We’ve discussed the importance of the rotation bouncing back after a disappointing 2015 season, but the lineup also includes players who need to stay healthy and step up their games.
Manager Buck Showalter recently provided a reminder when asked about second baseman Jonathan Schoop perhaps taking the next step in his progression.
“We had Jonathan, what, for maybe half the year last year?” Showalter asked. “We had Matt Wieters about half the year. He just started getting into his own about the last month of the season. Adam Jones missed a month. J.J. Hardy missed three months. Just to get our pitchers back to form of ‘14 and get those people back on the field every day would be a major step forward for us.
“That’s what I get involved in right now. It’s not other people’s players and coveting this and that. It’s just staying on top of what we have and trying to get back to those guys staying on the field for us for 150-160 games. And it’s hard to do.”
Every projection of the bullpen on opening day includes Mychal Givens, who retains his rookie status. Givens would have to pitch his way off the team in spring training after posting a 1.73 ERA in 35 appearances at Double-A Bowie and a 1.80 ERA in 22 appearances with the Orioles. He averaged 1.8 walks and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings in the majors. However, he isn’t guaranteed a spot and his education continues as we move into 2016.
“The game was so easy for him because he hadn’t had a whole lot of failure as a pitcher yet. He was a shortstop,” Showalter said. “So the question I kept asking was, ‘What’s going to happen the first time he has it handed to him? Is he going to bite back? Is he going to be a puppy or is he going to be a dog?’
“The only problem we really had with him here was not quite the same intensity on the first hitter as after something might happen. And up here, bang, bang, two swings and all of a sudden we’re behind. You can’t come in and wait until you adjust to the competition. You’ve got to be proactive instead of reactive to something happening, and that’s one of the things that we spent a lot of time during the minicamp and everything talking about.”
Former Orioles reliever Alan Mills, now the pitching coach at Bowie, continues to work closely with Givens.
“Alan is a great guy to get that across to him,” Showalter said. “Everybody who remembers Millsy, there’s not much middle ground. If you’re not for the Orioles, you’re down the Dixie Highway. It was a great tool using him there and showing (Givens) tape of, ‘Here’s the difference. Look at your body language here with the first hitter compared to the last hitter. Let’s make this a lot easier than it should be.’”
The other assumption is that Dylan Bundy will be the seventh reliever because he’s out of options. The first priority is making sure he stays healthy.
Bundy has been careful in his recovery after the Orioles shut him down at Bowie with a sore right shoulder and again in the Arizona Fall League with tightness in his right forearm. He didn’t throw in the bullpen until working off a half-mound at minicamp and his first regular bullpen session didn’t come until last week.
“We’re all bullet-proof at 17 and 18 years old, 19, and you’ve only got so many bullets in that gun and you’ve got to be careful about how you use them. And that’s something he’s finally figured out,” Showalter said.
“In fact, it’s funny to watch him kind of talking to Hunter (Harvey) now. ‘Hey, just slow down a little bit. Where’s the finish line?’ You’ve got to be careful. But I think both of those guys are kind of feeding off each other. I know Dylan is a guy we think, if he’s healthy, could really impact us.”
Bundy will need to regain that competitive edge after a prolonged stretch without facing hitters in a minor league game. Knowing Bundy, it shouldn’t been a difficult task. Like riding a bike.
“It’s been a long time and that’s something that’s got to come back,” Showalter said. “This guy hasn’t really had the juices flowing for a while and he’s going to get plenty of that in the spring. I expect him to be a little bit over-pumped earlier and then kind of find his step, and you’ve got to keep that in mind when you’re watching him. But between Harvey and (Kevin) Gausman and Bundy, that’s fun to get up and go to the park every day to watch.”
I haven’t written, read or heard any bullpen projections that include Jason Garcia, but Showalter warns against overlooking last year’s Rule 5 reliever.
“It’s something we talked about,” Showalter said. “I wouldn’t undersell what he might do this year. This guy made probably as many strides as any young player we had last year, just from where he was when we got him.
“This guy was coming out of A ball. I remember (bullpen coach) Dom Chiti had a notebook. He had to keep a log every day about what it was like to be a professional player. Here’s what you need to do. I mean, everything from how he dressed to how he interacted in the clubhouse. They started from scratch with him and he came so far at the end of the year, and watching him at the minicamp ...
“Everybody that’s just saying this guy’s going back to Bowie or maybe Norfolk, I think he’s competing for a job in the big leagues because he’s taking in everything that he was exposed to last year. He’s another guy who might jump a little faster than you think he is.”
One of the lasting images from minicamp was Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton watching the bullpen sessions and offering encouragement to the young pitchers. They weren’t required to attend and they certainly weren’t told to head over to the mounds located on one of the back fields.
It was an extension of the regular season tradition of pitchers watching their teammates’ side sessions and offering suggestions.
“What we’ve tried to do over the last few years is build an open communication forum,” said pitching coach Dave Wallace. “All the guys, even during the season when our starters throw, they all come out, all the starters come out. When we have side sessions during the season with some of the bullpen guys, all the other guys are there.
“You never know where you’re going to get some information from somebody who may say the same thing in a different way. I think all of our pitchers understand. They’re comfortable opening up and speaking with other pitchers in front of us. It’s not, ‘Hey, you can’t talk to him because we’re the coaches.’ It doesn’t work that way here. They know what we believe, they’ve bought into a lot of it, and a lot of times when they speak to the younger guys, you put yourself in their position. If you’re a younger pitcher, are you going to listen to some pitching coach you just met or Zach Britton or Chris Tillman? I’m listening to the player, one of my own peers.
“What’s nice is, those guys, they’ll tell us what they talked to the guys about. It’s a nice open communication. I wouldn’t say it’s critical, but it certainly is real important for these guys to have a relationship.”
The minicamp also allowed the Orioles to check the condition of Bowie catcher Chris O’Brien’s right shoulder after he suffered a torn labrum. O’Brien, acquired from the Dodgers on April 9 in the Ryan Webb deal, appeared in only 31 games and batted .243/.293/.443 with six doubles, five home runs and 19 RBIs. He threw out 10 of 28 runners attempting to steal.
It’s believed that O’Brien already had the tear when the Orioles traded for him.
“Just kept trying to play through it and it progressively got worse,” said O’Brien, 26. “Just throwing over time. I’m just assuming that. Not very fun.
“I feel real good now. Everything’s fine. Really no pain right now. It’s just a matter of ramping up the intensity at this point. Basically, everything is ready to go.”
The Baysox were busy winning the Eastern League championship while O’Brien rehabbed his shoulder.
“It’s very tough when you’re not there and you feel like you should be with your guys,” he said. “You’re watching from afar, but you can’t really show them that. It’s hard.”
O’Brien’s father, Charlie, was a major league catcher for 15 seasons with eight teams, including the Expos in 2000 before he retired.
“Still to this day, I have questions for him,” said Chris O’Brien. “Situations or certain pitch calling, I can always call him. It’s nice to have somebody like that in your corner that you can always go to.”
The Orioles would like O’Brien to slim down. They weren’t satisfied with his weight at minicamp.
I asked a scout from another organization about newly acquired outfielder/first baseman Efren Navarro.
“Good hitter,” he said. “He’s a guy who will likely bounce between Triple-A and the majors and give you good left-handed at-bats off the bench. I don’t know if he’s a guy who makes the 25-man out of camp, but it’s more depth. He can swing it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he helps the club at some point. He will be back and forth, I would imagine.”
Shameless plug alert: I’m back at Dempsey’s Brew Pub & Restaurant today for the “Hot Stove Show” on 105.7 The Fan. Note the change in time: We’ll be on the air from 5:30-6:30 p.m.