O's beat writers Jon Meoli and Eduardo Encina preview the upcoming mini-camp. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
Each winter, the Orioles’ minor league minicamp puts on display the idea that anyone who pitches himself into position to do so can contribute in an organization that tries to find any advantage it can.
This year, the minicamp, which begins Monday at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., will take place under familiar circumstances.
Much of the club's business has been left for the final month before spring training (and could well linger into it), and the three-day peek at some of the Orioles’ young, near-ready pitchers takes on a great significance.
It's always worthwhile to take a look at the pitchers who will be the next wave to reach Baltimore in the coming season, whether as fixtures or fill-ins. But with a bizarrely slow free-agent market and three empty spots in the starting rotation just over a month before pitchers and catchers report, this year's Orioles minicamp can be seen as the team taking stock of its starting pitching contingency plans.
"I think that there's more opportunity for all of the pitchers on the club this year," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "Last year, we had a more veteran pitching staff and a number of those veterans aren't returning, but that's going to create opportunity for a number of the young players that we have. The minicamp is an opportunity for our field people to take a look at the players that we have in the organization and the players that we sign for depth to come in and support the major league staff."
That's the message every year when pitchers from all levels are invited to Sarasota — with those on the 40-man roster not required to attend at all. It is, essentially, an opportunity to make an impression before your true opportunity begins. Not everyone who attends will throw off a mound, but each pitcher will meet with manager Buck Showalter, pitching coach Roger McDowell and some of the minor league coaches for a session about what each side wants to get out of 2018 as well as the rest of their careers.
While the program has in the past shed some light on relievers who were set to jump from relative obscurity into the major league equation, this year has three pretty clear sets of attendees.
More than just depth
Of the greatest importance for an Orioles club that has three open rotation spots and returns just 75 of last year's 162 starts (62 of those made by Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman) is the starting pitching depth.
Even though the veterans in the rotation struggled badly last year, those who were waiting in the wings didn't get much of a chance. Part of that was their own performance in the minors, while part of it was a lack of flexibility at the major league level.
This year, opportunities might not require that much flexibility or maneuvering at all. Just below the likes of Mike Wright, Alec Asher and Gabriel Ynoa — none of whom will be attending — are a group of pitchers who will be part of the starting depth conversation both now and in the future.
Some of them, such as Miguel Castro and Tanner Scott, combine probably the most tantalizing raw talent with the biggest question marks. Castro, 23, made his mark as a reliever last year, but the club hopes to transition him to a starter's role this season, something that will be complicated by the fact that he has no minor league options remaining. Scott, 23, worked as a starter for Double-A Bowie last season, but was limited to three-inning outings, and the club will likely employ that plan again in the minors as his future hangs in the balance.
Like Scott, several others are used to the beats of minicamp but will be there with a new standing. David Hess, 24, fresh off posting a 3.85 ERA in his second full season at Bowie, was added to the 40-man roster and will be part of the major league equation because of that.
Left-hander Chris Lee, too, is often at minicamp and returns this year with redemption on his mind after finishing with a 5.11 ERA in his debut at Triple-A Norfolk. Lee, 25, will likely begin the year on the starter's path.
But just because someone is a starter in the high minors doesn't make him familiar. Yefry Ramírez was in the organization for only a few months after a July 31 trade with the New York Yankees, and his 3.47 ERA in the Double-A Eastern League at age 23 impressed many in the organization. Still, this will be the most extended time the Orioles coaches spend around both Ramírez and Nestor Cortes, the team's top Rule 5 draft pick who had a 2.06 ERA as a swingman over three levels in the Yankees organization last season.
Given how the Orioles typically use their starting depth, the odds are that at least at first, each of these men will make their debut as a long reliever while the team churns the back end of the roster. But until a free agent or two signs on for the 2018 rotation, they become more than just depth at minicamp.
Just checking in
Had he thrown more than 31 1/3 innings over the past three seasons because of injuries that culminated in Tommy John elbow reconstruction, Hunter Harvey might’ve gone on the prior list, too.
Even though the 23-year-old showed in rehabilitation starts late last season that he's healthy and should be uninhibited in 2018, he'll be further down the depth chart as he builds back his strength. Minicamp will be a good opportunity for the Orioles to check with him on his 2018 plans and ensure his health after his first relaxed offseason in years.
They'll also just check on outfielder-turned-pitcher Dariel Álvarez, 29, who had Tommy John surgery shortly after the conversion last spring.
As for some of the major leaguers attending, including Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and Jimmy Yacabonis, the minicamp will serve as a chance to catch back up with Showalter and McDowell in advance of an important year for each. Givens, 27, could take the next step toward the All-Star future many see for him. Bleier, 30, will look to sustain the role he built last year, while Yacabonis, 25, will look for better results in the majors to match his sterling minor league record.
The only newcomer in the entire group is hard-throwing reliever Joely Rodríguez, who was signed as a minor league free agent. The 26-year-old is one of several who could make a major league impact this season, but the only who is attending minicamp.
So about last year...
The third subset of pitchers are those who pitched themselves onto the radar in the organization in one form or another last season.
Keegan Akin, a left-hander drafted in the second round in 2016, started slowly last season because of mechanical and physical problems at High-A Frederick but finished strong and impressed in the Arizona Fall League. The 22-year-old will likely be in the major league depth conversation next year, but his presence shows how highly the team thinks of him.
Left-hander Andrew Faulkner, who had a 2.79 ERA at Norfolk in 2017, might’ve had the best season of any pitcher who didn't get a chance with the Orioles last season. They risked losing him as a minor league free agent after he was designated for assignment in September, but he re-signed in late December.
Luis Gonzalez, 25, and Lucas Long, 25, were fixtures in minor league rotations before finding success in the bullpen recently for High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, respectively.
The minicamp typically produces one or two off-the-radar pitchers who end up popping up and contributing, from Givens to Ashur Tolliver to Donnie Hart in recent years. Yacabonis fit that mold in 2017. If this crew produces another one of those, he’ll come from this quartet.