Eduardo A. Encina reports on the first day of Orioles minicamp in Sarasota, Fla. (Eduardo A. Encina, Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles reliever Mychal Givens is no stranger to representing the United States in international competition; he did it twice as a heralded high school player. And the opportunity to participate in this year's World Baseball Classic and play on the game's biggest international stage while calling some of the nation's best players his teammates is one Givens doesn't want to miss.
"A world-shaking moment," Givens said Monday as he described what it was like to receive a text in mid-November from Team USA general manager Joe Torre inviting him onto the team.
But naturally, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has misgivings about seeing Givens break his normal spring training routine.
"It's unfamiliar territory," Showalter said. "People feel like it's great for our game and whatever. That's fine, but I stand accused — I'm looking at what's best for the Orioles, and it's a challenge for the pitchers. It is, because they're starting that competitive clock early and then they're shutting it down and then they're turning it back on again. … You know, if the player wants to do it, one, we're not allowed to give them any advice and two … they are precious commodities and assets to us and our fans, so I stand accused if I have some concerns about it, because I do.
"They're such creatures of habit. When you take them completely out of the habits they've had, it's a challenge. … These guys are creatures of routine and habit, and when you take them out of it, you create some challenges that aren't normally there. There's two finish lines now."
Givens is listed on Team USA's preliminary roster, joining a group of Orioles who have committed to play in the World Baseball classic that includes center fielder Adam Jones (U.S.), third baseman Manny Machado (Dominican Republic), second baseman Jonathan Schoop (Netherlands) and outfielder Hyun Soo Kim (South Korea).
Considering where Givens was this time last year — he had just 30 innings of major league experience — representing the United States in the WBC is something he said he still has trouble fathoming.
"This is probably one of the best teams they've created for the WBC so it would be really fun to be around all of them," Givens said. "I talked to my family, and when I got the opportunity to play for the USA and represent Team USA, I wanted to go for it because I've been playing for Team USA since I was 15 years old. The atmosphere and the culture is really exciting to be around, and having the chance to play and represent your country is one of the most fun things you can ever do in your life."
Givens was initially planning to pitch for Puerto Rico — his great-grandparents were from the island — but once he was invited to join Team USA, he jumped at the opportunity. Givens said he's looking forward to being reunited with Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. The two were Team USA teammates twice in high school.
"I saw him post that he was playing for Team USA, and I was considering it, and I called him and talked to him about it and it brought back old times," Givens said. "… Just being around every single player, it's kind of like an All-Star Game. To represent your country, it gives it real meaning."
Givens is attending this week's three-day minicamp in Sarasota — commuting from his home north of Tampa — to get some early work in and also meet with Showalter, new pitching coach Roger McDowell and new bullpen coach Alan Mills about the prospect of playing in the WBC.
Teams can't officially give players advice about whether to play, but there's always concern — particularly with pitchers — about playing in high-intensity games earlier than they normally would during spring training.
"My and our job description is doing what's best for the Baltimore Orioles, and there's nobody more patriotic than I am," Showalter said. "It means something to Manny to play for the Dominican. It means something for Jonathan to play for [the Netherlands]. It means something for Jonesy to play, and that's fine. But I think I have more concern about the pitchers, because we can stop the clock when the position players get here."
In 2013, Orioles pitchers Wei-Yin Chen (Chinese Taipei) and Miguel Gonzalez (Mexico) initially wanted to participate, but ultimately opted against playing in the WBC. The one Orioles pitcher who did participate that year, reliever Pedro Strop, was a bullpen anchor for a Dominican team that won the WBC title, but he suffered a horrible turn. After throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings in the WBC, Strop struggled at the beginning of the regular season for the Orioles, posting a 7.25 ERA in 22 1/3 innings. He lost his role as setup man before being traded to the Chicago Cubs with Jake Arrieta in early July 2013.
Givens, who was drafted as an infielder in 2009, is an important part of the Orioles bullpen. He ended his first full major league season with a 3.13 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .188 batting average over 34 1/3 innings during the second half of the season. After struggling against left-handers in the first half of the year — he held righties to a .156 average — Givens used his changeup more against lefties.
Still, this season will be just his fourth as a pitcher in the professional ranks, and he is coming off a year in which he threw 74 2/3 innings. He threw a career high 87 1/3 innings in 2015 between the Orioles and Double-A Bowie. Givens' future holds plenty of promise — he has the stuff that could eventually lead to a closer role — so he doesn't want to jeopardize his progress, but also doesn't want to take for granted an unexpected opportunity.
"Talking to Joe Torre, they're going to be really careful, and I'm seeing they have a lot of starters and they're going to piggyback a lot of starters and hopefully there won't be a lot of wear and tear on the relievers," Givens said. "So hopefully, there will be a good atmosphere in terms of getting the same type of work you get in during spring training. I know it will be a little bit more high-intensity, but it's not going to be too stressful, from what I've seen and what I've been told."