Sarasota, Fla. — In the middle of a quintet of left-handers on the new six-mound bullpen, Chris Lee represented the first challenge to the notion that everything orange was going to go exactly according to plan during this Orioles rebuild.
It was only his first bullpen, yet that meant his one chance at a first impression for new pitching coach Doug Brocail and manager Brandon Hyde, a chance that grew frustrating as he bounced changeups into catcher Carlos Pérez's chest protector and into the feet of the surrounding backstops.
This Orioles camp is all opportunities — for one-time touted prospects such as Lee who have seen their careers derailed by injuries, for minor league free agents and for fringe major leaguers alike. But Lee, 26, was the first to confront the reality that it wasn't going to be a smooth ride to take those chances and seize them.
“It's baseball,” Lee said. “You have your ups and downs. I just have to keep going. It was the first bullpen, you know? What's important is that I keep getting the reps, in working hard. This isn't a game, and that's when it counts — in the games. I've just got to work on the craft right now and make sure I'm 100 percent healthy and ready for games.”
Hyde said he and the coaches have had to caution players on working too hard or doing too much in the name of making a good first impression.
“That's one thing that I've said to them: you're not going to make the club in pitchers and catchers,” Hyde said. “Our main goal is to break healthy, is to improve during camp and break healthy. The best-case scenario is that everyone is healthy after we left. That's the No. 1 thing. I think you can get a little bit amped up early, and you can have guys try to push it too much.”
“I'm working on little things right now, trying to get ready for the games,” Lee said. “What I do right now is touching base on everything, trying to chart a path toward the games.”
Lee, who had his introductory meeting with the coaching staff and the front office, would feel that way regardless of how his first bullpen went. Of all the Orioles players in camp this month in Sarasota, he's had some of the toughest sledding to get to this point.
Acquired from the Houston Astros for international signing bonus slots in May 2015, Lee took off once joining the Orioles organization, posting a 3.07 ERA while seeing his fastball velocity spike over just a few months at High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie.
The Orioles added him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft that offseason, and Lee had a 2.98 ERA in eight games (seven starts) with Bowie in 2016 before a lat injury shut him down. He was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk for 2017 anyway, and had a 5.11 ERA in a season of struggles.
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An oblique injury slowed him down out of camp in 2018, and he was outrighted off the roster midseason. But once he was healthy again, he pitched in a relief role for Bowie and found a groove, with seven scoreless outings in his first eight games before a rocky last two outings.
“I was just healthy, and I was just feeling it,” Lee said. “That's how baseball works. Everything was working in my favor. It was pretty good, and I worked hard for it, so it was a blessing to have it work out in that way.”
Another successful stint in the Arizona Fall League meant Lee had plenty of positives to carry into camp, and he's glad to get the chance to return with the Orioles, who re-signed him as a minor league free agent shortly after Bowie’s season ended. He said he'll be stretched out as a starter this spring, but is ready for any role the new coaching staff sees for him.
“I'm excited to be back,” Lee said. “This is the team I want to play for. I have an opportunity yet again to just come out here and show them what I've got. The sky is the limit. You never know what can happen.”
Hyde on Kremer
Hyde said the Orioles will carefully manage the oblique strain of right-hander Dean Kremer, 23, one of the team’s top pitching prospects who hasn’t worked out with the team yet this spring.
“Obviously, he's a young kid and we're going to be really patient with them and making sure he's fully healthy and ready to go before having him continue any baseball activities,” Hyde said. “His health is the No. 1 important thing, and we're just going to wait until he's cleared and ready to go.”
Around the horn
Several more position players were in camp Friday ahead of Sunday’s mandatory report date, including Cedric Mullins, Joey Rickard, Anthony Santander and Jace Peterson. Austin Hays also made it in time for batting practice. As of Friday’s workouts, the Orioles were still awaiting the arrival of Jonathan Villar, Renato Núñez, Steve Wilkerson, Hanser Alberto, Ryan Mountcastle and Yusniel Díaz. … Hyde said there was no update on catcher Jesús Sucre, who is delayed in Venezuela by visa problems, or right-hander Gregory Infante, who is in Venezuela dealing with an illness. … The Orioles plan to welcome their “one millionth fan” in team history to Ed Smith Stadium within the first three home dates of the spring. All fans at the spring opener Feb. 23 will receive a schedule magnet.