Even with the usual caveats that nothing is set in stone when it comes to long-term plans as baseball navigates another season in the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday’s release of the season schedules for the Orioles’ four minor league affiliates was a welcome sight for an organization that has all of its long-term competitive hopes riding on its player development apparatus.
After missing an entire minor league season in 2020 and having scarce opportunities to work in-person with their minor league prospects — either at the secondary training camp in Bowie or the fall instructional camp in Sarasota, Florida — the Orioles at least have a framework for what their young players’ schedules will look like this summer.
“What a breath of fresh air and a relief for those guys to have something to look forward to after being home for most of the year last year,” said Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt, who also serves as director of pitching overseeing the minor leagues. “How exciting that must be for them, to know, ‘Hey, we’re going to come in, we’re going to be competing and working and try to get where we want to go in our careers.’”
At Triple-A Norfolk, the 142-game season is set to begin April 6. Double-A Bowie, High-A Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva are scheduled to begin their 120-game schedules May 4.
In each league, to minimize travel, teams will play six-game series against their opponents with Mondays off.
It’s possible that those dates could be pushed back because of the pandemic, but as it stands, the Orioles have players in major league camp who would make up most of their Triple-A roster. That includes prospects on the 40-man roster such as pitchers Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther, plus infielder Rylan Bannon and outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna. Nonroster invitees and players signed as minor league free agents who are in Sarasota as camp reserves could also be part of that group.
Pitchers such as Kevin Smith and Kyle Bradish might get added to the group to prepare for the Triple-A season too, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last week.
The current plan would be for the Double-A and Class-A players to go to spring training in Sarasota once major league camp breaks, giving them over a month to prepare for their seasons.
For some, it will have been over a year since they hastily left Florida after the cancellation of spring training in the middle of March. In the ensuing year, Orioles minor league coaches on the hitting and pitching sides have worked with every player on individualized training and development plans.
Nothing, however, compares to real games. Now they know when those could begin.
The six-game series format could give the Orioles unique options for pitching programs. While Triple-A pitchers will likely need to stay on a five-day schedule to ensure they’re ready for the big leagues when called upon, the lower minors might be able to have six pitchers stretched out as starters to accommodate the impressive volume of young arms the Orioles have collected in the past few years.
With 20 weeks in the season, each pitcher could get to around 100 innings if he started once a week and pitched five innings. Holt was asked about the major league pitchers’ workloads and said the key would be monitoring their health in between starts and adjusting if they are overextended.
The Orioles could certainly support such a development strategy for their 2019 draft pitchers, who at this point are around 18 months removed from competitive baseball and still don’t have a foundation in the professional ranks.
Top pitching prospects such as DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez might already be at stages of their development in which a traditional five-day schedule is more useful. Others might not benefit from an adjustment either, though Holt said he believes pitchers are adaptable on matters such as scheduling and workload.
What’s important, though, is that after nearly a year of uncertainty, there are finally minor league games to plan for.
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“That’s the biggest thing, in terms of having hard dates and having some clarity on that,” Holt said. “It’s also really important, too, that we have a framework to adjust from should anything else need to change. We know with this entire scenario, things can and will change. But when we have a firm plan and there’s a season, and we know we could have fans at some point, it’s just, what a relief that we could see some sense of normalcy with the minor leagues.”
Around the horn
Right-hander Matt Harvey reported to camp and played catch Friday, manager Brandon Hyde said. Harvey finalized his minor league deal with the team on Wednesday. ... Hyde said third baseman Rio Ruiz was an early participant in workouts Friday, with position players due to report on Sunday for the first full-squad workout Monday.
Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:
Sunday: Position players report
Monday: First full-squad workout
Feb. 28: First exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh Pirates