Austin Hays grinned ahead of his first Opening Day assignment Friday when recalling how far they’d all come.
Back at the end of 2017, before he made his surprise major league debut, he played in the outfield at Double-A Bowie along with his good friend Cedric Mullins, former top pick DJ Stewart and rehabilitating Rule 5 draft pick Anthony Santander.
Now, each was on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster, with a mixed bag of major league experience behind them but a wide-open opportunity to solidify themselves as part of the team’s future.
That’s kind of what you dream of in the minor leagues — working your way up and playing together.
In a season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic that also canceled the minor league season and forced the Orioles to choose just a handful of prospects to add to their 60-man player pool to develop, their presence is a reminder that just because there’s no games at Delmarva or Frederick doesn’t mean there’s no development happening for the Orioles.
A group of talented young position players who might not have solidified themselves as major leaguers quite yet — from those four outfielders to one-time top prospect Chance Sisco and a host of young pitchers — is showing off the player development beliefs and strategies of the new Orioles’ front office at the major league level.
Before anyone cared about whether No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad would be added to the player pool, they cared about Hays and Mullins. Now, they can watch them grow again.
“We’re three games into the season, so we’ve still got a ways to go,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Fifty-seven more to go. I think that a lot of these guys are going to improve on last year and the experience they got.”
The first year under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was defined by players who came in off waivers or in trades who took advantage of everyday opportunities and thrived. A full year of experience, though, means that those regulars, such as Hanser Alberto, Pedro Severino and Rio Ruiz, can take the next step this year.
With two home runs in two starts so far, Ruiz, still just 26, has done that.
“Someone like Rio, a lot of major league at-bats — more than he’s ever had,” Hyde said. “He’s really improved defensively, too, with his confidence there. A lot of confidence defensively. His swing is a lot more aggressive and freed-up this year. I hope he continues to put good swings on the ball. He has some power.”
Some of the shortfalls of how the Orioles developed players under the previous regime mean that the players who were in the organization before last year weren’t fully equipped to live up to their prospect hype and stick in the majors as quickly as they got there.
Sisco and Hays both were the organization’s top prospect at one point, and each debuted in September 2017. Yet here they are in 2020, after some developmental resets and setbacks, primed to show that they can stay for good. Mullins and Stewart each debuted in late 2018 and have had some major league success, but changed things at the request of the new coaching staff to be more consistent.
Elias highlighted Sisco and Mullins as two players the Orioles wanted to get outside instruction to adjust their swing mechanics and enhance their natural skills, and “that work looks good right now.”
Santander was a project when he was taken in the 2016 Rule 5 draft, but hit 20 home runs in a half-season last year and is the type of player that can stick around through the rebuild. He, like relief pitchers Miguel Castro and Paul Fry, spent time on that 2017 Bowie team and has developed plenty since then. This year alone, Fry has added a couple ticks on his fastball and Castro has a new, simpler delivery that keeps him around the plate.
Add another former well-regarded prospect like Tanner Scott, who looked far more in control Sunday against the Red Sox than he has at times in his career, and the bullpen could be deeper and more consistent.
Hyde hopes that it is, and aside from modern technology and data-driven instruction, development-minded coaches and another opportunity, he sees one key ingredient in the quest to make these Orioles better on an individual level in 2020: experience.
“I hope that last year’s experience, positive and negative, because there were some positive experiences too, I hope they learn from those and continue to improve.”
The leanest part of the most difficult schedule in baseball continues as the Orioles go face the Miami Marlins for two games in Florida before the two teams run it back for two more in Baltimore. Then the Tampa Bay Rays come to town.
The circumstances off the field might dictate how hard the trip will be, even if, like the Orioles, the Marlins are surprise division leaders through three games. Miami, and Florida in general, is a hotspot for COVID-19, and the Marlins on Sunday reportedly lost four key players to positive tests and delayed their trip home from Philadelphia.
Hyde said the Orioles lived off room service in Boston and were doing well with the new guidelines for life on the road, but they’d continue to reinforce how important it is to follow the team and league’s protocols to protect against the virus.
“We’re going to have another discussion about going into Miami here, just because of what’s going on down there,” Hyde said. “We have players from there, and we have a lot of guys from Florida, so we’ll talk about it again. But I expect our guys to handle [it], do the right things, and follow protocol.”
What was good?
Anyone who said José Iglesias would be batting third for the Orioles and have seven hits in 13 at-bats with three doubles and two RBIs this early in the season would have been properly judged as crazy, even if they’ve been proven right.
Iglesias, the veteran defensive wizard who only last year grew into a productive hitter for the Cincinnati Reds, was signed as a veteran replacement at shortstop for Jonathan Villar. It turns out he’s more just a like-for-like counterpart for Alberto, another contact-oriented Orioles infielder for whom good things tend to happen when he puts the ball in play.
For as impressive as Villar’s full-season stats were, he wasn’t nearly as steady and reliable as Iglesias has been and will be. And in a volatile 60-game season, that kind of stability will be vital to keeping the Orioles afloat.
Any injury is bad, and the Orioles have had plenty this month. But having John Means, who missed his Opening Day start, and Hunter Harvey on the injured list with tired arms is such a drag.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
A healthy Means could have made this weekend in Boston start off a lot differently than Friday night’s 13-2 loss. And there certainly would have been a place for Harvey in protecting leads Saturday and Sunday. He might have even gotten his first career save instead of Cole Sulser on Sunday.
Instead, Harvey has yet another time on the injured list added to a career that’s mostly been spent there. He’s only 25, and still has every bit of electricity in his arm that he did when the Orioles drafted him at age 18. It’s just that every injury, major or minor, makes it that much harder to believe it will be harnessed as a consistent part of the back end of a bullpen. He and the Orioles deserve better than that.
On the farm
Elias gave a somewhat curious answer when asked if prospect Ryan Mountcastle would be up in the big leagues soon: “I hope so,” he said.
Elias, of course, is the man who will make that decision. Mountcastle can be called up later this week and the Orioles will secure an extra season of club control before he reaches free agency, but the reasons being given for him not being on the team so far are developmental.
He said Mountcastle is at the secondary camp in Bowie working on his defense in left field, which Elias believes has come along well, and his plate discipline. Farm director Matt Blood said last week that the best way to work on defense was during batting practice. The plate discipline aspect is one Mountcastle is getting constant feedback on as well.
“A big right-handed power hitter like he is, a potential middle-of-the-order bat, his walk rates in the minor leagues have not reflected what you want to see and are cause for caution as far as major league success right now,” Elias said.
“Because he’s a natural hitter, he sees pitches and wants to hit them, and he can hit a lot of different pitches. That’s very common in young guys who are just gifted with natural hit ability as he is. But I think he would benefit a lot in some concentrated work in being selective and taking pitches he can drive. He’s been applying himself toward that in Bowie and we’ve got some tools in place to help him get feedback on his swing decisions, and I know he’s waiting for his opportunity up here.”