Mansolino on "incredibly exciting" young Orioles infield talent and competition

Tony Mansolino holds the same curiosity. Being closer to the subject doesn’t offer an ounce of clarity.

The Orioles’ third base coach doubles as its infield instructor. He works with a talented young group that’s certain to expand with more prospect arrivals in 2024.

He can do the math.

An overflow is upon us.

Gunnar Henderson was voted Rookie of the Year in the American League. Jordan Westburg, another high-round draft pick, moved between second and third base. Defensive wiz Joey Ortiz made his major league debut and routinely is chosen as the best-fielding shortstop in the organization. Top overall prospect Jackson Holliday could break camp with the team or join it shortly after the season begins. Coby Mayo is threatening to bash down the door.

Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías are signed for the upcoming season, with the former winning a Fielding Bible Award in 2022 and the later receiving a Gold Glove at third base.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Mansolino said yesterday as the Birdland Caravan made a stop on the sixth floor of the warehouse for media availability. “It’s a very unique time, I think, for a single organization to have that many highly touted defensive players on the infield. And not only are they good defensively, they can all really hit, too. So, really unique.

“I’m fascinated this spring, as we all are, to watch these guys kind of push each other and watch these guys lay claim to wherever they’re going to end up. This will probably be one of the most competitive infield groups in Major League Baseball amongst each other. It’s going to be fascinating just to see who does what.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say that Gunnar’s on really strong footing at shortstop or third base, wherever he ends up. And guys like Ramón Urías, who have a history of performance. Won a Gold Glove. Jorge Mateo had a heck of a defensive year in 2022. Westburg made one error last year. Mounty (Ryan Mountcastle) was a finalist for the Gold Glove. Ryan O’Hearn had great defensive metrics last year. Yeah, I’m incredibly excited. It’s almost like you can take a deep breath when you have that much talent, but there’s also a lot of pressure because these guys still have to find ways to get better and we have to find ways to help them perform.”

Mansolino worked with Holliday last spring and visited him last week in Oklahoma.

“He looked fantastic,” Mansolino said. “He looks not like a 20-year-old infielder at all. He looks like a guy who’s played a lot more than one year in the minor leagues. He’s a really fast learner. You show him one thing and he has it in two or three reps, and he’s very skilled. We’re excited to see him in the mix and watch him push some of the other guys who have been there in the past.”

Holliday is receiving every opportunity to make the club in March despite his age and limited exposure to professional baseball. He’s that good, that advanced.

“Jackson, he’s special,” said outfielder Colton Cowser. “He’s got a work ethic that I definitely didn’t have as a 20-year-old, and he’s really talented. I’m just really looking forward to watching him during the spring and seeing how he progresses.”

Whether Holliday is in Baltimore on March 28 will be based on an organization’s perception that he’s ready or could use more Triple-A at-bats.

“We’re going to put the best roster out there to try to win games from the beginning,” said manager Brandon Hyde.

“Somebody who’s gone through the minors that fast, that young, that’s a big decision and it’s something that we’re going to be very careful about. But we’re going to watch him play as much as possible. He’s checked a lot of boxes. … This is the first time he’s ever tried to win a major league job and a lot goes into that. We’re going to give him a good look.”

The infield battle also will include Connor Norby, who’s primarily a second baseman and coming off a big offensive year with Norfolk. Norby and Ortiz could get lost in the hype for the other prospects and players who graduated from that status, but executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias isn’t ignoring them.

They have his attention.

“We’re going to have a big competition in camp,” Elias said. “They’ll both be there. We’ll take a look at the whole picture around them. I think it’s wonderful that our organization … when I got here we were talking about how we didn’t have any infielders and now we’ve got probably one of the better stockpiles in baseball, and we’re cognizant of that and we don’t want to not use somebody who’s ready. But we’re putting the best team on the field, and I think the spring training competition’s going to be a big component of that.

“The two guys are huge prospects, they’re two of our top 10 prospects, and we’ve got the best system and they’ve got very bright careers ahead of them. But these players up here in the major leagues are really good and they deserve some recognition for that, too, and we’ll see where the competition leads.”

Teams willing to surrender a starting pitcher to the Orioles want to dive, not dip, into that system. The Orioles have a few untouchables, and Ortiz and Norby probably aren’t among them, but their value is recognized. They don’t have to be removed to loosen the perceived logjam.

Elias doesn't mind stacking his chips.

“They’re both great players,” Elias said. “They were a great double play combination for a lot of the year in Norfolk. Joey got a chance to come up here and help us win some games last year. I suspect that he’s going to see a ton more major league action in 2024 than he did in 2023. And Connor Norby is way ahead of the curve for somebody who was drafted in 2021. He was battling some soreness last year and he got over it and he started hitting a lot better when that happened. I think we’re going to see a huge season from him wherever he is, whether it’s up here or in Triple-A. But these guys are just getting started.”

The curiosity over fitting everyone on the roster began a long time ago.

“I’d be shocked if Mike had an answer for that right now. I don’t think any of us do,” Mansolino said.

“I think you’re going to see a bunch of kids out there who are really good and really talented. And just from being an instructor, being a technician from my standpoint, I can’t wait to watch these guys push each other. The reality is, in spring training and even during the season, it’s easy to maybe not have your 100 best work day in and day out over a 45-day spring training and a 162-game year, but when you’ve got guys in your own locker room who are going to be pushing you for your job or your playing time, you can’t have bad days when you’re out there working. You have to give it everything you’ve got. And when major leaguers practice 100 percent and get after it, they get better.”

The workouts begin in less than a month at the Sarasota complex. Before Hyde can ponder the cumbersome nature of the infield crowd, he has to find at-bats and innings for the crew. And he'll enjoy the scene.

“Last year, too,” he said. “Last year, the second half of games were just as fun a lot of times when you see the young players, and there’s going to be more of that this year. A lot of prospects playing, a lot of guys trying to make the team.

“We have a lot of decisions to make. We have a lot of depth, and it’s going to be kind of tough getting everybody starts, but everybody’s going to get a lot of playing time and I’m looking forward to evaluating these guys.”

* Hyde knows what he’s got with veteran left-hander John Means. The former ace who resembled one at times, especially in Cleveland, after returning from Tommy John surgery.

“Great seeing him today. He feels good,” said Hyde, who's staying in Baltimore for Sunday's AFC championship game between the Ravens and Chiefs.

“To be able to have a guy with that type of caliber where he’s done some good things in this league and made an All-Star Game, we missed him. To have him back is going to be huge.”

"He's a great guy, a great leader," said Grayson Rodriguez. "Having him in the clubhouse for a full season's going to be special."

To be determined is where Means slots in the rotation. A new starter could influence it.

Means believes strongly in returnees like Rodriguez, Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer and Tyler Wells.

“I think all those guys in that rotation can easily take a step forward,” he said. “I think that there were some games last year that they did really well, and some streaks that you’re like, ‘Wow, this could be one of the best pitchers in the league.’ I think all four of those other guys had moments like that. And, when you get more experience, it’s just about being more consistent.”

For Means, it’s about being healthy again after the ligament-reconstructive surgery in his elbow, the pulled muscle in his upper back and the elbow pain during a pre-playoff workout that kept him off the Division Series roster.

"It was tough, for sure,” Means said. “I didn’t want to, but I think it was the smartest path for me. Obviously, mentally, it’s been tough for me over the last couple of years, but that was probably the toughest.”

Rodriguez possesses the same confidence in the starters as Means.

“The rotation’s pretty solid," he said. "There’s a lot of guys in-house that we’re very confident in to put out there and get through a season, so I think there’s a lot of confidence in the guys we have right now.”

Means can become a free agent after the season, leaving him on a postseason contender again but also in limbo.

“I love this organization. Obviously, it’s all that I know,” he said.

“I’m just looking forward to this year, though, and taking it day-by-day.”

Means will take his Chiefs fandom back to his Kansas City home, where he'll plop down in his lucky spot on his couch. Teammates are razzing him. Reliever Danny Coulombe playfully booed him at the Caravan while he talked about the game.

"It should be a good game," Means said, smiling. "I hope both teams have fun."

* Reliever Jacob Webb is unsigned for 2024 but under team control. The next step could be an arbitration hearing.

Webb is seeking $1 million and the Orioles countered at $925,000.

"I would like to (avoid a hearing) but it's all dependent on the team," he said. "I'm not really in control of any of that. Just trying to focus on getting ready and show up to spring training."

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