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For Orioles, rainy and ‘weird’ first workout for pitchers and catchers begins preparations for challenging season

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde talks about the differences in this year's Spring Training and the things that are the same as last season.

A spring training unlike any other began Wednesday in Sarasota, Florida, for the Orioles in a way that was completely in-step with the background of pandemic-related uncertainty it’s being held in.

John Means said it rained.

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“It was a little misty here this morning,” manager Brandon Hyde said, deadpanning how that combined with the 70-degree weather made it a little uncomfortable.

That meant the Orioles’ first workout for pitchers and catchers went much like their season will.

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The sunshine couldn’t provide the optimism that the first workout of spring training, a much-anticipated day on the baseball calendar, typically does. And the rebuilding Orioles won’t be able to warm their souls with high expectations from others this season, either. So, they have to provide it themselves.

“I think we’ve taken strides,” Hyde said as he entered his third season in charge of the club. “As an organization, we’ve got a lot more talent in the system. Watching us throw today, we’ve got some really good arms in camp.

“I think that we’ve gotten better, and I think we proved that last year, saw some young players get to the big leagues both on the mound and in the field, and that’s going to continue. Continuing to raise the talent level. But I’m really happy with how far we’ve come in two years.”

That doesn’t change the fact that the Orioles are still picked to finish last in their division almost unanimously, with the usual measures of wins and losses tossed out internally when it comes to the team’s efforts to get better through player development. Hyde even had to answer for FanGraphs’ playoff forecasts, which ran 10,000 simulations of the season and had the Orioles making the playoffs in none of them, saying he only worries about getting better on a daily basis.

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There will be many more opportunities to do that this summer than a year ago.

This 2021 season comes after a shortened 60-game campaign in which the Orioles weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until the last week of the season and often flirted with being a competitive team on a nightly basis, but still ended up with the fifth-worst record in baseball.

This season will be far more challenging. All the same protocols to protect players and staff from the spread of COVID-19 are in place, with some even stricter. That means Orioles camp will be split between their two Sarasota complexes, the team can’t meet in the clubhouse as they typically do and spaces such as the cafeteria and weight room have capacity restrictions.

Means said the protocols were making it difficult for him to get to speak to former Cy Young Award winner Félix Hernández, who is in camp on a minor league contract and represents the most successful pitcher to dress in an Orioles clubhouse in a generation.

The protocols also meant players had to “scatter” when the weather turned, and no one knew where to go or where they were allowed.

“It was weird,” Means said. “Weird times.”

Hyde said every pitcher and catcher they expected in camp was there except for Matt Harvey, another former top big league starter who recently signed a minor league deal. Harvey had his physical Wednesday and the team announced his signing in the afternoon, so he should be working out with the team once he’s through the entry protocols.

For him and the rest of the 37 pitchers in Orioles camp, the first workout starts a six-week preparation period under unprecedented circumstances in modern baseball. The shortened season in 2020 meant players and pitchers prepared like normal before going home for several months during the first wave of the pandemic. Once the season began, their workload was far less than what it is in a normal season.

Means’ 43 ⅔ innings were the most anyone who is in Orioles camp threw last season; at least 100 more innings will be asked of him in a full season this year.

Every team will be in that boat, and Hyde noted that’s possibly why teams have been trying to add pitchers to their camp rosters right up until report day. Hernández and Harvey are the Orioles who fit that bill. The team could have over a dozen pitchers who are being stretched out to pitch multiple innings or start in camp, and Hyde said it was a “reasonable concern” to wonder how clubs will keep their pitchers healthy and cover such a spike in innings.

“I think we’re in a unique situation,” Hyde said. “But, I do feel how our guys prepared last year and how they continued to throw, I feel like we are prepared for this year. But it’s definitely a concern, and definitely something we’re going to monitor closely, our pitchers’ innings, how they’re feeling on a daily basis. We have a shortened roster this year also, a 26-man roster that’s definitely a factor.”

Hyde believes it’s not just the Orioles who have no idea what it will look like, but the entire league.

“It’s going to take a lot of pitchers that are able to give you as many innings as possible,” Hyde said.

Orioles pitchers are trying to prepare as normally as possible in the face of that uncertainty. Reliever Shawn Armstrong said the meetings with new pitching coach Chris Holt and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes so far have been highly individualized and every pitcher knows what he will have to do to be ready for Opening Day on April 1 in Boston.

Means said he looks at the lack of innings in 2020 as a positive in that they didn’t wear down his arm.

“I think it’s been voiced here that they want guys to make sure they feel good in the build-up,” Means said. “I think guys really are going to start to find out if there is any wear-and-tear on the build-up, and the when August hits, guys will start to get an idea of how their arm is feeling. We’re going to be a little more cautious, but at the end of the day, we’re going to try to compete and I’m going to try and go six, seven innings every time we go out.”

SPRING TRAINING

Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:

Sunday: Position players report

Monday: First full-squad workout

Feb. 28: First exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

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