- February 27, 2020
Can you smell it?
The dirt? The grass? The leather gloves? The pieces of cork spherically wrapped in yarn and cowhide?
It is, officially, spring training. At Ed Smith Stadium, the Baltimore Orioles are gearing up for another season, except they don’t look like the Orioles of old, or even the Orioles of 12 months ago. Gone are off-field mainstays such as former executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and former manager Buck Showalter. So, too, are former cornerstone players Manny Machado and Adam Jones, among others. These are the players fans came to the ballpark to see.
There is a reason those people are gone. The club finished 47-115 in 2018, the worst record in the franchise’s 118-year history. So why should you care about catching a few spring training games this year? Casual fans, especially, don’t want to spend money at the ballpark if the team isn’t going to be a winner.
I think there are reasons to support the club, and they begin with the team’s new EVP/general manager, Mike Elias, who joined the Orioles from the Houston Astros after a lengthy search. Elias, 36, is considered an analytics guru, and he brought former Astros co-worker Sig Mejdal aboard to run that aspect of the club in Baltimore. Together, Elias and Mejdal helped the Astros compile arguably the best farm system in baseball after bottoming out in 2013, much like the Orioles did in 2018. Houston used those players and Elias and Mejdal’s analysis to win the 2017 World Series. Elias has said new skipper Brandon Hyde, hired in December, will be an extension of the front office’s thinking in this regard.
Now, I’m not going to predict the O’s to win the 2022 World Series, but for the first time in a few seasons the club has a clear direction, one that the club’s leaders have proven elsewhere can have success. That should provide fans with optimism, even as Elias publicly preaches patience. At a news conference Feb. 12, Elias said fans should take advantage of the opportunity to see the young club now.
“If you like baseball, this is going to be an interesting process and a rewarding process,” Elias said. “You will get to see players grow and follow them through the minor leagues. I can tell you from first-hand experience, it is rewarding, and it is going to be special. As we grow as an organization and as fans come to spring training or our minor league affiliates, you have access to these guys that is not as easy to get as their careers mature and the organization becomes more settled.
“Here in particular, I mean… This is my first time at Ed Smith Stadium at all, and it is a spectacular facility. I am coming from a brand-new facility with Houston in Palm Beach, and this is every bit as nice. This is a great place to come see some of the new players, new faces.”
Those new faces include names fan should get used to hearing now. Outfielder Yusniel Diaz was acquired from Los Angeles for Machado, and instantly became the O’s top prospect. Diaz, 22, might require more time in the minors, at least for a few months, after the spring, so this could be your only chance to see him up-close. The same goes for third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, perhaps the best pure hitter in the system — He had a slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .297/.341/.464 in 2018, with 13 home runs in 102 games.
You like pitchers? Baltimore has some interesting young ones in its pipeline, like Dean Kremer and Zach Pop, also acquired in the Machado trade. Kremer, a starter, had a 2.88 ERA overall last season, and led all minor leaguers with 178 strikeouts. Pop, a reliever, throws sidearm and had a 1.53 ERA in 2018. He could be a late-inning pitcher down the road.
Then there are the returnees, like starting pitcher and former top prospect Dylan Bundy. He has not been the savior fans once thought he might be, but he is talented, and the hope is Elias and Co. can see something in his pitching motion they can tweak for better results. Outfielder Cedric Mullins is a bust of energy and fun to watch, and should finally get a chance to be a starting player. And, if all else fails, fan favorite outfielder Trey Mancini is still here, as consistent as ever.
It is going to be rough at times, but the right building blocks of a rebuild are in place. As Elias said, if you don’t get in now, you won’t appreciate the growth as much when it comes.
The home opener is at 1:05 p.m. Feb. 23 against Minnesota. Go to the game, have a hot dog and a beer, and enjoy the moment. I hope I see you out there.