BOSTON — Thursday’s postponement of the Orioles’ Opening Day game means the long-awaited return to action for the major league team more closely coincides with another meaningful return in the organization — the minor leaguers who are taking over the spring training facility.
All of the Orioles minor leaguers who weren’t in camp as reserves reported to Sarasota, Florida, on Wednesday to begin their month of spring training, with physicals Friday and the first day of workouts on Saturday.
Director of player development Matt Blood said excitement is high for a group of players and staff on which so much of the Orioles’ future rests, but one that hasn’t had the opportunity to collectively work toward that goal since last March.
“It’s going to be a highly competitive environment,” Blood said. “We now have a lot of depth, and we have a lot of energy and excitement pushed towards creating competition in our practice designs, and I think that’s going to lead to just really good energy and a lot of fun, to be honest.
“That’s what these players and staff are here for. They want to compete, and they want to get better, and I think that we’re going to see a lot of that, especially when you’ve had a year of not being able to do so. I think people are going to be even more ready to get after it.”
Major league camp for the Orioles ended Wednesday after a workout that preceded the team’s flight to Boston. As the major league roster departed, so too did the players who wouldn’t be on the team and weren’t traveling on the taxi squad for Bowie, where the team will operate a secondary camp.
Unlike in 2020, the secondary camp will be exclusively a Triple-A group, with the exception of 2020 top pick Heston Kjerstad, who will be returning to action from a myocarditis diagnosis. Other top prospects who were in major league camp but are ticketed for Double-A Bowie or below, like Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, will remain in Sarasota.
The Orioles will use the major league facility at Ed Smith Stadium for players competing for Bowie and High-A Aberdeen, while the players who will be trying to make Low-A Delmarva or remain in Sarasota for extended spring training will be at the minor league complex at Twin Lakes Park.
While the Orioles had a few dozen prospects cycle through last summer’s secondary site at Bowie and had 55 players at the fall instructional camp, over half of the organization’s minor leaguers were limited to remote work in 2020. Coaches regularly checked in with them and worked with them to the extent it was possible, but the entire group will be returning to a camp that won’t rush them back into action.
“We’re going to ease them back in to the practice plan, and then also just monitor their workload through the Catapult [monitoring] system that we use, and through our subjective monitoring platform as well,” Blood said. “We’re just going to have to keep a good eye on them and do our best to educate everyone on why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Plenty has changed since the Orioles’ minor leaguers last played competitive games. Trades of Dylan Bundy, Jonathan Villar, Miguel Castro, Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Tommy Milone and José Iglesias have netted 17 prospects.
There’s been another draft class, albeit a six-man one, and another international signing class. And the first group of draftees and international signees brought in under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is still waiting for its first full minor league season.
The Orioles will have only four full-season affiliates whose campaigns begin May 4, but they are adding a second Gulf Coast League team to accommodate players who might have been in the now-defunct New York-Penn League.
Games for players at each site will begin soon. The Bowie alternate site camp will play a few games each week against the Washington Nationals’ secondary site players, who will be based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Around halfway through minor league spring training in Florida, the Orioles will play other locally based minor leaguers to prepare for games.
The efforts in Florida, which will take place under similar pandemic-related health and safety protocols as the major league team used, is all with a mind of putting the Orioles’ minor leaguers and the saplings of their rebuilding farm system on display at the local affiliates so their growth can finally be displayed.
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“I don’t know if there’s anything special about it,” Blood said. “Just the fact that our staff is all fairly new and this is their opportunity to kind of go out and do what we’ve been talking about and preparing for for a while now.”