SARASOTA, Fla. - The Orioles set up their yearly minicamps, initially at Camden Yards and for the past five years at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, in part to gather early impressions on pitchers they’ve mostly known through scouting reports, video and word of mouth.
Manager Buck Showalter already held a favorable opinion of left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. and it heightened after the first day of minicamp.
“Cortes can spin the ball. Did you all see that?” Showalter asked following the morning bullpen session.
“He’s an engaging personality. Watching tape on him and talking to people ... have you guys looked at his stats and his background of winning? This guy likes to pitch and he’s got a very educated hand. He can manipulate the baseball. He’s got a lot of ways to get (outs).
“I like him. He’s got a look. Watching him and talking to him. He’s engaged. You can tell that Nestor’s far along.”
The Orioles made Cortes the first of their three Rule 5 selections after he pitched at three levels of the Yankees’ system over the summer, including Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and went 7-4 with a 2.06 ERA in 30 games (13 starts).
“You’re always expecting it, but you never know what can really happen. Just happy that I got the opportunity and got selected,” Cortes said
“(The Yankees) are stacked right now. I don’t know where I fall in with the list, but I was happy that I got the opportunity. I’m ready. I have the experience. Hopefully. I get a shot here.”
It could come as a starter or reliever. The Orioles easily can plug a left-hander into their rotation and bullpen.
“That’s the thing with the Yankees. I did both,” Cortes said. “I started for a little bit, then I got thrown into the bullpen. Came back to starting. Whatever situation might be, I’m ready for both.”
Cortes, 23, won’t dazzle with his velocity, but he commands multiple pitches, changes speeds and keeps retiring batters at each level. He’s registered a 2.08 ERA in 84 career minor league games, including 40 starts.
“I don’t throw 95, but I get outs,” he said. “I think it starts by throwing strikes. I do keep hitters off-balance, throw from different arm slots, just different stuff I try to do to get people out.”
Cortes has surrendered only 17 home runs in 324 1/3 minor league innings.
“Honestly, just move the ball in and out from the plate,” he said. “I feel like, I don’t throw 95, but my fastball plays up to where it’s sneaky, it’s heavy. I feel like that (factors) into it.”
* Showalter provided an encouraging update on closer Zach Britton’s recovery from Achilles surgery, which soothed teammates who were crushed by the news of his injury.
“Whenever you see somebody, especially somebody you know or a teammate go down like that, it’s never a good reaction for me,” said left-hander Richard Bleier. “He’s my friend and just to see him be out for half the year or whatever, it’s just, personally it’s tough. And then for the team, obviously the guy’s one of the best closers in our league, so it’s definitely a big hit for us.”
“It was really a sad moment,” said Mychal Givens. “The last few years, we take real pride in our bullpen and we’re not just friends, we’re family. Having one of our friends and our brother to be hurt is a disappointing thing to happen to him.
“I got to talk to him. It sucked that it happened pretty close to his birthday. All of us have our prayers behind him and hopefully he gets through the process and he gets back to us soon.”
Showalter said Britton is wearing a walking boot. The most optimistic projections place Britton on the active roster in May, but he could miss most if not all of the first half. It’s impossible to set an exact timeline.
“Doing great,” Showalter said. “He had the stitches out. I’ve got pictures of it from him. Two different angles. Dr. (Michael) Jacobs was real positive about the direction that it’s going, without changing any timeframes or anything. He’s on schedule. He’s right where he needs to be.”
Brad Brach is expected to get most of the early chances to close. Givens hasn’t wondered how Britton’s absence impacts him.
“I just do what they ask me and I go compete like I did the last few years,” he said.
Bleier dusted off his dry sense of humor while pondering a change in his role.
“I think I’ll probably start the year as the closer now that Zach’s gone,” he said. “No, I don’t think that has any real effect on me personally. It’s not good for anyone, but Brad will slide into the closer role just like last year and I’m just trying to make the team.”
The 1.99 ERA in 57 games last season should keep Bleier in the majors, but he isn’t taking his spot for granted.
“I think that as long as I have options, yeah, I still need to make the team,” he said. “I’m new to this big league stuff. I was there last year, but it’s hard for me to say, ‘OK, I’m just going to go to spring training to get ready for the season.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever be like that. Just from what I’ve dealt with, being in the minor leagues for so long, I don’t think I’ll ever be a comfortable big leaguer. I’ll always feel like I need to earn my spot.”
How can Bleier get better? He rattles off the ways. There’s no ego clouding his judgement.
“I gave up runs and I gave up other people’s runs and there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “No one’s perfect. You look at anyone’s year and I’m sure there’s things that they can improve on and I’m the same way. If I have the same exact year I had last year, would I be happy? Absolutely. I’m sure anybody would. But the ERA and stuff like that could have been drastically different if ...
“When I came out, a lot of guys came in behind me and left my runners on base and those guys didn’t score and that’s a zero-type thing for me. So that could change easily. I think I still overall did well, but there’s definitely room for improvement.”
* Major League Baseball’s transactions page lists the Orioles as signing free-agent left-hander Edinson Lopez to a minor league contract on Jan. 5.
It led to some confusion among beat writers who couldn’t find any information on him.
As it turns out, Lopez is an amateur signing out of the Dominican Republic and he must have appeared on the transactions page because his contract covers 2018.
Lopez is 19 years old and has a plus curveball and a fastball that’s clocked at 90-91 mph, according to Cale Cox, the Orioles’ assistant director of minor league and international operations.