A Week Into Spring Training Games, Here’s What Matters
As the calendar flips into March, you can’t help but feel good. Baseball is back, there is chatter on the infield, and we’re less than a month away from games that actually count.
It’s the time for optimism, even for followers of the Baltimore Orioles. No, they’re not going to be good in 2019, but with a completely new group in charge, it’s a good time to look for some things to be positive about as we creep toward the regular season.
And by looking for some things that matter in this respect, we should first look for some things that don’t matter – a process of elimination sort of thing.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
First and foremost, the No. 1 thing that does not matter is the Orioles’ record. It doesn’t matter today, it won’t matter a week from now and it won’t matter at the end of the month. Even the argument that the Orioles are trying to create a winning culture doesn’t hold water – not now. A winning culture is a long-term thing and you can start that process without actually, you know, winning these spring training practice games. So don’t pay any attention to the Orioles’ record, and if you find yourself slipping, realize that they were 17-12 in Florida a year ago.
The other thing that doesn’t matter is any one player’s individual stats. Yusniel Diaz is hitting over .400. Chance Sisco has an OPS well north of 2.000. Mike Wright has seven scoreless innings and went three scoreless against the World Series champs from Boston on Saturday. Those are all nice to see, but that’s about it. There are too many players trying to accomplish different things this early in spring to draw much from it.
Now with all this in mind, let’s look at some early developments that do matter, and that should merit some optimism moving forward.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
New Orioles general manager Mike Elias sat down for a one-on-one with Rich Dubroff. There is a lot of good stuff in there, so I suggest you go read it here. One of the themes in the interview is communication. Not that he says the word 1,000 times or anything, but he continually references the topic in difference ways. If I were asked to sum up the culture Elias is trying to build from top to bottom in the organization, that’s the word I would use: Communication.
Example No. 1: Elias said that he and manager Brandon Hyde have met personally with each of the 60-plus players in camp. He admits that part of it is that he simply does not know his players very well and he needs to evaluate them. He’s new to them and they’re new to him, so he wanted to make it a point to meet each of them. He did this even while acknowledging that very few of these players will play a role in the Orioles’ long-term plans.
Example No. 2: Elias said he has spoken quite a bit with players because he wants to know them personally, but also to be completely honest with them. This is a business and he will be trying to make the franchise better – many players won’t be around for it. But he wants an atmosphere of mutual respect and an understanding that everybody is in it together. He also wants players to feel comfortable coming to him with concerns.
It’s about “being honest with them and developing affection for them and rooting for them,” he said. “That’s the way we want it to be. I want them to feel comfortable talking to us and raising questions to us going forward.”
Example No. 3: Elias said that even though his might have a different personality than Hyde, they have similar experiences coming from rebuilding situations with the Astros and Cubs, respectively. But the most important thing, he said, was that they, well, it’s that word again: “We’re really on the same page in a lot of ways, and I find him extremely easy to communicate with, and he views the game the same way that I do.”
It’s pretty clear Elias wants a culture where all levels within the organization can feel free to talk to each other. He’s off to a great start.
Leadership roles coming into focus
Manny Machado is long gone. So are Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Zack Britton and Kevin Gausman. We know that Hyde will take the leadership reins from Buck Showalter, but who among the players will lead the kids as the O’s move forward?
These things often develop organically – and maybe that’s the best way – but in the early going it appears to be, according to a story in the Baltimore Sun, a young trio of Trey Mancini, Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens that has established itself. This is interesting because these players are young themselves. Bundy and Givens have just three-plus years of Major League experience, Mancini just two.
But it also makes sense if you consider this to be a multi-year project and you want clubhouse leaders who are going to be around for the transition, a big assumption in itself. That’s probably why guys like Andrew Cashner, Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis are being left alone in this regard. Just let them play out the string and move on.
Mancini, Bundy and Givens all mention past Orioles like Jones, Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach as showing them the ropes and preparing them for this moment. This stuff doesn’t mean everything to a team’s success, but it does matter to some extent, especially when you’re trying to build a new culture moving forward.
New attitudes, new methods
As I mentioned at the top of the story, it doesn’t matter a whole lot that Mike Wright has been lights out so far this spring, or that Chance Sisco hits a homer every time he steps to the plate. Results just don’t mean a whole lot this early and with this small a sample size. But what can matter is how players are going about their business.
In the case of Wright, for instance, it’s good to see that he has had good control, and that he has been attacking hitters as opposed to nibbling at the strike zone. In the case of Sisco, there are truly great signs that we’re going to see a different player in 2019.
I’m not just talking about the extra muscle he’s carrying, but that he has been praised for being less tentative in the clubhouse and with the pitchers. Sisco is reserved by nature, and last season that personality, combined with the fact he was feeling his way through a Major League clubhouse, led to a rough season. A slump at the plate became a slump everywhere, a slump he could not recover from.
But this season there is a bounce in his step and a feeling that he might come out of his shell a bit now that he is more established.
“He’s loose,” Austin Wynns told the Sun. “I want to say everyone’s confident in here. He’s confident, and confidence is a big key. He’s himself. He’s not walking on eggshells.”
We’ll see if the new attitude carries through into games that count. We’ll see if it survives the first hitting slump and if that first slump resists the urge to infect Sisco’s already suspect defense. But the early signs are good and not just because Sisco has hit a bunch of homers so far.
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!