Among the Orioles’ gravest on-the-field concerns when the coronavirus pandemic shut down minor league baseball was how a lost season of games would affect the rebuilding organization’s prospects. But for those who were added to Baltimore’s 40-man roster last week and also included at the club’s alternate site or instructional camp, there were some ways in which more was gained than lost in 2020.
“It was at an accelerated pace, but going to Bowie and then going to instructional camp was probably the most beneficial two months that I’ve had in baseball in a long time in terms of development,” left-hander Zac Lowther said. “When you’re there, you don’t have that desire to get better as well as compete because you get both of those and they get crossed up, and one or the other suffers.
“Having these two camps this year gave me an opportunity to work on stuff without having to worry about results.”
Lowther was one of six prospects added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster Friday, along with fellow left-hander Alexander Wells, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, infielder Rylan Bannon, and right-handers Michael Baumann and Isaac Mattson. All but Wells, who remained in his native Australia, participated at the Orioles’ alternate site in Bowie, and now each is a transaction away from his major league debut.
In a normal March, Lowther would’ve been fresh out of big league camp and bound for Triple-A, with an eye on making a late-season push to join the Orioles’ major league roster. Instead, he was back home in the Cleveland area, where the pandemic closed many of the training facilities around him.
The one that was open didn’t have a mound for him to use, so he teamed up with his high school pitching coach to build his own. He used it in an effort to keep a regular routine until he was added to the Orioles’ player pool in early September and joined the alternate site in Bowie.
“I made some big jumps this year in terms of development and just growth as a baseball player, mindset, being able to kind of withstand this coronavirus pandemic,” Lowther said. “But I think that the biggest thing going into next year is gonna be going in there ready to compete. Last year, I wasn’t on the 40-man roster, so it’s an outside shot that guys make it when they’re not on the roster already, so I know this year, I have a chance.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias noted recently that there were benefits of this season’s format for the players involved — a limited number given player pools were capped at 60 and also needed to include major league players and ready reserves. Elias specifically pointed to the case of Ryan Mountcastle, who the Orioles felt needed more defensive work in the outfield and improved plate discipline before receiving a promotion to the majors. At the alternate site, he was able to focus on grooming those skills without having to also concern himself with the competitive aspect.
“There was a lot of creative hands-on coaching that’s just hard to do when there’s games going on,” Elias said. “Everyone’s telling him to work on his swing decisions, but that’s just hard to do while you’re trying to win a Triple-A game, and it’s easier to do when you’re in a sim game, and so there’s a lot to like there.”
It seemed to be effective, with Mountcastle batting .333/.386/.492 after his late-August call-up, cutting the strikeout-to-walk ratio he had in 2019 at Triple-A in half. The newest members of the Orioles’ 40-man roster hope to make the same immediate impact.
Diaz, Baltimore’s former No. 1 prospect and prized return of the Manny Machado trade in July 2018, said he not only improved his hitting, but also his speed, which should help on both sides of the ball. After building strength during the shutdown, Bannon, a third baseman who was also part of the Machado package, saw quick returns in terms of power while also training his skillset at second base.
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Mattson, one of four minor league pitchers the Orioles acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for Dylan Bundy last December, said he tries to have “a project pitch” each year, and 2020′s was his slider. At the alternate site, he was able to rely on coaches and the organization’s technology to improve the breaking ball without worrying about the impact it might have on his ERA as the pitch develops. As a new member of the organization, he was also able to bond with the Orioles’ other pitching prospects.
“It was tough not having games this year, but one of the big things that the Orioles did was allow us the opportunity to hop on some video calls throughout quarantine,” Mattson said. “Once we finally got down to Bowie, it was really great to just spend time with those guys, even with us separated from the position players, I was still able to get to know the pitchers really well, and the coaches and the staff here are great. I definitely feel more at home than I did about a year ago, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The organization-wide hope is that the minor leagues return in 2020, allowing those prospects who missed out on the alternate site and instructional camp to take part in team-overseen activities beyond the video calls and individual plans the Orioles put together.
But for those who get the opportunity to participate, they believe progress was made.
“There was a lot of developmental work,” Baumann said. “We were able to really hone in on some things that I personally needed to make adjustments for and just mentally, physically make steps forward that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise with a season going on. There’s definitely some losses there without having a season, but I think if you have the right mindset, you can take some good out of it.”