There is a lot we don't yet know about the 2021 baseball season. We have a schedule for 162 games for each big league team; we just don't know if the sport will start on time and play all 162. After the restructuring on the farm, we still don't have schedules for minor league teams or any idea when those players will be in Florida for spring training.
But whenever it all starts and however many minor league games are played during 2021, the Orioles will at some point have to set rosters for their four full-season teams and later for two clubs each in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Rookie-level Dominican Summer League.
After a summer without minor league games, some O's players may be skipping levels when the games start in 2021. Will this be a big number? That is probably unlikely, but just because a player was ticketed for low Single-A or high Single-A in 2020, doesn't mean that player will start in that exact spot next season.
Some players will be skipping levels, and Matt Blood, the Orioles' director of player development, joined me for a Zoom interview Monday to discuss the topic.
"It's going to be a case-by-case basis," said Blood. "But there are definitely players that made jumps this year and are ready for a challenge. I feel like our philosophy is, we want to continue to challenge players. We want to put them in environments where they are challenged. And if they have already surpassed, in our evaluation, a certain level, we want to move them to the next level so they are continually building skills.
"Another thing to consider with us is we've acquired a significant amount of talent this year, ranging from 17-year-olds to age 24. We have to also fit all the players in spots where they are going to get playing time and have the opportunity to develop. So that is something else to consider when it comes to who goes where. We added a bunch of infielders. So figuring out who will go where and play what positions is going to be a fun challenge. It's a nice problem to have."
An obvious group of players that could skip levels includes some of the group that played at the alternate camp at Bowie. But Blood said there will likely be players moving up that both played there and did not play at the alternate site.
"Those guys have that chance because they got in a lot of at-bats (at Bowie), but so do a lot of other players across our entire organization who put in a lot of work this summer," Blood said. "If it wasn't in Bowie, it was where they are in the country, getting live at-bats, hitting off machines or whatever it was they were able to do. Just because they weren't in Bowie doesn't mean they weren't improving and aren't ready for the next challenge."
The Orioles also got a good look at a group of 55 players, including 24 pitchers and 15 international players, at their fall instructional league camp in Sarasota. Blood said it was clear to see player improvements during that camp. For many players, the pandemic produced the first season they were not playing games in May, June and July. So they had chances to work more in weight room, or on a specific pitch, batting approach or adjustments.
"My expectation is that when we get together in the spring, we're going to see a bunch of players that have had some transformations and have really improved their skills," said Blood. "It is hard to replace game-like reps and they were missed. But the downside to playing games all the time is you're constantly focused on your game and daily performance. And it makes it difficult to work specifically on deficiencies and deliberately practice on some weaknesses.
"Where in a non-game situation, nobody notices and you feel a little more comfortable to get out of your comfort zone. In that aspect of things, it was a positive and we saw the return on that type of work this year. Losing the games was not ideal, but there definitely were some advantages to it as well."
Blood said O's players should realize that this strange year did give them a chance to work on their games and not worry about their stats. But even when the games resume, player improvement is critical, even if initially it can hurt a player on the stat sheet. The process of getting better is a daily battle and players should not be afraid to try new approaches if it helps them improve.
"That is our job on the staff side," he said. "We have to give a consistent message to the player and explain to him the why. And when that happens, we have to praise him for it (working on a weakness), regardless of the outcome."
Here is the full Zoom interview we recorded yesterday: