SARASOTA, FLA. — Mike Wright has spent his share of time on the shuttle between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. He’s been given an Opening Day starting rotation spot and called up to pitch in relief. He’s shown he can be great at times, but also wildly inconsistent.
But this spring, the Orioles right-hander is out of minor league options, meaning that the Orioles have to keep him on the 25-man roster or send him through waivers before being able to outright him back to the minors.
Because of that, there’s no more time for experimentation. The Orioles have to figure out how Wright fits into their plans.
“I’ve found that for guys who are out of options, it kind of works in their favor sometimes,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “… I saw it with Zach Britton. … Sometimes it works as a real positive. I’ve seen them sometimes real relaxed with it, like, ‘OK I’m probably going to be in the big leagues this year with somebody. I’m finally going to get to know what I’ve been wondering about.’ ”
The Orioles tabbed Wright to start the Orioles’ Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon at Ed Smith Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rays. Two springs ago, Wright also started the spring opener, and he earned a starting rotation spot that season.
Wright said he’s ready to roll. He started his offseason routine earlier this year, and he extended his regular visit to work out with vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson in California.
“You always want to start in games, and I’ve been working all offseason to come in here and start, and I felt like I came in very much prepared to start games,” Wright said, “so it’s nice that they see that and see that my preparation has led me to be in this first game.”
As he goes into his first spring training start, Wright knows he must perform. The additions of starting pitchers Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman leave just one open rotation spot, and the frontrunner is probably Miguel Castro. The bullpen has only four set spots — Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier — so it would be easy to slot Wright into relief.
“I can’t go out there and work on feel,” Wright said. “I don’t have a guaranteed spot even though I’m out of options. We have added pitchers, so I have to go out there and prove that I’m ready to fill in that spot that’s available.”
But he’s determined to be a starter. And he believes pitching out of the bullpen can make him a better starting pitcher.
In the bullpen, Wright found he was more aggressive attacking hitters. He used his slider a lot more in relief — 11 percent more often than the previous season — and increased his velocity.
“It definitely has its perks,” Wright said. “It’s definitely exciting. You come in and you blow it out for two innings. Your pitches are more electric, you’re velo’s up, but it also shows you what your pitches could be in a start if whenever you reach back and need it. So both roles are exciting, but I hope to be in the rotation.
“There were certain pitches, like my slider, that I would throw and think, ‘Man, I used to never get swings on that and I’m getting swings on that now.’ It was the way I was attacking and the aggressiveness I was throwing pitches with that I’m definitely going to use going forward, even in starts.”
Ultimately, it is about results. Last season, Wright was optioned to Triple-A to open the season, where he was used as a starter and reliever. He was called up twice, working as a middle reliever, until landing on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
After receiving a cortisone injection, he was on the DL for six weeks, then optioned back to Triple-A once he was healthy. He returned twice, including a long look down the stretch in September. Three of his final four outings of the year were scoreless over a seven relief-inning stretch. Overall, he provided the Orioles length when he was healthy, but he also finished with a 5.76 ERA in his first season as a full-time reliever at the major league level.
But after doing both roles, Wright wants to get back into the rotation, and he will have to earn it. The rotation picture is suddenly cloudy, and he more likely fits as a relief piece to open the season.
“It lets me know that I worked hard to become a starter in ’16, and last year I was in the bullpen and I got hurt, so it definitely tells me that I would rather be in the rotation,” Wright said, “so I’m doing everything in my power, working hard as I can work, to make that a reality.”