Orioles general manger Mike Elias meets with the media on reporting day for pitchers and catchers in Sarasota, Florida.
On a shaded courtyard beside the Orioles clubhouse at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota on Tuesday, as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training ahead of the first workout Wednesday, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias didn’t let the hope of a sun-splashed afternoon and green grass and all things baseball influence his 2020 Orioles outlook.
“We’re worried about the development of the individual players,” Elias said. “We know where we’re at this year. We’re realistic about our chances in the American League East this year. I think everyone is.”
Where there is hope, though, is in the young, up-and-coming players that fans have spent the past two years of 115- and 108-loss seasons watching and waiting for. And Elias provided all those young players a dose of optimism as well.
Though last year’s edition of the Orioles’ camp of opportunity was more geared toward players who had completed their minor league development here or elsewhere instead of those exciting homegrown players, Elias said this year that the door wasn’t closed to a rookie bringing some buzz to the Opening Day roster.
“I think we have players here that have never played in the big leagues that will have a chance to break camp, for sure,” Elias said. “Especially the guys that are on the 40-man roster, they have an inside edge with that. We’re going to keep an eye on those guys, and the competition absolutely extends to the rookies.”
Last year, it was outfielders Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and DJ Stewart, plus catcher Chance Sisco, who came into camp with limited major league experience but major league expectations for themselves despite incomplete minor league development paths. For them, there was no playing their way into a job; the Orioles slow-played them and all were tasked with completing certain aspects of their development at Triple-A Norfolk before they got the chance to return to the big leagues.
It paid off. Santander’s midseason emergence and Hays’ electric September solidified them as roster favorites for 2020 and put them in position to be among the team’s foundational pieces in the early stages of the rebuild.
Still, seeing how things played out last year for them in spring training could have been confusing for the next wave of players. Ryan Mountcastle, the slugging first baseman who was the Most Valuable Player of the Triple-A International League last year, and left-hander Keegan Akin, who spent the entire season there, seemed resigned to go back there to start the year for one reason or another.
Behind them, right-hander Dean Kremer (who, like Akin and Mountcastle, is on the 40-man roster) had a late-season cameo at Triple-A Norfolk after spending most of the year at Double-A Bowie. Same goes for nonroster left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, though many of the rest of the prospects in camp, like lefties Zac Lowther and Alex Wells, and well-regarded outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna, haven’t seen any Triple-A time yet.
This year’s Orioles camp roster features 18 players without a big league game on his resume. Their chances of making the team obviously vary by their station on the organizational value rankings, and the two Rule 5 draft picks — right-handers Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker — are probably separate cases because of the roster restrictions that require them to be on the active roster or returned to their former club.
If either of those two make the team, they’d qualify as rookies who will be making their major league debut. It might take a prodigious offensive display and injuries elsewhere in a crowded first base field for Mountcastle to make the team, and likewise might be too steep a climb on the depth chart for Akin to be one of the five starters who breaks camp.
In past remarks, Elias has strongly indicated that there was still development required in either case that would warrant spending Opening Day with Norfolk. Him leaving the door open to such players making the team Tuesday doesn’t change that. However the evaluations are made, Elias made clear that there will be more to it than what observers can see.
“Whether somebody goes 3-for-10 or 4-for-10 in camp doesn’t register with us too much,” Elias said. “It’s more about how a kid goes about his work, how he conducts himself, his approach with his teammates and his coaches that seems to make lasting impressions in my experience. It’s always good to see guys do nicely but I wouldn’t put too much into the performance of somebody who’s coming up from the low or mid minors.”
None of this is to say that the Orioles’ goals are changing. Elias was clear on their expectations on a day when Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections forecasted the Orioles at a mere 99 losses, and nothing the Orioles have done in his 15 months in charge has been about anything other than developing talent that can help in the future while still nurturing it at the major league level.
“We are mindful of making sure a player gets enough development time and meeting his development goals, whether that’s in Triple-A or even if we’re talking about a guy down in A-ball, but also we don’t want guys to stagnate and spend too much time down in one level and get sloppy or get discouraged,” Elias said. “All those things come into play, but right now, we’re in a mode of making decisions for our prospects that are oriented towards their development goals first rather than the goals of the Orioles roster.”
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Even if a Mountcastle at-bat on March 26 at Camden Yards against New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole would be an exciting proposition to those who are sticking with the Orioles through this years-long project, that won’t happen because of a good statistical camp. And the way the Orioles viewed it last year, it will be meaningful to the team, the fans and the front office no matter when that first call-up happens.
“I just think it’s another year of a lot of opportunity in camp,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think there’s a lot of jobs to be won. Just talking with the players the last couple of days, they’re very realistic and understanding that there’s great opportunity here — still. They’re going to get a long look. Whether we start a guy in Triple-A or not, that’s going to be a case by case basis.”