Even though the tone of Wednesday’s opening spring training workout for pitchers and catchers was set by the sheer numbers of pitchers the Orioles have in camp, the focus remained on the same fundamentals that are preached every February during the opening days of spring training. And for a club that has little clarity when it comes to its starting rotation, those little things could become a big difference this season.
With so many arms in camp — a 35-pitcher group that’s expected to grow in the coming days and weeks as the Orioles attempt to acquire one or two veteran free-agent starters — 16 pitchers threw bullpen sessions Wednesday. Showalter added a bunting station for pitchers so they wouldn’t spend too much idle time as six waves of pitchers waiting for their turn to throw.
Meanwhile, inside the clubhouse, there was a peculiar setup, with three empty lockers along the row of lockers usually assigned to veteran pitchers, while several players with no major league service time were assigned to the auxiliary clubhouse. Showalter said Wednesday that there was a reason for that, indicating those lockers were being saved for potential free-agent pitching acquisitions.
“We also have to make room in the locker room so that if we do add someone in 10 days or whatever that they have a place there,” Showalter said. “You don’t want to bring a veteran pitcher here and then all of a sudden stick them in the back. So instead of moving guys back and forth all the time, we’ll just try to leave them [there].”
While the Orioles are preparing for it, Showalter wouldn’t handicap the likelihood of adding free-agent starters. They are still waiting for dominoes to fall — Yu Darvish’s six-year, $126 million deal with the Chicago Cubs this week sitting as the standard-bearer — to see whether some shorter-term values will eventually exist.
“The most important thing right now is the people here,” Showalter said. “I’m trying to find the answers we’re looking for from here. Someone walks through the door and the front office and ownership thinks that’s a good fit for us, then we’ll move with it. I’ve never wanted to covet other people’s players or other people who aren’t currently here. I really covet the people who are here now.”
With so many pitchers in camp, it will be a challenge to get them all innings. There will be an intrasquad game next Thursday, then the Grapefruit League opener the following day plus split-squad games one day later. Saturday will give the Orioles valuable innings. But Showalter said he will probably still need three “B” games with the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates to give pitchers the innings they need early.
“Opportunity may come early, so be ready,” he told the pitchers Wednesday, “because at some point they’re going to go away and there’s always the possibility that someone else shows up at this camp.”
The first day of workouts was filled with the usual array of pitchers’ fielding practice — covering first base, fielding comebackers, bunt defense and situational infield defense — that used to be the foundation of a Showalter team.
There’s no secret the Orioles want to get back to being defensively sound, and that was the real focus of the first day, preaching to pitchers how doing little things on defense can benefit the pitching staff and the club.
As Showalter and infield coach Bobby Dickerson gave instructions on situational bunt defense, Dickerson could be heard telling pitchers, “This is going to help us win some games.”
From 2012 to 2015, the Orioles ranked 10th in defensive runs saved with 66, but they regressed the past two seasons, ranking 24th with a combined minus-51.
Two years ago, Orioles pitchers ranked 23rd with minus-7, a number that was hurt by throwing errors from in front of the mound. That stat improved last year, as Orioles pitchers ranked eighth.
Showalter will have little time to get to know all the new pitchers — 11 of the 35 are new to the organization — but knowing his players, and their strengths and weaknesses, is one of his best assets.
“The biggest challenge is having that personal touch with each one of them, and not overlooking anybody, and making them all feel like we know who they are, their background and how they got here and realize the opportunity they’re going to have and that to me [is most important],” Showalter said. “The other stuff is just scheduling and getting ahead of stuff and having some foresight and making sure the groups and rotations [are correct].”
Meanwhile, setting up the bunting drill netted an early reward as Showalter said Rookie-level Gulf Coast League manager Carlos Tosca identified a surprisingly skilled bunter.
“Every spring we’ve done that in the past, we always find out something we didn’t know,” Showalter said.
That pitcher was nonroster left-handed reliever Joely Rodríguez, who has already found a way to make himself stand out after the first pitchers and catchers workout because of his attention to detail. Rodríguez, one of several new faces brought in to compete for a lefty bullpen spot, might never need to bunt in a game, but whatever way one of these pitchers can draw positive attention to themselves, the better the chances they will make the team.
Rodríguez already came to the Orioles receiving high marks from a Philadelphia Phillies front office with plenty of Orioles ties, and he does have a legitimate chance ot winning one of the team’s final bullpen spots. And by simply laying down a few quality bunts, he raised some eyebrows.