Pick a day at the Orioles’ secondary camp site in Bowie, and there’s likely to be a pitching prospect starting the intrasquad game who has a claim to be part of the next great Orioles rotation.
There are the crown jewels (former first-round draft picks Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall), the more advanced prospects (Dean Kremer, Michael Baumann and Bruce Zimmermann) and recent trade acquisitions (Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith).
The site is ostensibly for keeping major league depth players ready to help the Orioles in the way a Triple-A team would in normal years. But for the club’s top prospects who are part of the 60-man pool, the work being done to keep their development on track has been productive in all the ways it needs to be, director of pitching Chris Holt said.
“We have some development goals and some in-game, process-type goals, and I think we’re able to address both of those things,” Holt said.
Holt, in his second season with the organization and first as director of pitching, spent the major league summer camp period with the major league team before going to the secondary site once that got started.
There’s not a big enough roster to play full intrasquad games at the site, but Holt said there’s the benefit of a developmental environment.
“The pros are that you have every bit of latitude to program in specific reps on certain things that you’re working on it. Or if you’re just working on a piece of your game, it could be delivery-related, it could be how you want to attack a certain hitter — there’s always things you can kind of developmentally chip away at in a vacuum at a site like that,” Holt said. “The cons are that you’re not in front of a crowd, there’s no entire lineup to navigate. It’s not really the game because there’s not enough players to field a team, and so you can’t really get a sense of how the game is being played. It’s basically pitcher-batter interface.”
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said the instruction at the training site is “definitely more individualized,” similarly acknowledging that while the instruction and lack of pressure can help development, the lack of real games can also be a detriment.
In addition to keeping the group of major league depth pitchers ready, the priority for the organization has been to create as regular a routine as possible for their advanced starting pitchers. They need enough work to mitigate the long-term effect of this year’s shutdown.
For different pitchers, that means different things. Like Keegan Akin, now in the Orioles’ rotation, the group of pitchers who would have otherwise gotten some final seasoning at Triple-A this year in Kremer, Baumann and Zimmermann are trying to replicate everything that level would have taught them.
“It’s more about getting more consistent with having a plan of attack and executing that plan,” Holt said.
Some of those checkpoints include being able to make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat, staying aggressive but unpredictable and challenging hitters with major league experience who have little margin for error.
Baumann, in particular, is drawing some rave reviews from some coaches at the site. So is Hall, the Orioles’ 2017 first-round pick who runs his fastball up to the high-90s with an electric four-pitch mix. Hall’s 2019 season was uneven at High-A Frederick, but he pitched well in the second half as he stopped pitching to the edges of the strike zone and started being more aggressive. That’s continued in Bowie, Holt said.
“He’s definitely filling up the zone more and the plan for him has been very simple but aggressive in simple ways,” Holt said. “So, [he’s] putting his game together in terms of how he wants to attack hitters and have an idea of how to navigate certain things and face better hitters.”
Holt said it’s a “great opportunity” for a younger pitcher to face those advanced hitters, too, as they learn tendencies quickly and try to exploit them.
“There’s a little more chess match,” Holt said. “That said, DL is a street-fight guy, he’s not a real chess-match guy. He’s able to continue to go after guys aggressively and he’s doing a nice job.”
Rodriguez would have been pitching at Frederick after dominating in his first full season at Low-A Delmarva in 2019. Instead, he’s facing teammates, but with the same goals to “attack hitters with a more defined plan and continuing to use his strengths but also be able to recognize where hitters may have a weakness or tendencies,” Holt said.
His stuff, with a mid-to-high-90s fastball, a quickly-developing changeup and a good breaking ball, is allowing him to impress no matter the challenges.
“When he’s executing pitches, the best hitters down there are having a difficult time with him and his stuff,” Holt said.
Newcomers such as Bradish, one of four pitchers acquired in December from the Los Angeles Angels, are encouraged to come in and show what works for them, Holt said. Bradish has impressed staff with his athleticism and pitch mix. The Orioles will likely ask Smith, who will report to the site after being acquired Monday from the New York Mets for reliever Miguel Castro, to similarly be himself for the time being.
There’s also progress being made by some of the relief arms. The team has touted the progress of left-hander Brain Gonzalez. Isaac Mattson, another acquisition from the Bundy trade, is getting valuable experience. And for the up-and-down crop that includes Evan Phillips and Cody Carroll, the Bowie site allows them to try and work to improve on their minor league assignments in a way that the results-based life at Norfolk might not.
In traditional circumstances, a pitcher would be motivated to post good statistics to earn a call-up rather than experiment. It’s different now, Phillips said.
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“It’s more like an elevated bullpen,” Phillips said. “You get to work on some finer things that you can’t really do in Triple-A during a normal season.”