As the Orioles preached opportunity this spring, it turned out the recipients of those major league chances were unexpected.
The Opening Day roster wasn't littered with the team's top prospects, many of whom were sent to the minors for further development despite good springs, but instead players who ostensibly finished their minor league development elsewhere.
Considering the Orioles' modest major league expectations as they enact an organization-wide plan to build a talent pipeline geared toward long-term contention, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias sees an opportunity to give a chance to players who have nothing left to do but see if they can stick in the big leagues.
"There’s a difference between the Triple-A level and the major league level and there are a lot of players that for whatever reason put up consistently really great stats at Triple-A and then just can’t seem to convert it to major league success," Elias said. "And really, the only way to really know that is to give them some ample major league opportunity. I think we’re in a situation here where a lot of those guys are going to get that in the early going.
"The rope is not going to be limitless, and we’re going to cycle somebody else in after time if the player can’t stick or just are not able to make the necessary improvements. But all that’s a part of our process and there are definitely some guys here that I think will have some breakout years.”
The Orioles' Opening Day roster is littered with such players. Beginning with Rio Ruiz, who the Orioles claimed off waivers from the Atlanta Braves during the winter meetings in December, Elias and his front office have targeted players with significant Triple-A time who haven't broken through for sustained major league success.
They claimed infielders Jack Reinheimer and Hanser Alberto off waivers in January, with the latter making the club. And in March, Elias dealt international bonus slots to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. He hit second and played left field on Opening Day.
Including holdover Renato Núñez, whom Ruiz competed with for the starting third base job this spring, the group of Ruiz (24 years old), Núñez (24) and Reinheimer (26) represent three of the five youngest players to accumulate over 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A since the start of 2016.
It's an inauspicious group to be part of. Ruiz's minor league track record has earned him some major league looks, and he has hit .192 in 73 big league games. Alberto is a career .287 minor league hitter with a .197 average in 90 major league games. The only player fitting this bill with any kind of success in the major leagues is Smith, who was designated for assignment by the Blue Jays despite having hit .295 in 47 games over two seasons.
When Elias called Smith to tell him of the trade, though, the 26-year-old outfielder got a welcome message for anyone in his spot.
"They said they're going to throw me in the mix, and just go from there," Smith said. "That's all I needed."
Smith, a former first-round draft pick of the Blue Jays who had a steady climb through their system, said players in his position persevere with the idea that a chance like the one with the Orioles is on the horizon.
"You've always got to think positive," Smith said. "You've got to continue to have faith, knowing your time is going to come. And when it does come, you've got to be ready for it. I just prepared myself whenever I got the opportunity to do my thing, play my game like I always have and not look back."
Ruiz, who was part of the first draft of the Houston Astros regime that included Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal in 2012, said plenty can go into the opportunity arriving when it does. He was part of a Braves organization that shot teenage talent to the major leagues in recent years, so it's not as if they didn't value youth. But for a player like him, he said, "you've kind of got to be in the right setting and the right spot."
For him, that meant reuniting with Elias and coming to an organization where there's an opportunity for players who haven't yet broken through to do so in the majors. He said there's plenty that someone in his position can learn from having been there and failed before.
"I think you kind of just know what got you there and stick with that," Ruiz said. "You make your adjustments wherever they need to be made, and kind of go from there. A lot of guys get caught up in the bright lights and the extra deck or extra decks, and they forget what actually got them there. I've first-hand been through that, had my struggles in the big leagues and new year, new opportunity. Clean slate. Ready to get going."
Manager Brandon Hyde said it was "really cool" to tell this group of players they were on the Opening Day roster, but once sentiment washed away with Friday's off-day, now comes to the time to show the opportunity wasn't wasted.
"Now, it's go play," Hyde said. "At that point, it's how do you stack up compared to big league players? There's a lot of good players in the big leagues, and a lot of really good teams. So now, it's putting yourself in position to play at this level. Now, how do you stack up as a big league player? How are you going to be able to deal with the adversities that come with it, and the positives? Everything that comes along with being in the big leagues, they'll find out. And we'll find out. "