SARASOTA, Fla. - Spring training games attract baseball scouts in the same way that free food brings sportswriters out of the woodwork. And the media workrooms.
Talent evaluators throughout the industry flock to these games, in some cases making trade or waiver claim recommendations to their employers. And they can offer more accurate assessments of players in a particular organization because they don’t have any attachments to them.
One team’s hyped prospect can be taken down a few notches by an outsider carrying the camp roster but no agenda.
You’ll find these guys bunched up together in the stands before batting practice and in the dining room prior to first pitch. They share information. They swap stories. And they occasionally offer up opinions to the press.
Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve heard from various scouts outside the Orioles organization:
“Miguel Castro knocks your socks off.”
And not because he’s pitching low and inside.
Castro hasn’t allowed a run or walked a batter in five appearances over five innings and he’s struck out eight. His fastball has been clocked at 98 mph, but one scout waved it off as only the second-most impressive aspect of Castro’s spring.
What about the movement, how the ball is dipping “this much?” (Hands held significantly apart.) So nasty it barely can be touched.
“He’s got closer stuff,” the scout said.
The same guy who averaged 5.2 walks per nine innings in 2018 looks like a different pitcher in camp. And his role is more defined. No more talk of making him a starter. He’s in the bullpen, with his usage to be determined - perhaps on a game-by-game basis.
“Alex Cobb is the best starter on this staff.”
This line could have appeared in Captain Obvious’ report, since Cobb has been chosen as the opening day starter. But it’s still noteworthy considering that the Orioles signed him to a four-year, $57 million contract last March. And how his name came up in trade talks at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas.
The hope remains that former first rounder Dylan Bundy evolves into the top starter with the Orioles and one of the best in baseball. That’s why you spend the fourth overall pick on him. And perhaps that designation falls on one of the younger arms. But for now, Cobb gets to assume the mantle.
“Ryan Mountcastle is your best hitter.”
By “your,” he means the Orioles. I don’t actually field a team, but I will report on it.
Mountcastle was reassigned to minor league camp on Sunday to continue his development at age 22 and to get more reps at first base. It makes sense. The Orioles are in rebuild mode, but there’s no need to rush him.
A slow start at the plate this spring didn’t harm Mountcastle’s reputation as a hitter. Plenty of scouts are on board. They think his bat will play in the majors and the Orioles are in agreement. It’s just a matter of giving him more experience and sharpening his defensive skillset in order to keep him away from the designated hitter role at such a young age.
“I hear Cedric Mullins isn’t a lock for center field.”
This is the latest poking of a hole in an assumption that carried through the winter.
Mullins has to earn the job and he’s 5-for-33 this spring, including his second home run yesterday.
Austin Hays started in center yesterday with Mullins shifting to left and had a run-scoring double to raise his average to .364. Don’t read too much into exhibition lineups, but it’s acceptable to be intrigued by them at times. And to wonder whether, in this instance, Hays could break camp as the starting center fielder.
Mullins could be an extra outfielder for the Orioles, his speed and basestealing coming in handy, or play every day in Triple-A. And it’s quite possible that he’s in center field on March 28 at Yankee Stadium.
“Austin Hays is the best player.”
Not to be confused with Mountcastle being the best hitter. The same scout made both assessments.
Hays has power, can hit for average, run and influence games in the field. He’s capable of moving around the outfield, making him a candidate to start in center or right, assuming that Trey Mancini sticks in left.
The left ankle is healed, Hays is in top condition - training properly over the winter - and he’s having a monster spring.
“They need to move Trey Mancini to first base.”
Mancini is working hard to make himself a better left fielder, but let’s face it, his natural position is first base and he’s more comfortable playing it. But the Orioles need his bat in the lineup on a regular basis and they already have a first baseman in the fourth year of a seven-year, $161 million contract.
The only realistic way to get Mancini more playing time at first, opening up left field for a number of prospects, is to shift Chris Davis to the designated hitter role and move Mark Trumbo, a potential trade chip near the non-waiver deadline if healthy and productive.
In the meantime, a center fielder who can cover a lot of ground will ease some of the strain on Mancini.
“Dylan Bundy’s velocity is down.”
Yes, it’s been noticed. No one with the Orioles is overreacting to it, especially with a few weeks left in camp. And as manager Brandon Hyde has learned via his research, there’s a gradual climb in Bundy’s velo.
The fastball isn’t miles from the norm, though you’d think otherwise by some of the comments I’ve read. He was 90-92 mph yesterday. His four-seamer averaged 92.48 in 2017 and 92.10 in 2018 per brooksbaseball.net.
“All of these guys are fourth and fifth starters.”
At least one team that discussed Cobb at the Winter Meetings envisioned him in the backend of its rotation. He’s starting on opening day for the Orioles.
Get Cobb back to his 2013-2014 form with consecutive ERAs of 2.76 and 2.87 and identical 3.9 WARS per baseball-reference.com and you can argue for a higher ranking. Bundy flashes his ace potential but hasn’t sustained it.
“They don’t have a backup catcher.”
They don’t have a starter, either.
Sisco is expected to make the club, though it isn’t set in stone. Otherwise, as Hyde stated yesterday, it’s “wide open.”
“I don’t think these guys care about winning this year.”
Lots of them do. I haven’t encountered a single player who is fine with taking nightly beatings as part of the rebuild. Hyde won’t use the word “rebuild” and is preaching competitive baseball. But I get where scouts are coming from here.
The records aren’t as important as improving the talent level up and down the organization. As joining the analytics age. As increasing their presence internationally. As selecting the right players in the amateur draft, developing them and stocking the roster with homegrown arms and bats.
Winning will follow. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.
The Astros lost 100-plus games in three consecutive seasons and 92 in 2014. They won 101 in 2017 and beat the Dodgers in seven games in the World Series.