A spring training happening in deep cover down in Sarasota is a week into Grapefruit League games, and the Orioles are less than a month away from beginning what will be a uniquely challenging season.
It’s another year of pandemic baseball, and another year of rebuilding and the talent deficiencies that come with it. That much hasn’t changed. Neither has many of the players involved.
Perhaps there will be a spring training in the next few years in which there’s a palpably different feeling and the team believes it’s ready to win. Even without any direct access to the team, it doesn’t seem as if that’s this year.
But there was still plenty to watch and break down in the first week of games in Sarasota. Here are five things we learned from the Orioles’ opening week of Grapefruit League games:
1. There’s a plan in place for the pitching, but it will be a while before it’s clear who is part of it.
Over the first week-plus of games, the Orioles had nine pitchers throw multiple innings in an outing: John Means, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Matt Harvey, Félix Hernández, Jorge López, Bruce Zimmermann, Wade LeBlanc and Ashton Goudeau. Hyde said César Valdez will be stretched-out too, and it’s possible others are stretched out for the alternate training site as further depth.
It’s not as if everyone who is stretched out will make the team, but it’s also possible the Orioles stack their pitching staff with starters and bulk relief innings to the tune of seven or eight length pitchers early.
Who will make the team, however, is still unclear. Through the first week of games, Means and Zimmermann were among the standouts. One has his Opening Day assignment all but wrapped up, while the other is pushing for a spot on the team.
Still, it’s “really early” in terms of assessing the team’s pitching depth or who is ahead so far, Hyde said.
“Guys have had one appearance, so I think a couple weeks from now I’ll have a better sense of rotation, rotation candidates, how guys are throwing,” he said. “But right now we’re still so early that just giving everybody an opportunity and see where we are in a couple weeks.”
2. Nothing that’s happened yet has likely changed the Orioles’ roster plans, good or bad.
If not for the coronavirus pandemic this time last year, the Orioles might have had a player who was on the fringe entering camp play his way onto the Opening Day roster. But because it didn’t happen that way, there’s still no evidence that spring training can affect their roster decisions whatever.
And just because players who might not have had a clear starting spot are performing well in the first week of spring doesn’t mean they’re playing their way onto the team. Players such as DJ Stewart, Austi Hays and Cedric Mullins were already on the team, and the proof is the Orioles have an idea of how they’d all get on the field enough to justify their presence.
“I think I’m going to move all those guys around,” Hyde said. “I think there’s a lot of bats to be had and innings to be played defensively so I can see a combination of Cedric and Austin in the outfield together. I can see Ryan DH-ing some days. I think I’ll be moving guys around quite a bit, use Santander with a DH day also. That’s nice to have the amount of outfielders we have and guys we want to get into the lineup to be able to use the DH for one of those guys on a nightly basis.”
Stewart missing a bit of the spring with a hamstring pull could maybe complicate things, but not enough to change the Orioles’ plans as long as he can get back with a week or two left in camp. The Orioles got Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. on the roster for Opening Day last July after missing half of the training camp with COVID-19, so Stewart should be in good shape. And if he isn’t, it won’t be some hot-hitting young star who makes the team in his place. Even though…
3. Yusniel Diaz could be this year’s Ryan Mountcastle.
It’s never been a question of talent when it comes to Yusniel Diaz, the Orioles’ one-time top prospect who headlined the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers but still hasn’t progressed past Double-A Bowie in the two-plus years since that deal.
Now that he’s finally on the major league roster, his arrival with the Orioles is finally coming into focus. It won’t be out of spring training, the way Hyde spoke about him this weekend, but his talent shines every time he gets on the field this spring.
Diaz began the spring with a big home run and perhaps had a more impressive piece of hitting with a run-scoring double to the opposite field Saturday night. In his first at-bat Sunday, he added a single.
It’s already a crowded outfield picture, and one that the Orioles probably don’t have room for another talented young player in unless someone gets moved in a trade midseason. But that, or someone being released for not seizing this latest opportunity, will be how Diaz gets to Baltimore after a couple months of Triple-A experience. His arrival will be akin to how Mountcastle sparked the team last August.
“It’s really about getting at-bats and facing live pitching,” Hyde said. “Last year, he just didn’t get a full year. I’m looking forward to him getting at-bats and playing. That’s what he needs to do. He needs to play and get upper-level at-bats. But he’s got a high ceiling. High hopes for him.”
4. The prospects are still the priority, it’s just time not yet.
Before the big league game Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, the Orioles sent their minor leaguers who are around as camp reserves to Pittsburgh’s minor league facility for a five-inning game that allowed them to get more than just a small cameo.
It was a who’s-who of Orioles prospects to know, with Ryan McKenna batting leadoff, Adley Rutschman batting second as the designated hitter and other top-30 prospects in Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Adam Hall and Terrin Vavra sprinkled throughout the lineup.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
And behind home plate, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and Hyde were taking it all in. Major league field coordinator and catching instructor Tim Cossins had inning-by-inning breakdowns with catcher Brett Cumberland.
What was billed between as a battle of the rebuilds — the Pirates had a star-studded group of prospects as well — was more than just a get-your-work-in scrimmage. It was a chance for the Orioles to break the day-to-day routine of big league spring training games with a reminder of why they’re going through losing seasons: to get to a world where these prospects are ready to make this team good again.
It felt jarring seeing such impressive young players and then watch a team that featured a half-dozen Opening Day starters for the major league team play as badly as they did in the Grapefruit League game later in the day. But it’s a long way from the back fields to the big leagues, and the Orioles don’t seem to be in any rush to bridge that gap.
5. Maybe this camp won’t be all about Chris Davis after all.
Davis appeared for two at-bats in the spring opener Feb. 28 and strained his back in the second. He hasn’t been seen since, and thus what little attention can be paid to a camp of untelevised games for a rebuilding team is going elsewhere.
Who knows when Davis will be back, but when he is, it won’t be in a prominent place on the team. Hyde pretty clearly said the team will use the designated hitter spot to get other players in the lineup, and that’s only possible if Davis isn’t in it.
So, once he returns, maybe there will be some productivity from his new swing or new approach. His absence since, however, made it so that wasn’t even a thought after the first game of the spring.