Sarasota, Fla. — For the past several months, Orioles fans have been looking ahead to the 2019 season with both apprehension and anticipation about the prospect of a new-look inexperienced team taking its first baby steps toward possible greatness. But guess what?
The team that takes the field for Opening Day on Thursday at Yankee Stadium figures to look a lot like the one that limped out of last year’s 115-loss debacle.
Adam Jones is gone, but almost everyone that will be on the field to start this year has been there before, which might seem to run counter to what new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has been selling since he was hired to replace Dan Duquette in November.
It also might seem to run counter to what Elias was saying at the start of spring training.
“It makes camp fun and it makes camp interesting when you have a very established roster,” Elias said the day camp opened. “You're more concerned with ramping guys up and keeping them healthy and for the younger players, it might not be very realistic for them to win a job. But that's not the case here. It's going to be really cool in terms of, this is in many ways a tryout for a lot of these guys for a major league position.”
That’s kind of what happened, until the Orioles started sending out most of the prospects who were playing well during the exhibition season. The young guys who were generating the most buzz are now in minor league camp.
So it must have sounded like Elias was walking back his earlier statements when he explained last week why the future has not quite arrived for Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle and exciting Cuban prospect Yusniel Diaz.
“I don't think competition in the sense of the word is limited to, 'Let's everyone have 40 at-bats and see who puts up the best stats in spring training,' ” Elias said. “We have an organization, we have a roster. We're trying to maximize the amount of talent in the organization and keep that talent in the organization. There's constructs surrounding 40-man rosters, and rules, and all kinds of things that go into those considerations.
“Ryan Mountcastle came up and had a great spring statistically and he was sent down last week. We're doing the right thing for these guys' careers. They're going to be a big part of what we're doing here — what we're trying to do — and in no way do we want to jeopardize any part of their development just to have a pure tryout based on spring training at-bats.”
This all makes perfect sense, even if you don’t want it to.
Elias and manager Brandon Hyde weren’t lying when they said six weeks ago that all those kids were coming in with a chance to win a job. They wanted every one of those young players to arrive in camp hungry and looking at the big major league carrot at the end of the stick. That’s the only way to get a full read on them, which is what the new front office needed most of all.
They did audition for major league jobs. They just aren’t going to get them on Opening Day.
What was harder to visualize at the time was Elias and his staff also needed to get a full read on the holdovers from last year and find out if the analytical stew they are cooking would help any of them step out of last season and into a new light.
That’s why Mike Wright and David Hess are the top candidates to get the most innings in the fourth and fifth rotation slots, whether that’s as starters or the main men pitching second in an “opener” situation.
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It’s why the only entirely new player on the field when the season opens might be Rule 5 shortstop Richie Martin. There are some other possibilities, but any major lineup makeover will come later.
There was a famous commercial for the Paul Masson Winery that ran during the 1970s in which legendary actor and director Orson Welles held up a snifter and said the company’s slogan: “We will sell no wine before it’s time.”
Essentially, Elias was saying something similar when he explained the surprising roster cuts last week.
It’s understandable — especially in the context of the season the Orioles are trying to recover from — for fans to want to see something new when the gates open at Camden Yards on April 4.
They won’t get that right away because the Orioles can’t get where the new regime wants to go by rushing young players for cosmetic reasons.
Elias and co. said from the start that a dynamic rebuilding process requires sacrifice and patience — from the front office, from ownership, from the young players and from the fans.
This is what that looks like.