CLEARWATER, FLA. — Spring training has long since evolved from a schedule of casual morning workouts and afternoons spent at the golf course waiting for the season to start, but what the Orioles did over the past six weeks was as modern a spring training as they come.
They weren't just logging at-bats, preparing pitchers and trimming the camp roster. The Orioles were building their team.
Of their projected 25-man roster, five players signed after camp began in Sarasota — starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Andrew Cashner, outfielder Colby Rasmus, and infielders Danny Valencia and Pedro Álvarez. Right-hander Alex Cobb, who signed so late he won’t be ready for Opening Day, makes six, and outfielder Craig Gentry, who signed a few days before camp commenced, would make seven.
It presented a unique evaluating and team-building challenge for manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, but when the fruits appear to be what the Orioles have built since they arrived in Sarasota, any headaches are worth it.
"Would I rather Alex Cobb not come in late in the spring?" Showalter said. "We'll make an adjustment. Cashner, Tillman — we signed all three of those. Three-fifths of our rotation wasn't here when we opened camp. We're not the only ones like that, but probably more than most. Does anybody else get three-fifths of their rotation here?"
Then he assumed a joking tone — "We're breaking ground here."
Whether that's true in an era of stunted free agency remains to be seen. What's clear is the Orioles are much different than when they arrived in camp.
The free-agent signings of Cobb, Cashner and Tillman gave them valuable major league starting pitching, made more crucial by underwhelming camps from the pitchers who vied for that fifth starter spot.
All three of the top candidates entering spring — Mike Wright Jr., Nestor Cortes Jr. and Miguel Castro — will likely make the team anyway, at least until Cobb is ready to pitch in major league games. Even out of the bullpen, they'll be counted as the team's top starting depth once their first-choice rotation is assembled.
Should Cortes make the team, he’d be one of two 2017 Rule 5 draft picks to do so after the Orioles told right-handed reliever Pedro Araujo on Friday that he'd be on the roster. Their third 2017 Rule 5 pick, right-hander José Mesa, was designated for assignment Wednesday, and the Orioles are trying to figure out a way to keep him instead of returning him to the New York Yankees.
Spring also brought some clarity on last year's holdover Rule 5 pick, outfielder Anthony Santander. A strong start to spring for the slimmed-down Santander and some improved defense made him a possible contributor, not just a player they'd have to carry for six more weeks to keep.
The Orioles were glad highly touted prospect Chance Sisco won the second catcher spot, but most of the rest of their questions were filled from outside. Rasmus signed a minor league deal but has been treated like the team's starting right fielder all spring, knocking the likes of top prospect Austin Hays out of contention for a spot. Gentry's addition as a bench outfielder knocked Joey Rickard down the depth chart and onto the Triple-A Norfolk roster.
They brought a host of middle infielders to camp to try to replace departed utility man Ryan Flaherty, but none of Éngelb Vielma, Rubén Tejada or Luis Sardiñas distinguished himself. With second baseman Jonathan Schoop, shortstop Manny Machado and third baseman Tim Beckham all able to cover multiple infield positions, Showalter is opting for a corner infield bat in Valencia as the fifth infielder. Álvarez would fill that role as well, though he's more of a designated hitter replacement as the Orioles wait for Mark Trumbo to return from a quadriceps strain.
That Gentry, Valencia and Ålvarez each have been with the organization made their additions a few weeks into camp easy.
"There's a lot of given knowledge of them and also what will be expected of them when they get here," Showalter said. "They had options, and to pick here, I [guess] they kind of like it."
The Orioles will bring some extra players to the exhibition game in Triple-A Norfolk on Monday, but for the players currently in camp, it's about polishing up for the season.
Some pitchers will stay back in Sarasota to pitch in simulated or minor league games, but the rest of the preparation will happen in Baltimore, with a mandatory day off Tuesday and a workout Wednesday before rosters have to be finalized at noon Thursday and the season begins three hours later.
It will be cold where they're going, but Showalter said the Orioles are leaving the warmth of Sarasota behind knowing that what transpired here, both on the field and off it, has been good.
"Coming in here, where we were when the season ended and where we are now, we're in good shape," he said.