plenty where guys get to the big leagues and they have high spin rate or something but it doesn't fool big league hitters," Bleier said. "I've seen a lot of situations where guys have some funkiness to them, and it doesn't translate into a big league game. But you have to get a shot to prove you can or can't do it. Minor leagues, things are different. There are similarities because it's a lot of the same guys, but there's a lot of differences as well."
For a team that that has lacked left-handed pitching in recent years, some of the Orioles’ acquisitions on that front over the past few years have fit a pattern. Save for last year's first-round pick, a traditional left-handed starter in DL Hall, the Orioles have prioritized deception.
Akin and Lowther, their second-round picks the past two years, have it. Akin has a fastball that sneaks up on hitters out of his hand and rode a strong second half with High-A Frederick last year to a 4.14 ERA and a good showing in the Arizona Fall League. Lowther was in the top five in the country in strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed per nine innings at Xavier despite a fastball that doesn't get above 92 mph, and had some of the best extension in his release point among pitchers in the draft this year. He fanned 75 in 54 1/3 innings for Short-A Aberdeen this year.
And the organization's minor league pitcher of the year, lefty Alex Wells, walked just 10 batters all season but had a 2.38 ERA with a 0.91 WHIP because he hides the ball well and commands it impeccably.
But that's all at the lower levels, with a long way for any to go before they get to where Cortes or Bleier are. Cortes got this far with a fastball he acknowledges barely touches 90 mph but with a good command profile and the ability to change speeds and keep hitters off balance. It's not unlike how Bleier did things as a minor leaguer, albeit with less statistical success, before he added the cutter that made him an effective major leaguer with the Orioles last season.
Bleier is a believer in Cortes, and it seems like the Orioles coaching staff is as well. But all involved are aware the only way to know for sure is to see it live.
"Just overall, in general, you can watch as many bullpens or sides as you want to, but when you get them in game situations and get them in competition, there's some guys who can get people out and some guys who can't get people out," pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "Sometimes, they have good stuff in the bullpen and it doesn't equate to on the field. Richard had a really good year last year. His past performances before we got him may not have indicated the success that he had last year, but he pitched really well for us in a variety of roles last year.
“But specifically, to look for anything, if and when they pitch and face a hitter, do they get the hitter out? That's what you kind of look for. Sometimes, the stuff doesn't equate to whether you get a hitter out. A lot of it is guile and heart and executing pitches."
Cortes' path through the minors — and indeed all of his baseball life up to this point — show a pitcher who has known how to do that. On that simple basis of getting hitters out, he's done it almost peerlessly in the Yankees system. But the fact that he's a short left-hander who changes arm slots and does it with guile means every minor league promotion and subsequent success comes with a caveat.
To those who saw it, there's an easy way to tell what works and what doesn't.
"I think you can just see how hitters react to bad pitches, and if they're missing them," Bleier said. "Some guys make mistakes and they get fouled off, and other guys make mistakes and they get [hit]. I think it shows more for guys who aren't deceptive. You don't really notice it because it's just a foul ball or a taken strike, but man, some other guys, even if they have the big fastball or whatever, he never really gets away with it and it's easy to pick up. I think it's easy to tell that way."
Cortes has spent years getting that kind of contact, and embracing his own limitations while turning them into strengths.
"Honestly, since high school I haven't done anything different," Cortes said. "Obviously, I've matured to where I've had my ways of pitching and realized what I could do and what I could not do and where I can afford to be with my mistakes. Obviously, at 87, 88, 89, 90 [mph], compared to a 97-98, you have no room for error. I think what's different for me is that I hide the ball real well, and it has some life getting to the plate, and that's what's made me have more room for error. I cannot leave the ball up, but have that advantage where if I leave it up, it's sneaky enough where I can get it by someone or get some bad contact. That's what has helped me."