Roberts raves about young infield, Gibson debuts and Kremer shines

SARASOTA, Fla. – Brian Roberts spent 14 seasons in the majors as a 5-foot-9 second baseman. A two-time All-Star and a prototypical leadoff hitter. A supplemental-round draft pick who led the American League in doubles in 2004 and the majors in 2009.

Roberts is in camp as an Orioles guest instructor, and he’s in awe of the young infield talent.

A longtime resident of Sarasota, Roberts leaned back on the railing of the home dugout this afternoon and watched infield drills. He stood behind the batting cage, between executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, during batting practice.

The sights and sounds are both familiar and foreign to him.

This isn’t how he remembers the Orioles.

“My first impression was shocked how big they all are, like the size of these guys and how they move,” Roberts said. “Truly incredible. You can see how the game has changed in 10-15 years, just the size and athleticism. Great hands, strong arms, super-strong arms.

“They’re young and they’re going to make some mistakes and they’re going to have their learning process, but man, I would take the ability any day. That’s for sure.”

Hyde went with a more veteran lineup tonight after taking the prospect crew to Lakeland yesterday. Hyde played Gunnar Henderson and Joey Ortiz at shortstop against the Tigers, Jordan Westburg and Coby Mayo at third base. César Prieto subbed for Terrin Vavra at second base, and Connor Norby was the designated hitter.

Roberts was challenged today to name the last time he saw the Orioles loaded with this many legitimate prospects. They were chosen as the top minor league organization by Baseball America for the first time.

“The 80s,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before.

“I couldn’t tell you the last time the Orioles had the No. 1 farm system in baseball. Not since I’ve been a part of the organization. That’s for sure. That can be pretty rare. You don’t come across that all the time.

“Baseball, and I think all sports, are pretty cyclical in general when it comes to talent and winning and losing and that sort of thing, but you can see the cycle here headed in the right direction. That’s for sure. When you can put that many young, talented players together, I don't mean to say it's hard to miss, but it sure makes it harder to miss."

Jackson Holliday made the trip to Lakeland but didn’t play. He pinch-ran for Jorge Mateo in the seventh inning tonight and took over at shortstop.

Roberts is close friends with former major league outfielder Matt Holliday and has known Jackson since he was 3-years-old.

“It’s kind of funny for me to even see him out here to some extent,” Roberts said. “On draft night his dad sent me a picture of him sitting on my lap on a baseball trip when he was like 3. I can remember him swinging a bat then.”

The hit tool, soft hands, cannon arm and plus speed turned Holliday into the first overall draft pick last year and, instantly, one of the top prospects in baseball. He hasn’t looked like a 19-year-old kid in camp with only 20 games of professional experience.

“Does it surprise me? Absolutely not, because he grew up around it,” Roberts said. “Somebody asked me before the draft about him and I said, the beauty of it is, he won’t be overwhelmed ever, because this is his normal, this is how he grew up. A lot of kids walk out here and are shell shocked and awestruck and all that sort of stuff, but you take the Vladimir Guerrero Jrs, and (Fernando) Tatises and these guys who grew up around the game, you see how young they come up here and they’re unfazed, and I think that’s Jackson.”

“I think you could throw him in a big league game at Camden Yards tomorrow, I’m not saying he would be an All-Star tomorrow, but I don’t think he’d be fazed by it by any means.”

The Hollidays stayed at Roberts’ house while their son played for the USA Baseball 18U team, prior to his senior year of high school.

“I don’t think that they saw him being the No. 1 pick at that point. Matt didn’t act like it,” Roberts said.

“Was I a little surprised over a year how fast he moved up the board and how much his talent jumped? Yeah, a little bit, but I also know that he put a ton of work in, and when you have the size and the ability that he does and you put that kind of work in, nothing will surprise me that he accomplishes in this game.”

Henderson is the No. 1 prospect in baseball and the early favorite to be selected as Rookie of the Year in the American League.

“Super impressed by Gunnar,” Roberts said. “He’s probably one of the main guys I guess I was talking about, just size and strength and athleticism. And also just a willingness to learn and want to learn and really receptive to everything. A great kid to be around.”

“Ability-wise, it doesn’t a whole lot better. Arm strength, he’s got the whole package.”

Could Roberts have fit on the 2023 Orioles?

“As a bat boy, yeah. I would have been happy to back one of them up,” he said.

“Our infield in ’05 was pretty good. I mean, (Miguel) Tejada was no slouch and (Melvin) Mora was no slouch. But I don’t know if I would fit in. I would try to blend and not embarrass myself.”

* Kyle Gibson made his Orioles debut tonight, allowed one run and three hits in the first inning and retired the side in order in the second in a game that ended 1-1.

Gibson threw 24 pitches in the first, only 13 for strikes. Ji Hwan Bae singled and stole second base, and he scored with one out on Jack Suwinski’s single up the middle. Carlos Santana followed with another single up the middle, but Gibson struck out his second batter of the inning and got a ground ball.

The Pirates saw 11 pitches from Gibson in the second, eight for strikes. He induced two ground balls and a foul popup.

Gibson didn’t get a first-pitch strike to the first seven batters.

“Everything’s getting used to it – first outing, just being back on the mound with a little bit of adrenaline, getting used to that,” he said. “It’s always been important for me to be ahead in the count, use that to my advantage, let me dictate the at-bat a little bit. I think I made good pitches even though I was behind in the count the first inning.

“I’m going to err on the side of keeping the ball on the ground and letting those guys work because we’ve got a lot of good fielders. That was just one of those innings where the ground balls find holes. That’s going to happen, but hopefully they end up more at the fielders than not. But other than that, I felt pretty crisp in both innings.”

Manager Brandon Hyde noted how Gibson settled in after the first inning.

"The first time out there in a long time, gave up a few singles, but the second inning I thought the sinker was really good. I thought he had really good stuff," Hyde said.

Gibson has a six-pitch mix and uses PitchCom on his glove to stay more in sync with his catcher – in this case veteran James McCann.

“It helps me with shaking (off a sign), not having to do that a lot,” Gibson said, “so I think that’s going to be a big advantage is a pitcher having one of those this year.”   

The pitch clock could pose a bigger threat to Gibson because of his vast arsenal.

“When I’m not shaking, I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “If I have to shake multiple signs … I’m not just somebody who just goes up there and lets it rip, so I’m going to shake to the pitch that I want to throw. Having that PitchCom and being able to have it ready in case we’re not quite on the same page with that first sign, which, that’s tough for a catcher.

“I’ve got six offerings, so if I have a plan and I just had an adjustment from our pitch report that we had going in, if I’m making an adjustment without him knowing, he has no idea what I want to throw in that instance. So, being able to have that PitchCom and be ready by 10 seconds is great, because as a pitcher I can use that to my advantage a little bit. Not that I need to work slow, but I can be ready quick, know the pitch I want to throw, and throw sometimes at two seconds and sometimes at nine seconds, and kind of use that to mess up timing a little bit.”

Gibson is a spectator in the starters competition. He’s on the club. He’s in the rotation. And he might be the guy to take the ball on Opening Day in Boston.

“I would like to think that my rotation spot is secure barring a spring training meltdown here,” he said. “I don’t worry too much about Opening Day. This front office has an idea of how we’re going to fit into a five-day rotation better than I do, so they could have some sort of who wants to be in front of and following who, where they want to put Cole (Irvin), where they want to put our lefties.”

“I don’t know everybody’s stuff yet, but I do know that there’s an advantage to having certain pitchers following certain pitchers in the rotation. If I get a chance at Opening Day, that would be great. Boston’s one of my favorite places to pitch. It will be a lot of fun either way. I’m not getting too wrapped up in that but I would like to think that I’ll be one of those five guys.”

Gibson is the latest newcomer to embrace the culture and camaraderie inside the clubhouse.

“It’s a fun group,” he said. “It’s kind of what it was going to be coming into it. Maybe even better, right? There’s times where you join a young team as an older guy, you feel like you’re kind of looking for ways to be the leader, and I don’t feel like I need to do that. I don’t feel like that’s my job here. I think they have plenty of leaders. But you can tell that these young guys, whoever they have in the organization helping to bring these young guys along, they’ve done a great job because they have good feel, they know how to be professionals for 100 percent of the time.”

"I haven’t even seen where you’re like, ‘Man, that’s a young guy mistake right there.’ They just all have good heads on their shoulders, and you can tell how they get their business done, how they walk around, how they carry themselves, and I think that’s going to help them excel and help them get more comfortable in the big leagues and help them reach their ceiling faster.”

* Dean Kremer piggybacked Gibson and retired nine of 10 batters, with former Orioles infielder Chris Owings doubling in the fifth. Kremer struck out three batters and said he had the majority of his pitches working.

“The goal is to build volume and then get a real feel for where your stuff’s against competitions. I feel like I’m slowly achieving that,” Kremer said.

“I gave up some hard contact but for the most part I had a decent feel for my stuff and I was able to kind of spray it in all different directions.”

Kremer is done pitching for the Orioles until he returns from Team Israel in the WBC.

“I was excited when the rosters came out and I was excited when I got asked last year at this time whether I wanted to play or not,” he said. “Anytime I get to represent the country, more than happy to do it.”

Said Hyde: "I think he's as ready as you can be. I thought he had great stuff tonight. Mid-90s fastball, good changeups again. Mixing in all his pitches. He looks strong and ready to go."

* Anthony Santander drew a walk in the bottom of the first because of a pitch clock violation on Pirates right-hander Vince Velasquez, and he scored on Ryan Mountcastle’s game-tying double to left field. Santander, you may recall, was given a strike in the opener because he wasn’t ready to hit in the designated time.

Mountcastle was charged a third strike to end the third inning due to his own violation. But he doubled again in the sixth.

Maverick Handley replaced McCann and showed off his arm, throwing out Drew Maggi trying to steal with plenty of room to spare. Handley led off the seventh inning with a single, and he singled again in the ninth and moved to third base with one out on a balk and wild pitch.

Heston Kjerstad struck out and Holliday grounded back to the mound.

Bryan Baker, Eduardo Bazardo, Darwinzon Hernández and Ofreidy Gómez each tossed a scoreless inning. Bazardo struck out two batters.

The game was played in 2 hours and 18 minutes.

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