SARASOTA, FLA. — Dig past the agenda being set for the Orioles’ rebuild — player development trumping all — and there’s still a game against another major league team every night through September.
The players — who will be judged most on the 2019 season that begins Thursday at the New York Yankees after an upbeat camp in Sarasota — have spent the spring trying to reconcile their piece in a large-scale rebuilding plan.
They want to win, of course. And the only ones who expect that to happen might be the players and coaches in Orioles uniforms.
"I think [expectations have] been adjusted a little bit, and I think that's probably a really good thing," veteran designated hitter Mark Trumbo said. "Teams like us, I think it's better to have more of, not a free-roll mentality but just go out there and play to the best of your ability.
"Not worried about, why are we underperforming, or we're supposed to be something on paper that we're not living up to. I think the expectations are pretty tempered so far, which is what they should be, because we have a team that's relatively inexperienced in a lot of ways. But that doesn't mean that we're not capable of playing good baseball."
That will be the expectation from manager Brandon Hyde, who said pretty much from the moment he was hired in December that he wants the Orioles to go out and play hard, competitive baseball every single night. The byproduct of that, he hopes, is winning. But there's a big difference between how the Orioles break camp Monday and how they broke a year ago, which could make things a little less stressful than when the losses piled up in 2018.
The 2018 Orioles spent the spring addressing their one true weakness — starting pitching — with the free-agent signings of Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb, setting the team up for one last run at the playoffs with so many players in the final season of their contracts.
"In ’17, we were there at the end and we just kind of didn't have enough starting pitching to take us to really compete," reliever Richard Bleier said. "Then we went out and got some starting pitching, so I was like, ‘We're actually going to be pretty good. We have everybody back, and we got a couple starters.’ And obviously, it just didn't work out that way for one reason or another."
"It was just a completely different environment, completely different circumstances," first baseman Chris Davis said. "I think that the sense of urgency last year, at times, was a little crippling. I think the fact that we knew that one or more players was on that team was probably not going to be here, I think that kind of handcuffed us at times. But there were a lot of things that we didn't do well last year that really led to us losing as many games as we did."
Those are the things Hyde hopes to address — the actual baseball — and that's where some of the veterans come in. Hyde constantly checked in with them on how they saw things running in camp — one where quality of work was emphasized over long days, and one where coaches hoped to draw the personality out of a young team that was largely silenced and humbled by losing 115 games last season.
Not playing under the crush of playoff expectations is something Trumbo, 33, said he has seen help bring out the best in young players.
"Especially on the pitching side, I think guys are going to have much better seasons, and that's just going to benefit us greatly in that regard," Trumbo said. "But a lot of young guys can really get after it. I think the formula around the league is young players really contributing. It's not, 'Are they going to be able to?' Most of them are able to, and they're able to do it pretty quickly. We've got some good ones that are probably going to open a lot of eyes."
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Whether they are with the club at the beginning of the season seems to matter little to the front office, though, as some young players who had strong springs were sent to the minors for more seasoning despite there being room for them at the major league level.
Trumbo, referring to executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ stated plan to develop players so they're ready to contribute and stick in the majors when the time comes, said, "When you know that there is a plan in place, it's a little easier to wrap your head around it."
But just because the front office is pouring its time and resources into building up a player development machine to rival some of the game's best, focusing more on stocking the farm system than improving the major league club, doesn't mean those who represent the Orioles in 2019 will pack it in.
"I think that none of that stuff applies to us," Bleier said. "I think that we as players, everybody in this clubhouse is going to try and win every single game we can. The front office has their plans, which include winning I'm sure, and that's really all we're trying to worry about. We're all trying to do as well as we can to do our jobs and get it done, win games."
Davis said the expectations inside the Orioles clubhouse are different from those of the experts who project them to be in line for another difficult year.
"It doesn't matter if we have guys that have been in the big leagues for two decades or two minutes — we expect to win,” he said. “You'd be foolish if you expect anything else. I know the term ‘rebuild’ has been thrown around. I know that's been embraced by most, but at some point you have to establish a winning environment and I see no reason why we should wait to start that.
“Are we going to have some challenges, and maybe have to overcome some things that maybe other teams don't have to deal with? Absolutely. But I would like to think that everybody in this clubhouse is committed to winning and expects to win — a lot more than we did last year."