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Orioles reset: New front office means no fall instructional league as player development focus changes routines

When the Orioles summoned outfielder Austin Hays back to the majors this weekend, he got the call while he was back home in Florida helping his fiancee’s family move furniture around the house after the threat of Hurricane Dorian had dissipated.

He wasn’t at the team’s training facility in Sarasota, Florida, preparing for his pending trip to the Arizona Fall League, but there wouldn’t have been much there for him to do anyway. It’s going to be a much quieter fall for the Orioles in Florida this year.

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The Orioles aren’t holding a typical fall instructional league this month in Sarasota, in which young minor league prospects would continue their work through the beginning of October under the supervision of coaches and staff.

Instead, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said the extra offseason program for their farmhands is much more likely to come in January.

“A lot of teams in the major leagues the last couple of years have been experimenting with a January instructional league, and while we haven’t officially made that decision or announced it, I think we are planning on doing something in January as opposed to the fall,” Elias told The Baltimore Sun.

“The reason for that is in the fall, sometimes guys are tired. The pitchers have run out of innings, and there are some benefits to getting people in early before spring training and working with them then, before the season. I’ve never been a part of a January program before, but I’m thinking that it’s something we’re going to try.”

It’s not going to be something unique to the Orioles, as the St. Louis Cardinals and more recently the Chicago Cubs have adapted their offseason programs away from the September instructional league setup to provide something that served more as a runway into the spring training.

In the meantime, members of the Orioles’ player development staff will get to spend their time (after the minor league season ends with Double-A Bowie’s Eastern League playoff run) working with the approximately 60 players scheduled to take part in the traditional instructional league program at the team’s facility in the Dominican Republic. That program begins Sept. 16 and runs for five weeks.

Traditionally, the Orioles’ instructional league roster was filled out by their recent draft picks and young prospects from the lower levels who needed more work. They’d work out in the morning and play games against other teams’ instructional league rosters, with the home games at Ed Smith Stadium free to the public.

There would be a brief break for players to go home a bit before the program ran for about a month. Last year, the Orioles had their traditional roster that included top high school picks Grayson Rodriguez and Drew Rom, plus some rehabilitating players. They also had strength-and-conditioning camps for Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, and DL Hall and Zac Lowther, who all had full minor league seasons already.

Yusniel Diaz, Jomar Reyes, and Cole Billingsley all took part in a hitting camp, but didn’t play in games.

Instead, the only action for Orioles prospects will be in the Arizona Fall League, where Rylan Bannon, Mason McCoy, Alex Wells, Dean Kremer, Cody Carroll, David Lebron and eventually Hays will get an extra month of game action against fellow well-regarded prospects.

By the time the Orioles bring everyone back to Sarasota in January, Elias said, it might be a completely different program that they’re part of.

“I do think we’re going to have a busy fall, and we’ll be hiring a lot of people in the fall,” Elias said. “There will be a lot of new staff in, whether it’s front office or player development, or the performance arena. It’ll be nice to have, hopefully, more of them in place by January. But that wasn’t part of the reason that we decided to do this January thing. It’s just something that’s growing in popularity, and we wanted to give it a try.”

What’s to come?

A three-game series at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers is quite a tasty proposition for Orioles fans looking to get a glimpse at what a great team looks like in a completely objective sense. The New York Yankees, by virtue of being who they are, are deservedly resented, while there’s too much invested in the roots of the Houston Astros’ success and whether the new Orioles front office can mirror that to not look at it with envy.

The Dodgers are just plain great, and that will be fun, though the real fun will come in a four-game, wraparound series with the Detroit Tigers beginning Friday. The Orioles’ five-game losing streak, plus the visit from the Dodgers, means Detroit’s lead for the 2020 first overall pick won’t be too significant by the time the Orioles get there. There’s a world in which they’re neck-and-neck, considering Detroit plays the Chicago White Sox.

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Even if Elias said picking first isn’t a priority this year, it will be in play, depending on how the series in Detroit goes.

What was good?

Friday’s loss that eliminated the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds from the playoffs meant that every low-minors affiliate in the Orioles system was eliminated from the playoffs, putting an end to the 2019 draft picks’ years.

The Orioles didn’t go too heavy on investing in pitching in the June draft, and the 16 pitchers they signed were all of the college variety pitching in the low minors, but they wrapped their first professional season with staggering numbers.

In 379⅔ innings, the Orioles’ draftees finished with a collective 1.85 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and 10.15 strikeouts per nine innings. Fourteen of the 16 pitchers struck out over a batter per inning, and six had WHIPs below one.

What wasn’t?

The perception of this Orioles team is pretty much baked-in at this late stage of the season, but its inability to deliver any kind of on-field value at home continued to show with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers this week.

The Orioles are 22-50 at home, and with 10 games left, they’re at least in play for the most home losses in a season, which was 59 by the 1938 St. Louis Browns. Last year’s 28-53 home record was the worst home year since the team moved to Baltimore. This year’s Tigers are a lot worse at home as well, but the Orioles are on pace to be one of the worst home teams in baseball history.

On the farm

A season-ending loss in the playoffs isn’t usually the type of game that leaves observers raving about a starting pitching performance, but that’s what right-hander Gray Fenter gave for Low-A Delmarva on Friday in a 1-0, 10-inning loss.

Fenter, a bonus baby from the 2015 draft class, had Tommy John elbow reconstruction in early 2016, and struggled for two seasons until things took off during his age-23 season back at Delmarva this year.

In the regular season, Fenter had a 1.81 ERA with 123 strikeouts and a 1.10 WHIP in 94⅓ innings, and he struck out a career-high 13 in 6⅓ innings of four-hit, scoreless ball in the playoff loss. His fastball sat 93-95 mph and he had the big curveball he was known for when he was drafted, but Fenter had 19 swinging strikes on 84 pitches Friday. Many of those came on a slider that manager Kyle Moore said he really began to harness only this year.

Moore said Fenter pitching like that in a big game was just a capper to what had been a great season. Adley Rutschman, the Orioles’ top prospect and Friday’s catcher, said Fenter’s competitiveness and mentality outrate even his stellar stuff.

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All that makes for another arm who has taken a step forward this year in the Orioles system.

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