SARASOTA, Fla. - The only real piece of news to come out of the first day of spring training involved the signing of infielder Chris Johnson to a minor league contract. Nothing that’s going to rock the baseball world, but an interesting depth move that also brings together father and son.
Meanwhile, the hot topic of the day centered on the center fielder and he wasn’t even in camp.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette, sitting in the media workroom this morning, was asked whether Adam Jones relayed his concerns about the lack of plus defenders among the corner outfielders. Jones made the comments last month at FanFest while stressing that he liked Hyun Soo Kim, Mark Trumbo and new right fielder Seth Smith and believed they would be valuable contributors at the plate. He just felt that the Orioles would benefit from being more athletic and cited a couple of division rivals as blueprints.
“No, he didn’t talk to me about it,” Duquette replied. “I noticed Doug Glanville recommended Adam could play a little bit deeper ... to improve the Orioles’ outfield defense. I don’t know if Adam saw that or not.
“Doug Glanville is a former center fielder who takes a really close look at the metrics of players, right? And he studies them as an analyst for ESPN ... I thought that was a pretty interesting comment from a pretty learned spectator, particularly a center fielder. He was a center fielder who went to the University of Pennsylvania, who follows a lot of our ballgames.”
Manager Buck Showalter said the Orioles have discussed the positioning of their outfielders on numerous occasions and improving the defense is one of the points of emphasis.
“Those things come up, talking to Wayne (Kirby), talking to analytics people, whatever,” Showalter said. “Adam’s very approachable about that stuff. But I also can show you a bunch of balls that he catches in front of him that no other center fielder does. The analytics is that balls over your head are doubles and triples and balls in front of you are singles. I got the math of it. But there’s an add and subtract to that, too.
“Adam’s approachable. He’s also one of the better center fielders in the game. He does a lot of things for us that other people can’t do. Also, the arm comes into play a lot more when he’s a little shallower. There’s a lot of ways to look at it.
“We’ll sit down and talk. I want to get his input, his feelings about it and the respect I have for him, and we’ll see if there’s a way we can improve at every place. But (Glanville’s) not saying anything that we haven’t talked about in detail since I’ve been here for five years. It’s something we weren’t quite as good at it last year as we’ve been in the past. And I’m not talking about Adam, just our coverage in general. A lot of that had to do just with ability as opposed to positioning.”
Improvement will come via coaching and the use of defensive metrics.
“There’s a lot of things, it’s very easy to sit up on an ivory tower and say, ‘This is this and that, whatever,’ ” Showalter said. “There’s a lot of practicality of it on the field. But you’re always trying to mesh those things. We’re always looking at it. Adam looks at that stuff all the time. He takes a lot of pride in it. And not just Adam. Whether it’s Kim, whether it’s Trumbo, whether it’s Seth Smith, whether it’s (Joey) Rickard.
“It kind of fluctuates with ballparks we play in and who’s pitching. There are a lot of things I can show you 100 times last year where positioning led to outs. It’s a pretty broad brush. But just to be led around by a system that’s not as accurate as it’s portrayed to be ...
“We’ve talked about it. There’s some point-counterpoint to everything. You may get one thing, but you may miss some other stuff.”
In another small baseball world moment, Showalter managed the Rangers in 2003 when Glanville appeared in 52 games.
“I had Doug,” Showalter said. “He played real shallow. He played shallower than (Jones) did, if you want to get into ...”
Duquette remains in the market for another outfielder and anyone who will improve the pitching depth, whether it’s in the rotation or the bullpen.
“We’re still looking around,” he said. “This is a tough division and you look at what some of the other clubs have done in the offseason to beef up their clubs and we’ve got to hang in there and slug it out and get our team ready to start this season.
“I do like the returning pieces of our team. I like the way our rotation pitched the last six weeks of the season, particularly the way those young kids pitched. Also, (Wade) Miley came up with a more consistent breaking ball, which helped him over his last several starts. The bullpen remains a strength, the infield is top notch, both offensively and defensively, and we’re going to have to find some solutions through better defensive outfield play. We still have power at pretty much every position around the diamond. We have a good field manager, so we have a lot of strengths to our ballclub, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Duquette smiled and got in a little dig at the latest projection that places the Orioles at the bottom of their division.
“PECOTA picked us last again,” he said. “I think this the sixth year they’ve picked us last, so I know we have more work to do. We’ve got more work to do. There’s no question about that.”
Duquette has made upgrading the outfield defense a priority since the conclusion of the 2016 season.
“I think we can add value,” he said. “It’s really about how many balls you can turn into outs that are hit in the air, and it’s a game of real estate, right? One part is positioning and the other part is range, first-step quickness and also speed.
“It will be interesting to see how these young outfielders we’ve brought in will do. (Aneury) Tavarez has good speed. There’s a question whether he has the instincts to play in the middle of the diamond. It’s all those things. It’s positioning, it’s count, it’s knowing the hitters, it’s foot speed, it’s reaction time. I think if we take a look at all of those things, there’s things we can do in each of those areas to improve the overall capability. And the first line of defense is on the mound. If you keep the ball in the ballpark, you do well.
“If you notice, when our pitchers kept the ball in the ballpark last year for the first part of the year, we did pretty well because our guys were hitting it out. Until they start allowing fielders to go on the other side of the fence to catch the ball, you have to keep it in the ballpark. And I’m sure that our guys know that, but doing it consistently over the course of the season, that’s another thing.
“All those things go into that - positioning, quickness, knowing the hitters, knowing the pitchers, knowing the count.”
The Orioles know the score - a 5-2 11-inning loss to the Blue Jays in the wild card game. They’ve been in a reflective mood since Edwin Encarnacion rounded the bases to complete a three-run walk-off home run.
“I think everybody at the end of the season, you look at the things that worked well and all of the things you tried to do well and didn’t do well and then take a look at the things you have to do better as a team,” Duquette said.
“I think everyone is happy we made the playoffs three of the last five years, but nobody is satisfied that that’s enough. And if the club is going to take that step ... We’ve been knocking on the door a few times. There’s some things we need to address to take that step from a playoff contender to a championship team.
“First of all, it’s keeping the ball in the ballpark. That’s the No. 1 criteria for run prevention. You don’t have any fielders and a lot of times that’s the knockout punch in the game. After that, it’s turning the balls in play into outs, and when you have good outfield defense it makes all of your pitchers better. You need all those things to win, right? But if you look at the analytical evaluation of our team last year, we were short on outfield defense of a pennant-winning team.
“I think when you take a look at what the club’s done over the last couple years, there seems to be a pretty consistent theme that, yeah, we’d like to make the playoffs again, but we’d like to do better than that. There’s a sense of fulfillment that would be resolved when the team would progress in the playoffs to a championship.”
Reliever Brad Brach confirmed this morning that the Orioles haven’t been negotiating a new deal leading up to his scheduled arbitration hearing Thursday morning in St. Petersburg, Fla. However, it remains a possibility after they reopened talks with Caleb Joseph and Kevin Gausman.
“To this point there’s nothing, so just planning on heading up to St. Pete in a couple days and hopefully it’s painless and just get the season going,” Brach said.
“At this point, it is what it is. I know how the hearings pretty much go. I talked to Caleb about how everything is kind of dealt with. My agent and I have been talking about it for over a month now, so it’s almost to the point where you just want to get it over one way or the other and get the season started. That’s about it.
“We’ve gone through every scenario in our heads. What happens if they do this or that? At this point I just want to get there and get it over, especially with camp opening tomorrow. It kind of (stinks) that it dragged on this long, but obviously it’s not their decision. I guess Major League Baseball decides when the hearings are. Like I said, I just want to get it over with and get going.”