Checking back to where the Orioles' Mychal Givens has been at each of the past few winter minicamps is a useful way to track where the rising star reliever has been at various stages in his baseball career, and this January is no different.
In 2015, when Givens was still learning to pitch after his conversion from shortstop, then-pitching coach Dave Wallace and then-bullpen coach Dom Chiti tweaked his delivery to keep the upper half of his body in line, and he shot to the majors that June. In 2016, Givens was looking to build on that success and declared he wanted to be a multi-inning asset — and he ended up pitching over an inning in one-third of his outings.
And last year, he was gearing up for the World Baseball Classic, an honor befitting a reliever whose career is on the ascent.
This January, even as his role is set to grow again in the absence of the injured Zach Britton — and with Britton and Brad Brach a year away from free agency — Givens' stature is growing off the field, too. His soon-to-be-formed charity (pending paperwork), the Givens Back Foundation, started what he hopes is a productive relationship with the South Tampa community he grew up in with a Wiffle ball tournament last weekend.
"It was great," he said. "I'm grateful to the South Tampa community. There were a lot of people who helped me through the grinds of when I was a kid and when I got to be a professional baseball player. There were a lot of people who helped me and who I grew up with, but now it's fun. Doing that Wiffle ball tournament was trying to show everybody, ‘Look how we just had a weekend playing Wiffle ball and bringing everybody together, having a good time and playing the game we love playing backyard baseball with the kids?' Hopefully it sent a good message and we'll make a little change."
Givens, who has enlisted some friends and family members to bolster the organization's efforts, has a clear goal in mind. As a top prospect who won the Jackie Robinson Award as the nation's top high school player in 2008, Givens grew familiar with the elite travel baseball circuit as an amateur. But he enjoyed playing in local leagues, which he called park ball, much more.
"Travel ball to me, no offense to less talented kids, but park ball was where I developed. It doesn't matter if I was a really great player or not," he said. "I went with my neighborhood friends to the neighborhood park and played there, and weekends were for travel ball with the pretty elite teams and stuff like that. Right now, I'm just trying to bring the nature of kids trying to play together in Tampa, bringing the whole Tampa community back together and bring the nature of having fun playing baseball, playing backyard baseball with your friends."
Last weekend, he said, was a great start. Well over 100 kids in two age groups played in the tournament, with Givens and his childhood friend Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs, providing the star power at the event.
Once the foundation is solidified and grows, Givens will have a childhood friend coach a travel ball team composed of some of the inner-city children the foundation serves, in hopes that they get the high-level experience he did without eliminating the possibility of forming bonds and relationships in their community on the diamond the way Givens did.
The tournament he hosted ran straight into this year's minicamp, in which Givens is something of an elder statesman. That he lives in the Tampa area still means he's a quick drive from Sarasota, and his experience meant pitching coach Roger McDowell selected him to lead fielding drills Tuesday.
With Britton out with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Givens could be asked to do much more by McDowell and manager Buck Showalter. Last year in Britton's absences, the Orioles leaned heavily on Givens. This week, Showalter didn't rule out the possibility of Givens closing. Should Britton and Brach leave in free agency in a year, Givens would be the closer-in-waiting.
"We have people capable of doing it, obviously not at the level Zach's done it, but between Darren [O'Day] and Brad, and even Mychal, when you're talking about even on a given night with the matchups there with [Richard] Bleier, in a perfect world you'd be able to spread it around,” Showalter said. “But I'm not there yet. A lot of it has got to do with the fifth, sixth, seventh pitchers on our staff in the bullpen, what we've got there. Have we got the ability? Because we're going to try to keep everybody healthy. But we have more than one person capable of the job."
Givens has long cited the veterans in the Orioles bullpen as role models, but he added one last spring at the WBC in former Orioles reliever Andrew Miller. He's taken Miller's versatility and relaxed attitude about his role to heart, especially this year.
"Last year, I got to be around a guy who's willing to be put in any situation, any role, and it doesn't matter in Andrew Miller [for Team USA]," Givens said. "Being around him and talking to him and picking his brain, and being around Darren and Brad, just go out there and do it. Go out there and do whatever the opportunity gives you. It doesn't matter if it's late inning, middle. You're going to be a big part of the bullpen. That sticks in my brain, my process, to just go out and compete. That's what we do as a bullpen, compete and have fun and pass the baton to the next guy behind you."