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Orioles' Mike Wright in familiar fight for roster spot, but under new circumstances

SARASOTA, FLA. — Little has changed since Mike Wright came to Orioles camp in Sarasota last year clinging to a roster spot with consequences that would uproot his life and baseball career.

Wright was out of minor league options, so if the Orioles decided not to keep him around, he'd be off to another club on waivers, one that thought they could get more out of his talented right arm.

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So, he clung to it through spring training, and the Orioles held onto him. Wright made the club as a starter as late-signing free agent Alex Cobb prepared for the season at Ed Smith Stadium, and then clung to a bullpen role in a mercurial year that saw him end with a 5.55 ERA but pitch much better than that for long stretches.

That all means Wright is back in the same spot, with two scoreless innings in his spring debut Saturday leading to a start Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays — only it doesn't feel much like the fight to make the roster it did this time last year.

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Nate Karns, Luis Ortiz and Hunter Harvey each had their 2018 season cut short by injuries, and each valued the chance to just pitch in a competitive situation Monday.

"I feel like I'm in camp for the first time, and it's exciting trying out for the team — not only just going out there and trying to get outs and do different things, but to kind of just show off and showcase your talent is fun," Wright said. "It feels like it's been a couple of years since I got to do that, and it's exciting."

Wright is correct in that assessment. He entered camp in 2016, the year after he made his major league debut, on a mission to make the team. Both he and Tyler Wilson did, even with a full rotation entering camp that year and Yovani Gallardo signing in February, but he was riding the shuttle back and forth between Triple-A Norfolk by June. He started out 2017 at Triple-A, and then had to learn to be a full-time reliever in 2018.

That means Wright is among the longest-tenured pitchers on the Orioles' roster behind Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens, though he's still trying to find his identity. He's gone from being a four-seam fastball pitcher to a two-seamer and back, turned his slider into a harder cutter, and fluctuated its usage.

Manager Brandon Hyde said the coaching staff is trying to help every pitcher in camp accentuate what they're good at and learn to use that effectively. Wright allowed three hits, none very hard, in his first inning Saturday but was saved by an outfield assist from Joey Rickard to spare a run. He had a 1-2-3 inning when he came back out, and while he wasn't interested in sharing what exactly the new coaching staff was directing him to do, he fell back on his old adage of being an out-getter — with less events in between those outs.

"I'm trying to avoid some barrels and some contact, and obviously, if they're swinging and missing, they're not going to be on base," Wright said. "That's definitely a point of emphasis.

"The first inning was a little rough just because I gave up three hits, but honestly I was still pretty happy with my pitches and what I'm trying to work on out there, and different things. Overall, it was a good outing, but not too good that the only way I can go is downhill. So, it's just perfect."

In his assessment of Wright's first outing, Hyde focused more on the second inning, when he came out and got three quick outs after a long first. That focus on the positive is something that could help Wright unlock the potential the Orioles went to great lengths not to lose in recent years.

"It's a completely different clubhouse than it was a year ago," Wright said. "There's a lot of young guys, and a lot of energy. Obviously a clean slate with all new coaches, and the environment that we have here, it promotes fun and promotes winning. ... It finally feels like we're playing a game, and obviously, it's still a business. Obviously, we're still trying to win, because that's why we're here. But it's just a different environment, and it's really fun to come in here and pull on the same side of the rope with these guys."

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