After months of dealing with only rhetoric from the new Orioles braintrust of executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, spring training provided the first glimpse of what the rebuilding philosophies of the franchise would look like in practice.
Everything from camp atmosphere to personal development to newly implemented analytics and roster management came into focus over six weeks in Sarasota, Fla., putting to the test what for three months was billed as the one true path toward the Orioles fielding a perennial contender after the bottom fell out in 2018.
What resulted was an in-the-moment introduction to concepts and conceits that varied wildly from what came before it. The entire experience forced recalibration from fans and observers alike as to how things would be for the Orioles going forward, but there was plenty to work with to help the new direction.
Here are five things we learned from Orioles spring training, which wrapped Monday in Sarasota and gives way to the regular-season opener Thursday against the New York Yankees.
1. At least for now, nothing is going to get in the way of this rebuilding plan.
Even if this spring was a six-week detour into the message that Orioles camp was full of opportunity, the team has made its way back to where they always said they were going to be: a player development organization.
This spring, however, showed just how high the bar for what kind of team the Orioles want to develop is. The club has a ready-made defense of their roster moves in that spring training stats are inherently deceptive. Still, even if you want to allow that major league pitchers found clear ways to attack Austin Hays and Chance Sisco the past two seasons and didn’t pitch to them that way in the spring, there wasn't much cheap about the gaudy Grapefruit League numbers they put up.
Those stats were the only way to assess what happened the last two months in Sarasota, and for an organization whose main commodities are its young players and promise, those were the players most people were focused on. It would have been an early sign that everything was going according to plan to break camp with players like Hays and Sisco, and it turns out that perhaps the standards are just too low.
The caliber of prospects-turned-All-Stars who Elias and Hyde are used to — from Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman to Javier Baez and Kris Bryant — is much higher than anything they inherited in Baltimore. Some of those players were blooded at the major league level the same way Hays and Sisco were: ahead of schedule on teams that wanted to make the playoffs. Now that the goalposts have moved, so have their development standards.
At a base level, it's a good thing that nothing is swaying the Orioles from that plan. It just proved much harder to grasp in the moment.
2. Speaking of, this plan is kind of an indictment on what happened the past few years.
Even if no one came out and said it — the closest anyone came was Hyde referring to someone like Hays as having been "rushed" to the big leagues — it's clear that the circumstances that led to some of the young players making their debuts have changed. And it's clear that the end results of some of those decisions aren’t viewed positively from those now in charge.
Anthony Santander is a different story because he was a Rule 5 draft pick who had to be in the majors to stay in the organization, and Sisco was added to the roster the September before he would have been Rule 5 eligible. The Orioles were on the cusp of a wild-card spot the September when they added Hays, and though he was exactly the type of player then-manager Buck Showalter was longing for at the time, he still referred to the idea of adding him to the roster before they had to as "front-office malpractice" just days before they did it.
Perhaps more to the point, however, is that even the players who the Orioles would have eventually wanted to protect from the Rule 5 draft and add to the roster — and there were several acquired in last July's trades alone — got the wrong kind of major league experience. Sure, Hays could have gone home after hitting 32 home runs over two levels in 2017 feeling good about himself and pushed for a major league spot last year. Maybe, had he been healthy, he'd have debuted in August the way Cedric Mullins did. But for pitchers who got significant run last season, such as Tanner Scott, Yefry Ramirez, Evan Phillips and Cody Carroll, it seems as if the experience they did have wasn't productive enough to influence whether they should stick around.
It's not all bad, and in reality, someone had to suit up for the Orioles those miserable last two months. John Means got added to the roster in September off his couch in Kansas City and ended up making the team out of spring training. He's the outlier, though, and it seems as if everyone else’s performance was either deemed not good enough or not significant enough to evaluate.
3. The Opening Day assignments for some players probably say a lot about those who did make the team, even if they won't complain about it.
I'd be fascinated to get inside the head of some of the players who had options who weren't sent down to the minors. Means and Jimmy Yacabonis come to mind as pitchers who might be looking around at some of their peers who are starting at Triple-A Norfolk and, yes, be very glad to be in the major leagues, but also wonder what the organization thinks about them.
Means, for example, began the spring throwing harder than he ever has and has a style of pitching he feels will mesh well with the organization’s new analytical bend. He also had a 3.48 ERA in 20 games at Norfolk, which jives with what he did elsewhere in the minors, so maybe they have enough data to know what he is. But does being on the team mean the club thinks the mold is cast?
Same goes for Yacabonis, who started for the first time in his professional career last year but seems to be a candidate for long relief this season. His is the type of arm that, if he were to stay on that starter path, would need the seasoning that's been assigned to others. He's also 27 and has 62 appearances (21 starts) in the International League, so what's there to learn about him at that level?
For those types of players, including Rio Ruiz, Hanser Alberto and Dwight Smith Jr. on the position player side, the message seems clear. If the Orioles don’t already have an idea of what they have in their younger players, they're telling this group that they have a pretty good idea of what they can be, and the time is now for them to show it.
4. They were probably going to use an opener either way, but at least Alex Cobb’s injury gives them a reason to now.
As Hyde and Elias discussed the possibility of adopting the "opener" strategy of starting relievers and then replacing them with a starter type to gain an advantage against opposing lineups, one of the main reasons seemed to be that it worked elsewhere. The Tampa Bay Rays deployed it en route to 90 wins last year, and the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland Athletics made the playoffs using it some while relying on lights-out bullpens.
Before Cobb's injury knocked him out of Opening Day and cast the rotation into doubt, it seemed as if the Orioles were going to give it a shot because other smart teams did.
If it's ultimately to give David Hess, Mike Wright and Means an easier path by having them avoid facing the opposing team's top hitters a third time, that could be good for all involved. But absent Cobb's injury, and with the Orioles clearly stretching out enough pitchers to have a five-man rotation, they seemed to be just bucking tradition for the sake of it. Now, it's a legitimate way to get through the first week of the season before Cobb is ready to come off the injured list.
5. There are probably a lot of guys on waivers who are hoping the Orioles claim them right now.
The two teams with the top waiver claim in each league — the Orioles and San Francisco Giants — have used the waiver wire pretty liberally this spring to take looks at players. Considering the Orioles will break camp with three players who didn't spend all of spring with them — Alberto, Smith and catcher Pedro Severino — any player on waivers will want the Orioles to claim them so they can get a chance to prove themselves.
Especially on the pitching side, there's some flexibility because so many players have minor league options. That's an area the Orioles could use some experience in, and Elias and Hyde have been pretty open about the fact that the Orioles would be targeting talent that falls off other rosters. Whether it's a minor league free agent who doesn't make a club, another versatile infielder who can handle shortstop, or even another catcher, the Orioles showed they aren't afraid to give players who they didn't spend much time with in spring training a chance to play when the games count.
So if the numbers tell the Orioles front office to claim a couple more players, considering how scarce major league chances can be, I'm not sure anyone would complain about coming to Baltimore at this point.