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‘A sliding scale': How the Orioles will balance preparing prospects and fielding a major league team

Without divulging when or where the Orioles’ secondary camp for players not in contention for the Opening Day roster would begin nor who exactly would be there, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias shared plenty of details Monday on how a location that could be vital to the team’s future might be run this summer.

The team announced Sunday the 44 players who would populate their initial camp at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for workouts beginning Friday, and Elias said that those players are the ones who are going to be battling for the 30 Opening Day roster spots come late July.

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At some point in the coming days and weeks, the Orioles will open a second camp site where a group of players who are on the major league radar will prepare for the coming season separately. Elias also said that some lower-level prospects who might be more highly touted could soon join them, and those three subsets would make up the maximum of 60 players they can have in their player pool at a given time.

“I think everyone’s approaching this a little bit differently,” Elias said. “The way that we have analyzed the rules are that it’s easier to add people than take them off of that 60, especially certain types of people.

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“A young prospect, a young minor leaguer who you bring in more for player development purposes cannot be removed from that list unless you release them, and certainly we don’t want to get in a situation where we would consider something like that, or if their presence might otherwise cause us to release or waive someone that we didn’t want to otherwise. So, we’re being very cautious about fleshing out that list. We don’t need to do it right now. Obviously, we’re going to get 60 and use our full 60. But we want to wait.”

At first, that secondary camp list could include well-regarded prospects on the 40-man roster such as infielder Ryan Mountcastle and pitchers Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, all of whom were candidates to join the club at some point in 2020 but won’t start the year with the team. Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann (Ellicott City) and outfielder Yusniel Diaz aren’t on the 40-man roster, but likely fall into that group as well.

Same goes for some with major league experience, such as catcher Taylor Davis and outfielder Mason Williams, who are on minor league contracts but are expected to remain in the fold as depth.

It will be a balance to fill the rest of the roster out, Elias said.

“I do expect we will have players here from the low minors that realistically otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to participate in the high minor league or major league level this year and that it will be primarily for player development purposes,” Elias said. “Logic would dictate there would be some of our top prospects, but we’ve also got a lot of prospects that perhaps aren’t publicly ranked as highly but they’re more proximal to the major leagues and we need to get them ready for eventual or possible major league debuts this year.

“So, it’s going to be kind of a sliding scale between who you are and how close you are to the big leagues, but also filling out depth for the major league team this year. There’s a lot of considerations. That just makes it big case-by-case, person-by-person decisions. It’s been an extensive conversation.”

Top prospect Adley Rutschman likely stands in his own category of someone who could fit into all of those categories. Top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall are the low-minors types who might get tapped to join the camp first.

But the group of those under-the-radar prospects who aren’t high on prospect lists but are growing close to the majors is an interesting one. Catcher Brett Cumberland and infielder Willy Yahn were in early camp for minor leaguers and might fit into that category. Infielders Mason McCoy and Rylan Bannon were in major league camp and could be kept at the ready as well. In the outfield, Robert Neustrom and Zach Jarrett might have been playing every day at Double-A Bowie and could be more favorable additions to the player pool than some younger outfielders, though Elias said that 2020 draft picks such as No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad could be added to the camp roster later this summer as well.

All of these minor league machinations come as it’s nearly certain, although not official, that there won’t be an official minor league season. For a team that’s more focused on development than winning now like the Orioles, that means the camp will serve two purposes. The main purpose will be to hold simulated games and keep the major league depth ready at a moment’s notice, with hitters taking live at-bats and pitchers throwing full innings to best recreate a game environment in a closed space.

The other purpose will be to allow some development for those who aren’t ready for that point in their careers yet.

Coronavirus spikes in places such as Florida and Arizona, where supplemental camps or leagues could be held for minor leaguers at spring training sites later this year, make those difficult to plan for.

“We all want to get something for those kids and minor league baseball, so we’re going to stay hopeful but at this point we’re operating for a lot of uncertainty on that front,” Elias said. “It will motivate us to try to get some guys up here in the 60 just to make sure that they get an experience this year and get some activity.

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“If [plans for minor leaguers to get game action] start to crystallize and look likely, it would reduce some of that pressure later in the season. I just don’t think we’re going to have that info too soon, so we’ve got to kind of assume that this is our best shot to get these guys some action.”

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