A recent insider’s guide to following Orioles spring training as an outsider
Ever wonder what to think about everything you read from down in spring training? Wonder no more.
This is going to be fine, right?
When I think that thought, it’s with around 75 percent conviction, which is pretty good for this stage of my professional transition. Tomorrow will be the actual first day that there will be in-person, real-life Orioles baseball to cover down in Sarasota. I will be in a Baltimore office building, still trying to figure out the lower limits of business casual and wondering how early is too early to eat lunch.
That’s an active choice I made, and one I’m happy with, but there’s going to be a little jealousy of my pal Nathan Ruiz at the Baltimore Sun and everyone else who is fortunate enough to be covering it in person. I wish them all well, but at least until the season starts, I’m on the outside.
And as last year taught us, it’s hard to be on the outside when it comes to spring training. I saw the first week of spring training games in person, and then a handful of broadcasts, but there was an incomplete picture of what was happening down there just based off Zoom interviews and daily manager sessions.
This year will be different, and I hope everyone can tell how valuable that on-the-ground coverage is once it starts flowing. But there will still be a lot to parse from what’s reported and what’s said, and last year was as good a practice as any for what the next four weeks of condensed spring training can hold. So, because I’m now one of you –which is to say, I won’t be in Florida – it seemed best to share a recent insider’s guide to following Orioles spring training as an outsider.
If you’re a player, you don’t want to be a guy they’re getting a look at
The entire Orioles’ 40-man roster (which will be full after the reported signing of catcher Robinson Chirinos) and all 22 non-roster invitees want to make the team, but they’re all basically in three categories. There are the ones who are going to make the team no matter what (John Means, Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini, etc), the ones who have no chance (names withheld to protect the innocent), and guys who are somewhere in between.
Mileage may vary on how large their chances are, but I distinctly remember hearing last spring about how the Orioles were taking a good look at Jahmai Jones or Yusniel Diaz, and it seemed clear what that meant. They weren’t going to be with the team when camp broke.
I suppose Jones could have a better shot this year, but I think it will be valuable to monitor who’s spoken about that way in the backup infield competition in general. I’m not sure the same can be said in a settled outfield situation, and I don’t really know how it would apply to what should be an open rotation competition (more on that later).
But there are going to be prospects who perform in spring training games, and guys in general who aren’t really in the team’s immediate plans, who Brandon Hyde will say they’re getting a look at. It’s a good stock answer, but its meaning doesn’t lend itself to an immediate major league job.
If Hyde uses that type of language when he’s talking about Adley Rutschman, this theory will be put to the ultimate test.
Don’t buy buzzwords like competition, versatility, and aggression
There are certain things that one says just to say, and because saying the opposite would come off badly. So, when there’s a lot of competition in camp, or when the Orioles value a player’s versatility, or when they’re trying to prepare for an aggressive brand of baseball, just move along to the next paragraph.
The competition part is self-explanatory. At least presently, there isn’t the type of versatility defensively coupled with the ability to make an impact offensively on their camp roster that’s even worth having a discussion about, and besides, a real backup at any position is only a minor league call-up away, so having someone who can back up a position but can’t hit on the roster every day does no one any good.
On the third, this is more Orioles-specific. They have players who will be aggressive on the basepaths, and Hyde will want them to run the bases intelligently, but the 2022 Orioles as a whole aren’t going to be athletic enough to be this hyper-aggressive team it might sound like they’ll be listening to spring training interviews. Individuals will be, but not the team — and the indicator of that will be the individuals not being able to use their full suite of skills because the team isn’t competitive enough to create relevant game situations for that.
When it comes to pitching competitions, focus on the back fields–or when it comes to relievers, nothing
The main rub with not being there last year was not seeing what the starting pitchers were doing, and there was a lot of interest in them. Matt Harvey and Felix Hernández were in camp on minor league deals, and all of Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and Bruce Zimmermann were vying for roles in a rotation that was headed by John Means.
For the rookies, Zimmermann clearly performed the best, and Akin clearly wasn’t ready, so that was an easy call when the Orioles made it – and one that could easily be forecast from afar.
It was a really tough spot with someone like Harvey, who didn’t get the veteran treatment of never having to pitch in games, but certainly got it in how he and his manager talked about his outings. In March, veteran pitchers have the following mitigating factors built into their performances: they were trying to get their work in, they were trying to work on something, they didn’t want to give too much away to a team they’d face in the season, or it was windy.
Without being able to see what it actually look like, or speak with evaluators who do, it’s hard to know what’s happening there. It’s better to just focus on who is pitching when, especially once things get lined up for Opening Day. Is there a veteran, non-roster invitee pitching a backfield simulated game on the same day a rookie starting rotation candidate is pitching a Grapefruit League game? Pencil the older guy into the rotation in that spot.
When it comes to relievers, it’s anyone’s guess. And when that’s the case, it’s probably easiest to default to the pecking order coming into camp. Injuries, trades, waiver claims, and new signings will happen. But assume there’s a list of who will be in the Orioles’ Opening Day bullpen written on a board somewhere, and that absent any of those things happening, that will be the bullpen. Spring performance probably won’t be a huge factor.
Working on things in spring training doesn’t mean they’ll happen in the season…
Anthony Santander came off his Most Valuable Oriole campaign in 2020 with a laudable goal in 2021: to raise his on-base percentage and make himself a more complete threat. He proceeded to walk 10 times in 39 spring plate appearances, each more breathlessly noted than the last. Once the season began, he walked 23 times in 438 plate appearances, with a lower walk rate than 2020.
There are times when things happen in spring training that really carry over – think Mark Trumbo’s prolific spring before the 2016 season. But more often than not, the correlation between what happens in the spring and what happens when it matters is pretty weak.
…Except if you’re a pitcher
Sometimes, of course, there are new pitches that someone worked on through the winter and spring that can be real weapons. I’m thinking about when Dylan Bundy started throwing his cutter again ahead of the 2017 season, or to a different extent Means with his changeup ahead of the 2019 season.
In the case of the former, it was pretty apparent what he was doing and why. He needed that pitch that he’d intentionally shelved coming back from injury in 2016, and wasn’t shy about it. With Means, it was different because no one really knew what to look for – or more aptly no one was paying attention to him.
He pitched in a night game at the Yankees that I didn’t go to that spring, and when I chatted with him about it the next morning while he was in between bumper pool shots, he mentioned that he was throwing harder than he ever had but the devastating changeup that a few weeks later would carve up those same Yankees and make him an All-Star never came up. I don’t blame him.
Remember there are Opening Day starters that aren’t there yet
One of the deeply frustrating things about spring training is how quickly whatever has been happening for weeks, if not months, can change. Dwight Smith Jr. is acquired in a trade a month into camp, and he’s the Opening Day left fielder. Pedro Severino comes in on waivers a day before camp breaks, and all of a sudden, he’s the starting catcher.
This year could see a lot more of that. I couldn’t help but think when reading a notes item from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal this weekend that rosters won’t even be close to settled as spring rolls along.
To summarize, he reported that the middle-class of free agents was getting low-balled as teams were doing calculus over whether it would be worth signing those free agents or keeping their arbitration-eligible players, who could be released for a portion of their season’s salary before Opening Day.
If that’s the case, the Orioles could scoop up some of those released players or, alternatively, end up with a better pick of free agents to fill needs that arise because teams opt to stick with their known in-house options. However it shakes out, it’s fair to assume some of that shaking will impact who ends up on the Orioles once games matter next month.
Earlier, this story mistakenly confused Robinson Chirinos with Martin Maldonado. The error has been corrected.
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