SARASOTA, FLA. — Every February in Sarasota, young pitchers arrive at Orioles camp for spring training with the idea that a big league rotation spot is there to win — until a late-signing free-agent pitcher snatches it up and consigns them to the minors.
In 2016, it was Yovani Gallardo's arrival that shifted the rotation situation. Before him, it was Ubaldo Jiménez in 2014, and last spring, the camp signings of Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and Alex Cobb meant plans for countless young pitchers changed.
This year, with only Dylan Bundy, Cashner and Cobb returning and last week's signing of right-hander Nate Karns providing an early veteran wrinkle, the Orioles' young pitchers feel the chance to pitch their way into a major league role won't have nearly as many impediments.
"I think that there is always, especially with the free-agent market right now, the possibility to add some guys," right-hander David Hess said. "But I think there's a good group here. If they decide to add some people, I know that that's in the best interest of the team. But I think they also look at the guys we have and see that there's a lot of quality talent and opportunity for guys to step up. In terms of adding people, I'm sure it's a possibility, but I think there's a good group here that we can move forward with."
Hess, who made 19 starts and a pair of relief appearances last season and finished strong for a 4.88 ERA, is the most experienced of what will be a varied cast of rotation aspirants. Right-hander Yefry Ramírez made 12 starts to go with five relief appearances and a 5.92 ERA last year. Right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis, who will be stretched out in spring training despite uncertainty as to whether he'll start or relieve, had a 5.40 ERA in 12 appearances last year, though his ERA was 4.76 as a starter.
Left-hander Josh Rogers had three starts after he was acquired from the New York Yankees in a July trade for Zach Britton, and right-hander Luis Ortiz had two appearances (one start) after his trade from the Milwaukee Brewers. Add in right-handers Dillon Tate and Hunter Harvey, who are on the 40-man roster without any major league experience, plus left-hander John Means, whose one major league appearance in September came in relief, and nonroster right-hander Dean Kremer, and there could be a starting-rotation candidate on the mound every day once Grapefruit League action kicks off Feb. 23 against the Minnesota Twins.
“I think it’s pretty open,” manager Brandon Hyde said of the rotation. “Honestly, I think it’s open, and I talked to the guys about it this morning. It’s a great opportunity for everybody in camp. There’s a lot of jobs to be won, and I don’t think really anything is set in stone. We’ve got a big evaluation process here in the next six weeks, and we’ll go to New York with who we think is ready to make the club. But it’s going to be great competition for all these guys.”
"I think as a guy that's in that competition, I think we're just really going into it, trying to get the best out of each other, because I know in turn that's going to help the team," Hess said. "Ultimately, that's the goal."
For some, such as Hess, Yacabonis and Ramírez, there's some familiarity with the routine of a major league spring training at Ed Smith Stadium, something they got to experience last year. As young pitchers, they also had to ramp up early and be ready for substantial roles in early-spring games. But whether it's them or players in their first spring, it's a different kind of preparation for the task ahead of them.
"I've been down early every single year since I've been drafted, middle of January into late January, so the throwing program is kind of the same for me," said Rogers, the former Yankees farmhand. "This year, I just had to be more game-ready, I'd say, because I'm coming here trying to win a spot, not to just throw bullpens and play in a minor league season, but to try to make 30, 33 starts in the big leagues. That's one of my goals."
"It does feel different," Ramírez said. "I think last year, there wasn't as many opportunities as maybe this year. So hopefully, I can take advantage of that."
With a new coaching staff in place, along with a new front office that this month began giving pitchers what other teams consider rudimentary pitch data that hadn't previously been made available to the Orioles, there's going to be an adjustment period this spring. But for pitchers such as Ortiz and Rogers, who were acquired midseason, their time in the majors allowed them to get acclimated to a new organization and get to know some of the pitchers they'll be vying for a spot against.
"Everybody is friends with everybody, so it's kind of tough in that aspect, but like I said, you're fighting for a job," Rogers said. "It's just kind of all hands on deck. Whoever earns a spot, earns a spot, and that's something I'm definitely here to do."
"That's the fun part of it," Hess said. "You get to know guys, you get to build relationships with them, and you know … starting with bullpens today, you're going out and trying to beat the guy next to you, and he's trying to beat you.
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"It's a friendly competition, in a sense, because we all want to see each other do well. But at the same time, it is a competition and nobody, being the competitors we are, nobody wants to be beat by anybody. It's a fun environment and it's something that I think we're all looking forward to."