PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA. — Perhaps, in the greater scheme of things, it doesn’t mean a thing that the Orioles have played winning baseball so far this spring, but it means a lot to the people who are trying to rebuild a winning culture throughout the organization.
Manager Brandon Hyde will admit that he didn’t know exactly what to expect when training camp opened three weeks ago. Halfway to Opening Day, much of that uncertainty has given way to the very positive working environment he set out to create.
“I just like our guys,” he said. “I like the way our guys work. I didn’t know what kind of work ethic our guys had. I didn’t know how guys prepared. I didn’t know the makeup of our players besides maybe asking around a little bit. I think we have a really good group of guys who want to get better. That’s what I was hoping and that’s what happened.”
Though Hyde talked a lot about maintaining a comfortable environment and a positive atmosphere in camp, it was obvious to the players right from the start that none of that would come at the expense of the work that needed to be done to turn a corner after the Orioles’ disastrous 2018 season.
“He’s one of the best communicators I’ve ever played for,’’ said left fielder Trey Mancini. “He instilled this new philosophy in us of being aggressive, not taking any plays off, just hustling every single play. No one person is bigger than the game of baseball. Out of respect for your team and the people watching, you’ve got to give your all every day. He really has instilled that in us and that’s how we’re going to be all year.”
How that translates into the regular season obviously is difficult to predict, though the experts and analysts who regularly underestimate the Orioles are pretty sure they’ll lose almost as many games this year as last.
That’s entirely possible in the first full year of an almost full-scale rebuilding project, but nobody around here uses those words to describe it. Hyde generally responds to questions about the process by insisting that he’s “here to win games,” and he seems to be pretty intent on making sure his players do everything they can to make that happen.
“I think the intensity has been excellent,’’ said no-nonsense veteran Mark Trumbo. “I think the work ethic has been excellent. I think everyone understands why that’s important and what we’re working towards. I think a lot of the credit goes to Brandon and his staff for making very clear to us what’s expected.”
Hyde’s favorite word is “aggressive.” He wants the pitchers to be aggressive. He wants the base runners to be aggressive. He probably wants the clubhouse attendants to be aggressive. He’s as likely to applaud as shake his head if one of his young players runs into an out on the bases.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that jumps out is the aggressiveness on the base paths,’’ Mancini said. “That’s kind of been our MO all spring — take the extra base whenever you can to see what your limits are. If you’re kind of taking it base to base and not taking risks in spring training, what’s the point? You’ve got to take risks and get to know your limits.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. If you think that there are no expectations here because there are very low expectations for the Orioles in the greater baseball world, you would be misinformed. There is a lot at stake for everyone, from the new front office to the new coaching staff to a bunch of young guys who are on the cusp of making their big league dreams come true.
For years, the Orioles have tried to sell Baltimore as a land of opportunity for minor league prospects and bargain free agents, but it has been a very long time since there was this much opportunity. More than half the 25 Opening Day roster spots are up for grabs.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, all the competition seems to have created a closer clubhouse, as young players battle for positions and bond with each other at the same time.
“I think guys are pulling for each other and I want to believe it’s because of what we’ve done in camp as far as making a good atmosphere for them … or trying to, at least,’’ Hyde said. “I think there are some pretty solid friendships that are forming. We talked a lot about what kind of teammates we want to be and I think that’s happening, so I feel really good about that.”
The sheer number of young players here should make it obvious to all that the potential to earn a major league job doesn’t begin and end with the final roster cuts.
“The reality is, whoever breaks camp with the team, with injuries and everything else, we’re going to need a lot more than just 25 guys to put a season together,’’ Trumbo said. “That depth is one thing I see around the league. The better teams have a lot of it all throughout the farm and I think that’s one thing I’m seeing more of here is better depth.”
Hyde would probably bristle at the notion that this is Camp Comfy, but he thinks young players have to come out of their shells to get the most out of themselves and their teammates.
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“I think our guys are starting to get more comfortable and getting to know each other a little more,’’ Hyde said. “Guys are starting to talk with each other during their work instead of being so worried about themselves. They’re coming out a little bit personality-wise. I was a little bit nervous about that early on, after the first few days. I’ve been impressed with how they’ve gone about their business and the work they’ve put in.”