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Barn or chicken coop? How one Orioles prospect prepared for spring training by working at California almond farms.

Orioles catching prospect Brett Cumberland takes a swing during a game with the Bowie Baysox in 2019.
Orioles catching prospect Brett Cumberland takes a swing during a game with the Bowie Baysox in 2019. (Bert Hindman/Bowie Baysox)

When he wasn’t working on an almond farm, Orioles minor league catcher Brett Cumberland had a unique choice to make on where he would get his hitting work in during the 2020 minor league shutdown: barn or chicken coop?

Back home in Turlock, California, instead of enjoying what could have been a breakout season for the under-the-radar catching prospect, Cumberland continued his development in a place he says “keeps you in your roots.”

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Now, he’s one of a handful of young players at Orioles camp this spring who are trying to make an impression on manager Brandon Hyde and the coaching staff without much meaningful baseball experience in the past 18 months.

“It’s going better than one could expect,” Cumberland said. “I feel more comfortable off of live [batting practices] and everything, so that’s been good. The way I thought about it was guys have injuries and miss a full year, so it’s not something that hasn’t been done before. That’s kind of what kept me positive throughout this experience.”

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Cumberland, 25, was the 76th overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves — a selection the Orioles traded to Atlanta so the Braves would take on reliever Brian Matusz’s salary.

He had just reached Double-A when the Orioles acquired him as part of the return for pitchers Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day at the July 2018 trade deadline, and has spent most of his time since at Double-A Bowie.

While not a big-name prospect by the Orioles’ standards, Cumberland was among their most productive in 2019. Of the 66 minor leaguers with at least 200 at-bats in the Orioles’ system in 2019, Cumberland ranked second in wRC+, which weights how many runs a player creates based on the competition and hitting environments, with 149.

He had the highest on-base percentage in that group at .404, and the second-lowest ground ball rate at 33.8%.

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That combination of a discerning eye and the ability to hit the ball hard in the air is an appealing one in the modern game, and the Orioles took note. Cumberland benefited from the hitting program installed for 2020 when he was an early report to minor league camp, but instead of getting to show off his progress and continue his climb to the majors, he was back home waiting for news on his future.

Fortunately for him and Turlock’s other ballplayers, it wasn’t hard to stay sharp. Steve Soderstrom, a former San Francisco Giants pitcher, had years ago turned what was his family’s almond farm into a baseball facility, one that now serves several sports and is called the Backyard Sports Academy. There are a few different batting cage options, retrofitted from farm buildings, for players to use.

“He had two barns — one’s a big barn where you would store your big equipment and everything, and then he has a chicken coop too where there’s another facility. It’s all in the same property,” Cumberland said. “I just go back and forth whether I want to hit in the barn or chicken coop, really. Take your pick.”

In between his baseball obligations, Cumberland worked in the almond industry that helps prop up the Central Valley agricultural town he calls home by working for his longtime friend’s business, Triple S Orchard Services.

Their work is centered around creating better harvests. When they’re brought in to shake the trees — also known as mummy shaking — it’s to collect the remaining nuts that weren’t harvested and rid the orchard of whatever pests it might hold.

And instead of burning down the unproductive orchards the way they used to, farmers now chip up the trees and bring in companies such as Triple S to spread the remains around the roots of the existing trees. Cumberland worked the loader, piling the chips into the spreader trucks for dispersal around the farms.

“Essentially, what that does is it puts nutrients into the ground and these almond farmers are able to produce more crop that way,” Cumberland said.

Orioles prospect Brett Cumberland helped load wood chips onto trucks at an almond farm in California.
Orioles prospect Brett Cumberland helped load wood chips onto trucks at an almond farm in California. (Courtesy of Brett Cumberland)

Such sustainability efforts, and a commitment to a more productive future, mirror what Cumberland likes about the Orioles organization he now calls home. During the shutdown, he was a major part of the player development side’s virtual book clubs, and embraced the video sessions on mental skills coaching and yoga as the team tried to keep its prospects engaged and active.

He believes such unique aspects of their plan show “we’re taking all the right steps, we’re growing in ways, and we’re thinking outside of the box.” He’s joked with his family that if he wanted to join a business, he’d seek one with a vision like the Orioles.

But the team’s business is still producing big leaguers, and he’s glad to have found one that helps cater to his own strengths and beliefs. Until now, he’s had to keep his views on hitting the ball hard and in the air to himself. There was a lack of middle ground in how hitting was traditionally taught — flatter or contact-oriented swings — versus the pursuit of elevated power that he’s long believed was the most productive approach at the plate.

Before the 2020 season, and again in August before he went to the fall instructional camp, Cumberland spent a month at Driveline Baseball outside Seattle to work with a pair of college teammates in John Soteropulos and Max Dutto, who are now instructors there.

For the first time in his career, his own personal belief structure is matching the instruction he’s receiving — both from the industry-leading development facility and an Orioles hitting staff that’s trying to build better hitters the same way.

The staff that we have with the Orioles, they’re firm believers with what Driveline had to say and also what I always believed since college about hitting,” Cumberland said. “It’s about hitting the ball hard and hitting it in the air. That’s where the numbers are at. You can’t really argue with the numbers. [Orioles hitting coordinators] Ryan Fuller, Anthony Villa, we all are on the same page.”

Said Orioles director of player development Matt Blood: “I think he felt a breath of fresh air when he was introduced to the culture and the philosophy that our hitting group, and really our entire coaching staff, was going to bring. It’s something that he believes in, and has been incorporating in his development elsewhere. …. Now, he’s being challenged and is practicing in deliberate ways that are helping him improve his abilities on the field. That’s exciting to see. He’s motivated, and he continues to be making progress on both sides of the ball.”

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