Orioles former first-round pick DJ Stewart talks about the reason for losing 10-12 pounds in the offseason to help him in the outfield.
NORTH PORT, FLA. — With the Orioles pulling away in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s 8-1 Grapefruit League win over the Atlanta Braves, top prospect Adley Rutschman hit a line-drive double to the right-center field gap that probably held much more meaning than an exhibition hit should.
Rutschman was making his first spring start after appearing off the bench Tuesday, and everything he’s done in the past two days has been under the microscope. After all, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft and the other big-name young players in Orioles camp and on their top prospect lists are such an important part of turning around the club’s fortunes.
That’s why Rutschman’s catching of knuckleballer Mickey Jannis on Tuesday became a talking point, as did his habit of running out to meet pitchers by the foul line at the end of an inning to quickly break down what happened on the mound.
Manager Brandon Hyde called that a “great quality to have” and said all of Rutschman’s team-building attributes are genuine, a good trait for a catcher. But he’s also a camp reserve who is based at the team’s minor league training site across town from Sarasota, and this camp is not about him and his development as much as it’s about preparing players for the major league season.
Especially now that games have started and there are several camp reserves playing, the work that can be done at the minor league site is limited by the smaller player pool there.
So it’s natural that Rutschman was a little rusty and had a few strikeouts before his double in the seventh inning on his fourth at-bat of the game. His approach still seems to be advanced, and his plate discipline is a strength. But it’s telling that Hyde believed there was a reason the hit came in the last at-bat, which he said was “more under control” and still featured plus bat speed, “but the eyes and the head stayed a lot more quiet on that swing.”
“I just thought he was trying too hard the first three at-bats, over-swinging a little bit,” Hyde said. “Head was flying, trying to get four hits in one at-bat. The last at-bat, it felt like he just looked a little more comfortable. I thought the swing was more under control. Eyes stayed down longer through the hitting zone. Just kind of slowed himself down a little bit. He’ll learn that as he goes along.”
Rutschman is still green by professional baseball standards, even with his immense prospect pedigree. He’s spent far more time in camp settings since he signed, be it early spring training last year, two fall instructional camps or last summer’s alternate camp, than he has playing real games against actual opponents.
What he’s shown both in this spring training and last year’s, however, is that he’s not one to waste whatever opportunities he gets. He spoke of great progress at the alternate site that could bring his swing to another level.
But whether it’s soaking in spring training reps with big leaguers, leading on the minor league side or eventually getting game action against other teams with actual stakes, everything Rutschman does will be under a spotlight.
And judging by the reaction to his double Wednesday from Orioles fans, every morsel of success will be plenty amplified.
Jones bringing the hustle
Second baseman Jahmai Jones is an intriguing prospect who’s close to the majors — something the Orioles don’t have many of. And the value of the athleticism he could bring to the fold after coming over in the trade of right-hander Alex Cobb to the Los Angeles Angels was evident early against the Braves.
With a runner on second, Jones hit a soft grounder to the left side and forced a hurried throw from Johan Camargo, which ultimately allowed him to reach base on a throwing error.
Jones added a single later in the game and got plenty of reps at second base. It’s clear he’s going to get plenty of chances in this camp, but it’s likely just a sneak peek of what’s to come after he finishes his development in the minors.
Outfield competition heating up?
With DJ Stewart homering for the second time in two games and Austin Hays adding his own home run to make it two productive days at the plate in his two starts, there are plenty of Orioles outfielders who are making a case to be on the Opening Day roster. Cedric Mullins, who plays on opposite days, is also having a strong spring.
“We have quite a few guys swinging the bat really well,” Hyde said.
It’s early, and spring training results might not carry much weight, but the at-bats haven’t been as impressive from Ryan Mountcastle. The Orioles entered camp with the former top prospect as the presumptive left fielder, but it might not be long before they have to start reconsidering their plans if the at-bats for some of the players fighting for increased roles are too good to ignore.
Hays might have an advantage in a unique way. His home run Wednesday came with his newborn son, Levi, in the stands for the first time. Hays’ father was sitting in the outfield and had stadium staff bring the ball to Hays’ wife behind home plate.
“I guess maybe the dad strength is a thing,” Hays said. “The first game he comes to, I hit a homer. Hopefully that can happen a lot this year.”
Barring a disaster, there are some names that are written in pen in the Orioles bullpen. The first outing of the spring for many of them won’t change that.
On Monday, Shawn Armstrong gave up a pair of runs on a home run. Paul Fry was tagged for three runs on four hits in his inning of work Tuesday, and Dillon Tate gave up a home run to the first batter he faced Wednesday.
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None of them will be overly concerned, nor will there be any different thoughts about those arms compared with Tanner Scott, César Valdez and Hunter Harvey, whose first relief appearances of the spring were scoreless.
Hyde said he’s not putting stock into the first outings, even though Ashton Goudeau began to make his roster case Wednesday with two scoreless innings. What’s emerged, however, is that there are plenty of options for a diverse and possibly reliable Orioles bullpen this year.