Schmuck: Ready or not, Orioles to open exhibition season after only four full-squad workouts

The Orioles held their first full-squad spring workout Monday, played their only intrasquad game Thursday and will open the Grapefruit League exhibition season against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday.

Pretty short week.

The spring training schedule has been condensed this year to account for the early start of the regular season on March 29, and that has been of particular concern to an Orioles team that will play four preseason games in three days this weekend.

Manager Buck Showalter has grumbled more than once over the past week about the major league requirement that managers bring a representative team on spring road trips. That was a pet peeve for him even before several days were removed from this year’s schedule. He’s already planning to bring players over from minor league camp to help him get through the early preseason and split-squad games.

Of course, Showalter is a stickler for routine and he puts a big emphasis on the instruction and drills that take place during the period leading up to the start of the exhibition schedule. The players recognize the importance of that — especially in the aftermath of a disappointing 2017 season — but most won’t mind trading the repetition of daily fielding practice for the low-pressure competition of the preseason.

The pitchers have been in camp twice as long as the position players and some even longer than that, so they’re more than ready to begin building up innings against hostile hitters.

“We’ve hit the drill wall … the time they want to see someone in a different uniform,” Showalter said.

The position guys have had to pack a lot of work into a short window, so Showalter said Thursday that he doubled up on the drills each day to make sure everything was covered in just four longer defensive sessions. The projected starting infielders all say they’re confident they were able to absorb everything.

“It’s a little bit shorter,” second baseman Jonathan Schoop said. “Normally we have like five days to do the team defense, but I think we kind of know already what we’re doing. … Whatever the schedule is, you have to be ready, so I’m going to do my best to figure out how I can be ready for the season.”

In the era of year-round conditioning, a lot of the Orioles are already in game shape and a high percentage of the position players report to camp early.

“We’ve had four months to get ready for spring training,” shortstop Manny Machado said. “Obviously, it’s a little different. You’re not game-ready to go out there and play, but that’s why we have the games to go out there and get ready. We have a good manager that’s going to control that. At the end of the day, it’s about who you’ve got on your side and we’re lucky we have Buck that likes to control us a little bit and not fatigue us too much early on in the spring.”

Machado is changing positions this year, but since shortstop is his natural position, the case can be made that he needs the game action more than hours of individual instruction and infield drills.

Tim Beckham also is changing positions, but has not had a lot of playing time at third base and only spent a couple of months last season in Showalter’s system. So, the individual time he has gotten to spend with infield coach Bobby Dickerson has been important and probably will continue on the back fields once the games are underway.

“I think everybody will be ready, for sure,” Beckham said. “Spring training is to get ready for the season. We pretty much know who’s going to be playing what position. I feel that’s huge for us and we know what we need to do to prepare ourselves for the season. That’s what spring training is for. I’m at a new position, so I don’t mind the drills. I need all the drills I can over at third and I’m looking forward to a big year.”

The veterans who have been around for most of the Showalter era can probably navigate spring training on cruise control. There are subtle changes in the routine each spring and different points of emphasis based on problems that arose the previous season, but there hasn’t been a lot of complaining about the quick shift into exhibition overdrive.

“I actually like it,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “I can’t speak for the other guys in here. I like it. It kind of eliminates the however many days before that we come in and do the same things over and over. Our staff and our group is pretty good at keeping things interesting and changing it up, but I think it eliminates a lot of time where you just basically stand around. As soon as the games get underway, to me that’s where you really get your work in. Guys have been hitting and throwing bullpens. It’s time to start the competition and kind of see where you’re at.”

If there is cause for concern, it might be the possibility that ramping up to game intensity more quickly might make some players — particularly those who arrived closer to the actual full-squad reporting date — more vulnerable to injury.

“I think that’s always at risk anytime you take the field,” Davis said. “You can’t practice that adrenaline rush … those emotions. You have to understand who you are, where you’re at and get after it, but at the same time know that this is just training … spring training. And we’ve got a bunch of guys in here that have been through the fire and understand how to take care of their bodies and what speed to go and when they need to ramp it up.”

The other stuff doesn’t stop, of course. Showalter has always put a premium on perfect fundamentals and playing great defense, and said at the start of spring training that his team needed to rededicate itself to those priorities if it hoped to pivot from last year’s disappointing finish. Everybody in Sarasota seems to get that.

“We want to get back to that [good] team defense,” Schoop said. “Baseball is team game. It’s not a one-on-one game. Everybody does it individually, but it’s a team game, and if you do team fundamentals and work as a team you’re going to have success.”

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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