Wynns on 40-man spot: “It means everything”

How intense is the roll that catcher Austin Wynns is on these days? How big is the wave he’s riding?

He was given another opportunity to play baseball in the Dominican Republic, the same fulfilling experience as last year. He was able to go home for Thanksgiving and be surrounded by family and friends. He lives in San Diego, where the weather is always ideal. And he found out Monday evening that the Orioles placed him on their 40-man roster three weeks shy of his 27th birthday.

I’d suggest that he buy a lottery ticket, but it seems like he already hit it.

Spring Training Equipment.jpgThe truth is that nothing has been given to Wynns. He’s earned it all, from scraping for at-bats as a backup to taking full advantage of a heavier workload this summer at Double-A Bowie and understanding at every level the importance of placing defense first.

He’s done it with a maturity and enthusiasm that endears him to everyone. His managers, coaches and instructors, his teammates, agent Michael Bonanno of the Jackson Management Group and various Orioles who kept tracking his progress and elevating him on the list of catching prospects in the organization.

“He’s as pure, kind-hearted and genuine of an individual you will ever meet,” Bonanno said. “He cares about others and just wants the best for anyone he comes across. It’s an honor being his friend and agent, and nobody deserves this more than him.”

Wynns was “just chilling” Monday, as he put it, during a rare day off with Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League when he received a call from Orioles director of player development Brian Graham with news that the team would protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

“I was just hanging out and everyone just started blowing me up. I was like, ‘Oh, dang,’” said Wynns, who spent more than a month on the Toros del Este roster before coming off it and flying home yesterday.

“Everyone was telling me from like the end of the year that it could happen and I was just like, ‘No, dude, there’s no way.’ And that’s actually why I came to the D.R., just to keep playing and get reps and get some more money. But in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘Shoot, I hope that happens. I’d love to finally be up there and be on the map.’

“It means everything. It’s just that step closer to being up there with the Orioles and just doing what I can. You know what I mean? I just want to show the organization that I can do it for them, be up there and help them out winning games. And hopefully win a championship. We’ll see.”

Wynns batted .281/.377/.419 with 19 doubles, a triple, 10 home runs and 46 RBIs in 105 games with Bowie. He’s a career .269/.336/.369 hitter in five minor league seasons, but his work behind the plate got him noticed and convinced the Orioles that he could serve in a backup role in 2018 if they needed him. Or if he wasn’t protected this week and a team selected him at the Winter Meetings.

“It’s huge,” Wynns said of his defensive reputation. “It’s part of my game. I’m not perfect at it. I need to keep getting better at it. It’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s my strength, but I just need to keep making improvements on my strength and just being the best I can be.’

“I’m not settling for anything. I just need to keep getting better and improving.”

The path cleared for Wynns after Welington Castillo declined his $7 million option and Triple-A catchers Francisco Peña and Audry Perez became free agents. The Orioles finally had grown comfortable with their depth at the position - it’s been a long and difficult process - and losing Wynns would have been a major blow.

“People were actually telling me this instead of me going in and looking in detail about it,” he said. “I like staying away from everything. I just like sticking in my lane and just putting my head down and keep walking and do my part. But, yeah, Welington, I hope the best for him, too. He declined and he’s definitely going to go somewhere good.”

Wynns played in the Arizona Fall League last year and headed to the Dominican after a short break. He loved the experience, though an ankle injury delayed his arrival in spring training.

“It’s always a great time here and the Toros treat me great, so I’m happy,” he said. “I did really well out here and it kind of put me on the map for the DR. They probably want me back whenever I’m available.”

Asked how winter ball benefits him, Wynns said, “Just playing all the time. Keep playing, just keep going. And that’s like the Dominican way. They don’t take breaks. They just keep rolling along. They might take like maybe a week or two weeks off, but they just keep rolling and playing baseball. More reps, more reps, more reps.

“I think that’s huge, especially for high schoolers or just in general, to get more ABs. If you’re a backup, you don’t get that many ABs. You want to build up your reps so you’re ready for the states. I think it’s great. I love it.”

It’s become a custom for Wynns to leave behind equipment for the batboys, clubhouse attendants and fans. He might lead the league in autographs and photos, telling others, “You never know when it might brighten someone’s day.” He begins most conversations by asking, “How are you?” or “How’s your family?”

“His passion for his family, friends and fans are unmatched,” Bonanno said. “The Orioles have a special person, and one who hates to lose. He’s going to do everything in his power to help bring a championship to Baltimore. I can guarantee that.”

This afternoon’s Thanksgiving feast will be followed by a short break from baseball - probably two weeks at the most after he spent only three days at home prior to his Dominican trip - as he digests his good fortune, as well as the turkey, stuffing and assorted leftovers. What comes next won’t surprise anyone who knows him.

“Time for grind time,” he said with the enthusiasm of a kid at the next major holiday. “Grind time for next year, and I’m looking forward to it. I just can’t wait. I honestly can’t wait.

“I’m fired up right now. It’s like giving me a second wind looking forward to it. I’m excited. I really am.”

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