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By ramping up international program in Latin America, Orioles looking to find more players like Cristian Alvarado

The Orioles are ramping up their international program in Latin America. Meet Cristian Alvarado, the only player in camp it has produced.

Before long, the Orioles will start to push some of the Latin American prospects they’ve added in the past 18 months into their domestic minor league system, hoping to join the rest of the league in yielding talent from those fertile grounds.

This year, however, the consequences of their decisions to not spend big in that market is illustrated at major league camp. Out of the 68 players in spring training with the major league team, only one — nonroster reliever Cristian Alvarado — is a homegrown player the Orioles signed out of Latin America.

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“When I signed, we signed around 30 people,” said Alvarado, who is from Venezuela. “Now, it’s just me and another [pitcher]. I remember a lot of people being there — like a lot.”

His path through the Orioles system, from when he signed at age 16 in 2011 until this first spring training, came under circumstances that weren’t designed for a player like him to make it to the majors easily. The international program and the team’s struggles developing pitchers saw to that.

But across baseball, other major league camps have had far more players who fit that mold reach the cusp of the big leagues after signing as a teenager. It’s far more infrequent with the Orioles.

While Australian left-hander Alex Wells is also in camp this year and the Orioles spent big last year on Cuban and Asian players with more professional experience than a Latin American amateur, the last pitcher they developed out of their international program to reach major league camp was left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez in 2014. On the position player side, minor league veteran Garabez Rosa earned a camp invite in 2018.

All that is meant to change as executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias brought in senior director of international scouting Koby Perez to continue the efforts that Elias’ predecessor, Dan Duquette, began on his way out the door.

Previously, the Orioles would trade their international signing bonus slots for players closer to the majors. But Duquette began to change that when he acquired bonus slots in the team’s July 2018 trades and declared that the Orioles would be returning to the international market immediately.

The team has spent millions in signing bonuses since, and expects some players who signed in the past two periods to be playing domestically this summer. They could even sign a seven-figure bonus player, considered the top of the market, in the signing class that is eligible to sign in July 2021.

As Orioles continue to build their “elite-talent pipeline,” there will be an influx of players joining the waves that Elias and company are trying to build in the minor leagues. A class of 42 players have agreed to deals with the Orioles so far in the 2019-2020 signing period.

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When Alvarado signed, he says his class was around 30 players. He spent two seasons in the Dominican Summer League learning professional baseball, as is customary for all but the very best players at that level, before getting a coveted invitation to the Orioles’ Fall Instructional League program in Sarasota in 2013.

Alvarado began 2014 with the Dominican Summer League club again before moving to the Gulf Coast League to begin his career in the United States. The only three players from his signing class to make it that far were right-hander Francisco Jimenez and catcher Daniel Fajardo.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Alvarado said. “You see people being around you, and the next year they’re not with you and you’re knowing new people every day.”

Luckily, those three stayed on similar paths and had each other to learn the game and their new lifestyle together. As a starting pitcher early in his career, Alvarado was named an organizational All-Star in 2016 for striking out a batter per inning with a 3.41 ERA at Low-A Delmarva. He scuffled the next season and had a career-high 5.00 ERA and 1.31 WHIP at High-A Frederick, but bounced back to be named a Carolina League All-Star while repeating the level in 2018.

Alvarado was always a durable rotation piece for the Orioles, but a crowded starting pitching group at Double-A Bowie forced him to the bullpen for the first year under the new front office and their pitching program in 2019.

Things didn’t start well, as Alvarado allowed eight runs in his first four outings (9⅔ innings), but they quickly turned around. He only allowed 10 earned runs in his remaining 63⅔ innings over 36 appearances, lowering his ERA to 2.66 with a 0.93 WHIP. He maintained his typically strong command in the bullpen and helped the BaySox to the playoffs.

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He said he used his fastball more aggressively than in years past, and brought back a curveball that he’d shelved three years earlier to pair with it.

“I started to throw it again and that was a good pitch for me to help me to strike out guys,” Alvarado said. “I worked that with my fastball up and down. That helped me a lot.”

The resulting pitcher was good enough that, when Alvarado reached minor league free agency this offseason, the Orioles brought him back and invited him to camp.

Alvarado could begin 2019 as a bullpen depth arm at Triple-A Norfolk, though a return to Bowie might be forced by the sheer volume of high-minors arms in the organization. But the Orioles have shown themselves to be indiscriminate in bringing up the players who can help them on the pitching side and will likely continue to be so.

Should he earn a call-up, he’d be the first Venezuelan the Orioles signed and brought to the majors in their own organization. Alvarado knows the way to do that is to simply make a good impression and soak up all the knowledge he can in major league camp.

“I want to show what I am and what I can do to help the team, and we’ll see,” he said.

Around the horn

>> Right-hander Chandler Shepherd, who started the final game of 2019 for the Orioles and is in camp as a nonroster invitee, will start the Grapefruit League opener Saturday at the Atlanta Braves’ new park in North Port, Florida. Left-hander Ty Blach will follow him.

>> First baseman Chris Davis is still sick and did not practice Thursday, manager Brandon Hyde said.

>> Hyde said right-hander David Hess has come into camp a different pitcher, and will work several multi-inning outings in spring before the team decides if he’s going to be a starter or reliever.

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