"I feel like i f I had to go out there tomorrow and pitch I could," said Baltimore Orioles LHP John Means when asked about being prepared to pitch.
Three days of baseball workouts don’t count for much in a sport in which there’s meant to be a game every day from March through October, but a few days back at Camden Yards for the Orioles mean plenty now as the team does its part in baseball’s attempted return from the coronavirus shutdown that began four months ago.
The first few days of their summer camp have been uneventful in all the ways a regular day at baseball spring training is in Florida, with the only new aspects what it takes to get into the ballpark in terms of health screening and a whole new world for the players in the bowels of the stadium.
Baseball being back, though, has raised all the usual questions about the team’s short- and long-term plans, position battles, and everything else that was cut off when spring training was in March. Here are five things we learned on the first weekend of baseball’s return.
Just because the season is short and the Orioles are going to try to win doesn’t mean they will
In the heyday of the Orioles blowing away their season projections from outlets like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, it wasn’t uncommon for them to win 20 more games than they were expected to, which happened in both 2012 and 2014.
Those swings, as outlined in our preview section story, were predicated on the Orioles’ superb bullpen, timely hitting, and health to help them overcome what was seen as a mediocre starting rotation and a lineup that had power and swing-and-miss in equal measure.
Does that sound like the 2020 Orioles? And even if it did, such a massive over-performance in a 162-game season translates to roughly 7.5 wins in the 60-game format. The Orioles, who are projected to go 21-39 by FanGraphs, wouldn’t even be over .500 if they over-performed at the same rate as those impressive 2012 and 2014 playoff teams.
That doesn’t mean anyone associated with the team should say anything other than what they were saying. In the past week, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said the Orioles’ goal “is to be an unpredictable young team that’s scary to play in these circumstances.”
Manager Brandon Hyde noted the Orioles will be “in first place in late July,” and “that’s really exciting for all of us.” He’s also said he will manage to try to win every game, which is what he did in 2019 even as the parts he was maneuvering weren’t always equipped to do that.
Even John Means, the presumed Opening Day starter, said the Orioles’ youth might allow them to create energy in fanless games in a way other teams might need a crowd to replicate.
All of that might well pan out. It would still be a difficult recipe for a playoff run, even as players continue to drop out from contending teams on a daily basis.
This team feels different without Trey Mancini
For the three days of open workouts beginning Friday, much of what the media has been able to see has been select pitchers throwing live batting practice to almost a full complement of hitters. The only two position players who haven’t been spotted so far are outfielders Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Santander.
But even just as they’re broken up into groups and just taking turns hitting off teammates, it’s not too hard to tell that they’re missing something without their best hitter, Trey Mancini. Mancini’s absence due to his ongoing treatment for stage 3 colon cancer is going to be something the Orioles struggle to overcome all season.
He is unquestionably their most productive hitter, and is a star that’s unparalleled in their own clubhouse. He also seemed to be the center of the social orbit to the extent there can be one during baseball workouts. Mancini always seemed to draw a crowd around the batting cage or during drills. Now, those same players are going through those routines without him. It’s hard not to notice.
The pitchers aren’t starting from scratch
Means threw four simulated innings to hitters Saturday and got up to 65 pitches in doing so, then reported Sunday that he felt strong. Before baseball reconvened, he said he was up to five innings and 75 pitches, although they scaled it back a little to account for the inactivity period caused by traveling to Baltimore and the COVID-19 testing period.
On Sunday, Kohl Stewart faced hitters for three simulated innings. Tommy Milone got multiple innings in Friday. So, despite it just being the beginning of the team’s time together, it’s worth noting that pitchers seem like they’re plenty built up in terms of arm strength and maintained well during the shutdown.
Hyde said Saturday that any number of rotation possibilities are in play for the Orioles once games start July 24, but all that depended on how strong the starting candidates were and what’s best for them physically.
The Orioles won’t have any shortage of rotation candidates with Means, Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Milone, Stewart and Asher Wojciechowski all bringing strong cases to be part of the rotation. The Orioles are stretching out Thomas Eshelman and Ty Blach as depth as well.
And once game action starts this week, they’ll be able to start distinguishing themselves.
Simulated games might actually be fun
Even when the circumstances didn’t call for it, there was no denying that the 2019 Orioles were a loose bunch. They didn’t slack off at all, but they also went about their work in a way that made it worthwhile for a team that often lost the night before to enjoy the next day.
There’s going to be a lot of benefit to that approach come Wednesday when the daytime workouts give way to intrasquad games under the lights at Oriole Park.
Players will swing for the fences as it is, but there will be consequences: Pedro Severino or Hanser Alberto laughing loudly when they swing-and-miss. An infield full of defenders that have some real flair, highlighted by new shortstop José Iglesias, will delight in taking hits away from teammates.
It will be impossible to actually glean a lot about how the Orioles will match up against other teams from the two-plus weeks of such games. It will also be quite a privilege to be able to watch them.
It’s hard to know how this experiment is going to go without knowing who’s healthy and who’s not
All across baseball, the news of positive tests for the COVID-19 virus that’s caused such seismic changes to everyday life both at the ballpark and away from it are shading much of how the return to play is being judged and evaluated.
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When it comes to the Orioles, that opportunity doesn’t exist. Hyde has been the front-facing avatar for an internal decision not to publicize positive tests if there are any, leaving observers to speculate as to the reason players not participating in the public portion of workouts aren’t around and giving an incomplete picture of the environment the players are in.
MLB announced that 31 players had tested positive through Friday, and it’s unclear whether the wave of positive tests from each camp that’s been announced since is part of that or in addition to it.
Elias is set to address the team’s policy this week. In the interim, the assumption is the players at least know the situation within their own clubhouse and are able to make decisions on the safety of themselves and their families if there are positive tests.
Every player who has spoken so far hasn’t wavered in his desire to be part of the season, and each would have presumably spoken after news of a positive test upon intake reached the team.
Orioles staff has done well to ensure safe and smooth entry and in-stadium protocols for everyone at the ballpark. This restart has been without issue in Baltimore. Knowing the status of the players on the team won’t change that.