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As new era begins, Orioles aim to provide fans with a team they can watch grow

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Despite how different things might be behind the scenes as the Orioles begin a new era under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, the team on the field at Camden Yards might seem similar to the one that lost 115 games in 2018.

Many of the on-field principals of last year’s six-month slog of losing are back in familiar roles this season, supplemented by players plucked from the fringes of other rosters who will get a chance to stick in the major leagues while the Orioles' own young talent continues to develop in the minors.

That's why the furthest anyone will go toward setting expectations is saying they'll try to win, not that they actually will do so with regularity. But the philosophy of doing the little things, defending well and running the bases aggressively will be welcome to those who grew tired of a generation of powerful but plodding Orioles teams.

That all comes second to the long-term plan, which is why when asked Tuesday for his elevator pitch to fans ahead of Opening Day, Elias said there's a well-worn plan in place to build a sustainable contender before getting to the here and now.

"We’re going about it the way you need to go about it," Elias said. "In the meantime, there’s going to be young talent on the field. They're going to be hustling, playing hard. There are going to be ‘tools,’ as we say in the scouting world, big talent out there that we can watch. … You come appreciate the sport and see some good baseball and watch this team grow.”

Said Hyde: "I think a fair expectation is we're going to compete every single night and try to win the game. I loved our energy level [in spring training]. I loved how aggressive we were. I thought we ran the bases fantastic. I think we're becoming a much-improved defensive club. That's the kind of club that I envision going forward, a team that catches the ball, plays with energy, that runs down the line, puts pressure on defense and grinds out at-bats. If we can do that, we can be in good shape."

In a sense, that might be the easiest way for the Orioles to satisfy what could become a restless fan base should they start losing as often as they did last season.

This year’s team will have defensive upgrades at several spots on the diamond.

Especially with Mark Trumbo out at least two months on the 60-day injured list as he takes a step back in his recovery from serious offseason knee surgery, the Orioles can move Trey Mancini into a first base-designated hitter rotation with Chris Davis and Renato Núñez. That frees up an outfield spot so the possibility of a rangier, more athletic outfield exists with Cedric Mullins, Joey Rickard, Drew Jackson and, to an extent, Dwight Smith Jr.

Rule 5 shortstop Richie Martin has a long way to go to get to the defensive prowess of someone like J.J. Hardy. But the left side of the Orioles' infield was never the same after Hardy's contract expired, with elite third baseman Manny Machado switched to shortstop for a half-season and Tim Beckham challenged at third base and shortstop once Machado was traded.

Playing Martin next to Rio Ruiz or Hanser Alberto will give Hyde the defensive prowess he wants, as will the unlikely catching duo of Jesús Sucre and Pedro Severino.

Both represent significant upgrades in arm strength over any of the four catchers the Orioles had last year. That should make things easier on what could be a young pitching staff, even though the Orioles were a respectable eighth in the league by throwing out 32.1 percent of would-be base stealers last year, having two of the 12 hardest throwers from behind the plate according to MLB's Statcast data via Baseball Savant.

On the hitting side, Hyde has said multiple times in the offseason and spring training that hitting coach Don Long makes things difficult on opposing teams. Hitters have learned his message: It's not one player's responsibility to do all the damage, but instead it takes the entire lineup. And they spent spring training putting the ball in play and taking extra bases to overcome the fact that they might not be as imposing as recent Orioles teams.

None of that will go far toward the Orioles trying to overtake the juggernaut Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees atop the American League East, nor deal with the superior young talent of the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.

But as the Orioles try to find ways to compete with that off the field, they'll try to put together a team to suit the city's baseball interests on it.

"We are in a position where we need to reset the level of talent in the organization," Elias said. "We want to get a farm system up. We want to get a major league pipeline flowing. We want to get an international pipeline flowing. All of that, so we're working on all that furiously all at once and that's just where we're at right now."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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