Orioles: First Week of Spring Training
Baseball is back. And while it might be an overreach to trot out the old cliché “Hope Springs Eternal” when it comes to the Baltimore Orioles, the return of America’s pastime is always a reason to get excited.
After all, the weather will be warm (about 40 degrees warmer than in Baltimore!), the grass will be green and the sound of bat hitting ball and ball hitting glove will be a beautiful thing to behold, a sign that winter — with apologies to George R.R. Martin — is leaving.
With that in mind, and with full knowledge that the Orioles are highly unlikely to be anywhere close to resembling a contender in 2019, let’s examine a few things to look for as the Orioles crank things up in the first week of official workouts, which begin Monday.
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Signs of innovation
We’ve already seen some signals of a fresh approach from new general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. For example, high-speed cameras and data-capturing gear have been spotted behind pitching mounds at camp. They’re used to measure things like release and spin rate and are something Elias brought over from Houston. The Orioles are late to the game, but it seems everything is on the table as they begin their rebuild.
“There were some technologies back (when I first made the majors) that people didn’t take too well,” Dylan Bundy told the Baltimore Sun. “But you can see the success all around the game with it, so I think that’s why everybody’s changing their mind and really trying to open up to all that info.”
The Orioles will be open to a lot of new ideas under the new regime. Once reluctant followers, they’ll now more eagerly embrace change, if not become leaders themselves.
It will be interesting to see if there are other things in store.
Three young guys to watch
Hunter Harvey: I know, I know. It’s best not to get too excited about Harvey, the former first-round draft pick that everyone expected to be a star by now. That light faded long ago, thanks mainly to a series of injuries that have limited the right-hander to only 63.2 innings combined over the last four seasons. Harvey, who is still amazingly only 24, just wants to get through a full season. That’s a worthy goal, though it undoubtedly comes with a firm innings limit. I doubt we’ll see a ton of Harvey this spring, so enjoy any glimpse you can get.
Ryan Mountcastle: The 21-year-old infielder is a non-roster invitee to camp who wants to break camp with the team but is extremely likely to begin the season in the minors (the O’s will want to gain additional the year of control). Mountcastle took a step forward last season, adjusting to AA-level pitching with an .806 OPS in 102 games at Bowie. He’s a bit of a defensive question mark, though. After being drafted as a shortstop, Mountcastle was moved to third base fulltime last season, but he made 16 errors in 181 chances. The corner outfield might be in his future.
Yusniel Diaz: Diaz is the crown jewel the Orioles acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade. The 22-year-old outfielder ranked as the No. 37 overall prospect by Baseball America, and No. 64 by MLB.com. After the trade, Diaz struggled at Bowie, hitting just .239, though he did have a .732 OPS. Nevertheless, he has shown budding power and an ability to adjust, not to mention good signs that he will be a pure hitter with a fine eye (41 walks/39 strikeouts at Double-A Tulsa last season). Diaz also figures to begin the season in the minors, but he can put pressure on Hyde with a nice spring.
Three veterans to watch
Alcides Escobar: The Orioles felt they needed infield help, so they went out and nabbed the defense-first Escobar on a low-risk deal. This is a nice pick-up, and the former All-Star immediately becomes a possibility to be the O’s starting shortstop even though he signed a minor-league deal. Maybe he’s nothing more than Spring Training depth, and a mentor for Martin; but who knows? Escobar’s glove isn’t as strong as it once was (the advanced metrics have been down in recent years), but his experience should not be totally discounted. The O’s will have a host of younger pitchers this season, and if Escobar plays well enough this Spring, it will be interesting to see if he forces his way onto the roster.
Trey Mancini: Much has been made of the fact the Orioles gave Mancini Adam Jones’ old locker in Sarasota this spring. Does that mean the 26-year-old is the new de facto captain? Will he be expected to hold court with the media after every game? To take all the young players under his wing? This might seem like a lot to put on Mancini’s shoulders as he enters his third full season, especially after his production dropped in 2018. But I think this is a bit overblown. What is more significant is that the Orioles’ didn’t put a true veteran like Mark Trumbo or Chris Davis in that spot. That, to me, speaks volumes.
Chris Davis: Speaking of Davis, he’s apparently ready to put one of the worst seasons in MLB history behind him, which is good.
He also said this: “A lot of the analytics, a lot of the sabermetrics, all the numbers that I was so reluctant to read into or even give any credit to over the years, have really proven to show me a lot of – I don’t know if you want to say holes – a lot of things in my swing that … they just weren’t productive over the years.”
So Davis is ready to, perhaps not embrace, but at least look at analytics to improve himself. A .539 OPS can do that. The prospect of playing his way into a mid-season trade is probably too much to hope for, but since the Orioles still owe him $92 million, any effort to improve on Davis’ part would be welcome.
Everyone is in great shape
It’s cliché and so don’t put a whole lot of stock in it when you see it reports about this player or that player being in the best shape of his life. I suppose it’s better, however, than having reports about guys being in the worst shape of their lives. Fact is there are going to be a lot of young people looking to make this team and if they haven’t been working all offseason to prep for this, then there’s something wrong.
Potential trouble spots
Catcher Jesus Sucre (visa issues) and pitcher Gregory Infante (illness) are both stuck in Venezuela with no known timetable for their return. Given the political turmoil in that country (two separate governments claiming legitimacy, a massive shortage of food and goods, general chaos), this is concerning for reasons well beyond baseball. Let’s hope they’re safe.
It should be noted that two other Venezuelans, Carlos Perez and Anthony Santander, did not have issues, so Sucre’s delay could just be a simple matter of him having signed late.
This is an issue worth keeping an eye on this week.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!