Whatever speech that Orioles manager Brandon Hyde chooses for his team prior to the first full-squad workout at spring training, he won’t be armed with the same motivational tools that he wielded in the past.
Nobody believed in the Orioles during those 100-loss seasons. They had no reason.
Seemed like everyone was expecting a regression after 83 wins in 2022. They had no faith.
Matching or exceeding the 101 victories last summer that led to a division title and top seeding in the American League playoffs is a tall order. Players don’t seem concerned about trying to reach it.
A few of them dropped 102 into the conversations at the Birdland Caravan, before the Corbin Burnes trade, but more in a joking manner than stated or necessary goals.
“Not to dive too deep into it, the season didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Hyde said on the first day of the event. “Last year was last year and this is a totally new season and we’re putting it behind us. We want to feel good about what happened last year in a lot of ways, and the growth that we made in so many different ways and getting a taste of the postseason for the first time with all of our young players is going to be very valuable experience but last year was last year and we’re moving on to next year.”
Catcher James McCann questioned the use of the word “exceed” when a reporter asked about his confidence in the team’s ability to top last year’s achievements. His point being that winning, say, 95 games wouldn’t be a failure.
(Getting swept again in the first round of the playoffs would qualify, however. At least by my definition. And yes, I was the reporter.)
“Going into the season, I don’t necessarily think that we’re sitting there saying, ‘We need to win 102 games to have a better year than we did last year,’” McCann said. “If you get caught up in that kind of stuff, I think that it actually affects you negatively. So, as far as exceeding what we did last year, I think the concept needs to be more exceeding the process and making sure that we’re diving into the process even more than what we did last year.
“Last year, there was such a focus on doing things the right way and competing, and next thing you know, you look up and we won 101 games. I think that we take that to the nth degree and you’re going to look up at the end of the season and it’s going to be just as good as it was last year.”
What lingers for many people in the organization is the failure to add more victories after the final out of the regular season. Being three-and-done in the Division Series hurt.
It was the equivalent of biting into an apple and finding a worm farm.
“Obviously, had good success, but left a sour taste there in our mouth at the end and I think everybody’s just ready to make up for that, to attack the season,” said Grayson Rodriguez. “It’s a new year. Go a little further in the playoffs. Hopefully, we’re in the World Series this year.”
First baseman Ryan Mountcastle said it took a few days to get over the disappointment.
“It wasn’t fun, but just getting back to the offseason and getting prepared for this season is the main goal,” he said. “It was a great year and nothing to hang our head about.”
“I think this is part of the offseason where you get the itch,” Rodriguez said. “You just kind of think about spring training every day, just ready to go, and I’ve already started packing some bags. I’m ready.”
Players were aware of the front office’s search for starting pitching and openness to other moves that might improve the roster or its depth. They understood it, and got it with Burnes, but weren’t concerned about the possibility of going into spring training and Opening Day with the old cast.
“I think that the way our roster is configured, we’ve got a lot of guys who are kind of champing at the bit to prove themselves, to earn spots, and I think that hunger is going to push us to be just as good as we were last year,” said infielder Jordan Westburg.
“Sure, we’d love to make a big move and you’d love to have an ace or a superstar on the team, but as the roster is right now, I think everybody is pretty confident in the clubhouse that we can go out and win ballgames and compete in the AL East.”
Burnes is going to make it easier, of course, with four consecutive top-eight finishes in Cy Young voting and one award. The boatload of innings and strikeouts. Could be smooth sailing.
“It’s hard not to be happy with pretty much the same group that won 101 games, right?” McCann said before the trade. “But at the same time, I’ve seen the comments that Mike (Elias) has made. There’s always room to improve, and I think that’s true in life. You can’t be content. So, if we showed up at game tomorrow with the team as it is, I’d feel very confident with what we have, but at the same time, if there’s a way to improve, I’m sure Mike and his team in the front office is going to do that.”
“I guess that’s not really up to me,” Mountcastle said, “but I think the team we’ve got right now is definitely capable of winning and competing, and whoever they add, we’ll be more than welcome to them coming in.”
“Our group really learned the significance of winning series and simplifying the game into what we need to take care of – fielding the ground balls, fielding fly balls, hitting your cutoff man, doing the small things,” said left-hander Cole Irvin. “We did that really well last year. And as long as we continue to do that and come in attacking hitters from a pitching staff side of things, you focus on those small things. Our offense is going to be just fine. This season is just continuing to build off what we had last year. There’s a lot of confidence in our guys and I think we learned a lot as a group, as a whole, about what makes us tick and what makes us have fun as a group.”
Let’s hear from one more, shall we?
“It’s one of those things that, as a player, you don’t dive too deep into that stuff,” said center fielder Cedric Mullins. “It’s a matter of personal improvement. You can help the team by improving your game, as well, and trusting that the brass is going to make the decisions necessary to continue to elevate us. I know we’re still in the hunt.”
Elias never wavered from his commitment to sign an impact starter or his insistence on leaving the farm system in great shape.
“Corbin Burnes is exactly what we needed. We were in a dogged pursuit of him the entire offseason,” Elias said last week in a video call.
“He was at the top of the board from a talent perspective.”
Players who endured the rebuild process, whether from the start of it or later, can most appreciate the rise from baseball’s ashes.
“I would say the environment is different,” said Tyler Wells, who’s more likely to settle into a relief role with Burnes’ arrival. “Within the clubhouse specifically, I think that right now we have a group of guys that is so cohesive. Everyone’s on the same team and everyone’s pulling for each other, supporting each other, and I think that’s kind of been one of the biggest differences that I’ve seen from ’21 to now. But also, to just having the city of Baltimore rally around us I think has also been a big difference for us.
“When you have all the fans show up to the field every day and cheering us on like they did this last season, it makes it a lot more special. I think the people underestimate just how much that means to us as players. I think it continues to push us to want to be better.”
Note: Closer Félix Bautista underwent a right elbow debridement and ulnar nerve transposition yesterday with Dr. Keith Meister in Dallas – the same surgeon who performed his Tommy John surgery in October.
The Orioles don’t anticipate any changes in Bautista's recovery timeline. He’s going to miss the 2024 season and is expected to return in 2025.
In the meantime, Craig Kimbrel was signed for a guaranteed $13 million to serve as the primary closer this year.
Meister cleaned up scar tissue in the elbow and moved Bautista’s nerve to free it from being compressed, a common procedure following ligament-reconstructive surgery.