A Sunday trip to Dunedin — the spring home of the Toronto Blue Jays and one of the least desired assignments on the western front of the Grapefruit League — isn't one that many people get excited for, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter saw plenty of good in it for one big reason.
Scribbled across his lineup card at one point or another were five players he singled as having opened his eyes and eyes all around the organization with what they've done in their opportunities this spring.
And whether anything comes of it, be it in the short term or long term, each player showed a glimpse of what might be a bright future.
The most obvious example was left-hander Jayson Aquino, who has barely been in the organization a year but has left more of an impression than when he was making his major league debut last season.
The Orioles coaching staff uses every avenue available, from their January minicamp to the most throw-away spring training situation, to get a chance to watch and know any pitcher who might join them during the season. Aquino missed all of that, coming to the team in a trade on April 7 from the St. Louis Cardinals, so when he came up to a pitching-desperate club in July during a series in Seattle, no one really had a feel for who — or what — was arriving from Double-A Bowie.
Showalter explains: "It's not like we missed on him, but it's a whole different look to him this spring. He comes in on a waiver claim, I'm pretty sure, and shows up in Seattle, what have you. We didn't know him. He didn't know anybody. It was just not a good read. And this spring, I've seen a different guy. He's got some personality to his pitching. He's added the slider and breaking ball, something [pitching instructor Ramon Martinez] and him worked on in the offseason. The changeup has always been a plus pitch for him."
Aquino got through a shaky first inning to pitch four strong innings against the Blue Jays on Sunday. He likely ends his spring with a 1.20 ERA in the Grapefruit League and as good of a chance as any in-house candidate to make the starting rotation.
Two pitchers who relieved him — Jimmy Yacabonis and Stefan Crichton— were also building strong spring resumes. The pair finished last season at Double-A Bowie. It's unfair to lump them both into the same category, but each could best be categorized as promising but inconsistent — relievers with good fastball velocity, a working secondary pitch, and location issues. Watch them for a week and you'd see them pitch well twice and not the third time.
The team sent both to the Arizona Fall League, then took a mild risk leaving them exposed to the Rule 5 draft; they both passed through unselected. Their spring performances are making Showalter believe teams will soon rue that, as they did with the likes of Mychal Givens in 2015 and to a lesser extent, Ashur Tolliver a year ago.
Crichton's scoreless inning gave him seven shutout frames in seven appearances this spring, and Yacabonis now hasn't allowed a run in 4 1/3 innings over five appearances after his clean inning. Baseball-Reference.com's competition metrics that rate opponent quality by their highest prior-year level has them both facing below Double-A competition, so Showalter has tried to temper his enthusiasm, but it's still there.
"He's got everybody's attention," Showalter said of Crichton. "Ninety-four to ninety-six [mph] every time out with a good breaking ball, and his command always has been good, track record-wise."
Catching all three, for a full nine-inning stint behind the plate, was top prospect Chance Sisco, another player who Showalter says has benefited immensely from his time with the club this spring.
Sisco has shown the bat that many believe will carry him to the major leagues, but Showalter said his defense under the eye of bench coach John Russell is what stands out.
"We all know that Chance has got a chance to hit up here, no pun intended, but the thing that's been impressive are the strides he's made throwing," Showalter said. "The second stolen base was on the pitcher, and of course [Paul Janish] made a great tag on the [successful caught-stealing]. But his throw times have improved dramatically since the start of camp. John Russell is one of the best catching instructors in the game. You talk about a lot of guys, whether they're [Nick] Hundley, Caleb [Joseph], three or four other guys who come in here with a reputation of having a little question mark about throwing — I don't know if there's been a guy here who's gotten more out of big league camp than Chance Sisco."
Another player Showalter has taken notice of is the man who made the long ride to Dunedin worth it. Outfielder Cedric Mullins drove in the game-winning run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning. It was his 11th appearance in the Grapefruit League, and he has just one hit to show for it, but he also homered in a "B" game and has the toolsy package to match his impressive stats from Class-A Delmarva last season.
"I like what I've seen about his whole game," Showalter said. "He's got a nice future."
For some, like Aquino and Sisco, it's a question of when, not if they contribute to the major league team. For the rest, it's impossible to say. But on a hot Sunday in Dunedin, each showed Showalter and the Orioles that even the most unfortunate trips on the schedule can yield something positive.