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What the reported delay of the Triple-A season and return of alternate training sites mean for the Orioles

SARASOTA, FLA. — The will-they, won’t-they nature of the return of minor league baseball games has been a constant headache for teams over the past year, and ESPN’s report that alternate training sites near a club’s home stadium will replace the planned start of the Triple-A season in April is only the latest blow.

According to ESPN, the league’s safety concerns mean that instead of sending players to Triple-A to start games April 6, teams will again operate alternate sites for at least a month to better keep players who will be in the major league fold in the league’s coronavirus protocols.

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The Norfolk Tides, the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, announced MLB’s decision would cancel their first month of the season Tuesday night and the games would not be rescheduled.

That would eliminate the possibility of a minor league player who isn’t under such strict restrictions from joining a major league team and possibly causing an outbreak.

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From a practical standpoint, it’s a sensible decision to service major league rosters while creating another set of logistical conundrums for minor league operators and teams’ player development staffs.

Those adjustments are particularly important ones for an Orioles team that has so much invested in the development of its minor league prospects.

The calculus will be different from last summer’s alternate site decisions, though. Then, Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Gunnar Henderson were among several young prospects who mixed with major league depth players and high-minors prospects who were closer to the big leagues at the team’s secondary site in Bowie.

In April, minor leaguers will be at spring training sites preparing for their seasons, which from Double-A on down are scheduled to begin in May. The Orioles will have most, if not all, of their player development staff operating in Sarasota at that point.

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For the younger prospects such as Rutschman, Henderson and infielders Adam Hall and Jordan Westburg, who are already in Florida as camp reserves with the big league team, the plan always seemed to be for them to essentially have a second spring training with their peers before minor league games finally resumed.

There are prospects on the major league roster, however, who the Orioles must decide what to do with. Pitchers such as Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells were added to the roster in the fall but don’t have any Triple-A experience. The Orioles require that seasoning before a big league debut, so their assignment once games begin won’t change.

But for that group, outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna and infielders Mason McCoy and Rylan Bannon, the team will have to essentially decide what the composition of the alternate site group and staff will look like. Is it better for a player to work out with the rest of the minor leaguers in Sarasota, or train at an alternate site, which could be more focused on keeping older players sharp for the big leagues?

Last year’s site showed those two things aren’t exclusive. Outfielders DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins both had offensive breakthroughs after working with the hitting staff at Bowie, and pitchers Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and Bruce Zimmermann all met developmental requirements that led to their major league debuts.

But the Orioles’ camp roster as constituted — if the limit is around two dozen players, as ESPN reported — could fill out such a site simply based on the number of recent minor league free-agent signings and players with major league experience who the team has outrighted off the roster in the past year.

Of their 17 pitches in camp who aren’t on the big league roster, only veteran starters Félix Hernández, Matt Harvey, Wade LeBlanc and reliever Fernando Abad seem to be in the Opening Day roster mix. The rest are depth options, and some can be stretched out as starters this spring to cover bulk innings in the big leagues.

The Orioles have three catchers who aren’t on the roster but have major league experience in Austin Wynns, Nick Ciuffo and Taylor Davis. They’d be light on outfielders with only Stevie Wilkerson and Chris Shaw, but the infield could feature McCoy and Bannon, plus Tyler Nevin, Seth Mejias-Brean and Ryan Ripken.

The team would also have to find a training site near Baltimore, and perhaps one that could still operate beyond when the minor league season is supposed to start at Bowie or Aberdeen, but the Triple-A coaching staff could operate it.

These conversations likely aren’t ones they’re just having internally. Such is the recent experience with making and changing plans and crafting contingencies that the Orioles likely knew this option was coming. According to Baseball America, most teams and minor league clubs did.

It doesn’t make the end result any better. No matter what the Orioles choose, it’s a valuable month or more without Triple-A games for a group of high-minors prospects that badly need them, and thus another delay in the arrival timelines of a group of young players the team and its fans are counting on to help turn things around.

Minor league staffs announced

The Orioles on Wednesday announced their minor league coaching staffs for 2021, with the reduction in affiliates and adding a second Florida complex league team forcing some changes to a group that’s largely intact from a year ago.

Triple-A Norfolk: Gary Kendall, manager; Kennie Steenstra, pitching coach; Tim Gibbons, hitting coach; Ramon Sambo; fundamentals coach; Malcolm Holland, development coach; Chris Poole, athletic trainer; Trey Wiedman, strength and conditioning coach.

Double-A Bowie: Buck Britton, manager; Justin Ramsey, pitching coach; Ryan Fuller, hitting coach; Jeff Kunkel; fundamentals coach; Grant Anders, development coach; Marty Brinker, athletic trainer; Jon Medici, strength and conditioning coach.

High-A Aberdeen: Kyle Moore, manager; Josh Conway, pitching coach; Tom Eller, hitting coach; Tim DeJohn; fundamentals coach; Ryan Goll, development coach; Adam Sparks; athletic trainer; Trey Wiedman, strength and conditioning coach.

Low-A Delmarva: Dave Anderson, manager; Robbie Aviles, pitching coach; Patrick Jones, hitting coach; Matt Packer; fundamentals coach; David Barry, development coach; Gary Smith, athletic trainer; Liz pardo, strength and conditioning coach.

Florida complex leagues: Kevin Bradshaw and Alan Mills, managers; Adam Bleday and Joe Haumacher, pitching coaches; Branden Becker and Anthony Villa, hitting coaches; Christian Frias and Collin Woody, fundamentals coaches; Adam Schuck, development coach; Aliks Lorie, athletic trainer; Brandon Farish, strength and conditioning coach.

Dominican Summer League: Elvis Morel and Chris Madera, managers; Dionis Pascual and Andy Sadoski, pitching coaches; Ramón Caraballo and Josh Bunselmeyer, hitting coaches; Miguel Jabalera; fundamentals coach; Ramón Lubo, development coach; Brandon Rodriguez and Julio Ibarra, athletic trainer; Julio Diaz, strength and conditioning coach.

RED SOX@ORIOLES

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