SARASOTA, Fla. - Mike Wright keeps hearing that it’s an important spring for him, followed by an important season. Stacking more pressure in case he feels the urge to exhale.
He’s out of minor league options and there’s an indentation from him in one of the seats on the Triple-A shuttle. The Orioles have filled four of their rotation spots and are receptive to adding another starter while also creating an in-house camp competition that includes Wright, their former third-round pick out of East Carolina.
So why is this guy smiling? Why is he so relaxed?
Wright hasn’t lost his edge. Just his anxiety.
The game is fun again for Wright, 28, who spent part of his winter in California working out with vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson. And he’s more likely to open the season in the majors now that he’s out of options, whether the Orioles carry him or a team claims him off waivers or trades for him.
“There is pressure, but there’s also that nice feeling of knowing you’re going to be somewhere in the big leagues as long as you perform and do well, so I came into camp and I’m in really good shape,” he said. “I worked hard this offseason with every aspect of the game I could, so it definitely feels good right now and I feel like I’m in a good spot.”
Wright admitted last summer that some of the joy had drained out of him. One year after breaking camp with the team as a starter, he was used only in relief for 13 games and responded with a 5.76 ERA over 25 innings. He didn’t surface until May 31, went on the disabled list in June with right shoulder bursitis, didn’t pitch for the Orioles in July and made only one appearance in August.
Asked earlier this week whether he’s having fun again, Wright replied, “Yeah, for sure.”
“We’ve got young guys on the team and obviously older guys on the team,” he said. “You look at (Adam) Jones and (Manny) Machado and the way they interact, and (Jonathan) Schoop, they’re having fun, so it’s definitely a fun atmosphere to be around. And like I said, there’s young guys on the team now and it’s definitely exciting with Chance (Sisco), Dylan (Bundy) and Kevin (Gausman).
“We’ve all played together in the minor leagues and now it just feels like a reunion almost, that we’re all up together, so it’s definitely going to be a fun season.”
Wright, chosen to start Friday’s exhibition opener against the Rays at Ed Smith Stadium, has nothing else to prove in the minors. He’s posted ERAs of 2.22, 3.07 and 3.69 in his last three seasons at Norfolk, but he’s gone 6-9 with a 5.86 ERA and 1.455 WHIP in 43 major league games.
He’s produced flashes. The 14 1/3 scoreless innings in his first two starts with the Orioles in 2015. One unearned run over seven innings against the Royals in June 2016. The 6 1/3 scoreless relief innings over two appearances against the Pirates last summer. But he hasn’t been able to sustain it.
“Hopefully, it was those options lingering in the back of my mind,” he said, “and now that I’m out of those, I’ll be able to relax and just go out there and compete and perform and just have fun with my teammates.”
The importance of a major league paycheck far exceeds any materialistic benefits.
Wright’s mother, Sherry, was diagnosed three years ago with Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia, a rare disorder related to Alzheimer’s disease that causes deterioration in behavior and personality, language disturbances or alterations in muscle or motor functions. She had to stop working, is unable to drive and requires around-the-clock care.
The money that Wright earns can go toward assisting his mother and sister Tiffany, who had to move back home. It explains why he says that his entire family made it to the big leagues with him. And why he really needs to stay there.
It explains the heaviest pressure felt as he tries to establish himself and ditch the shuttle.
“Yeah, I can’t pretend like it doesn’t,” he said. “Obviously, everybody wants to do good for their family because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I’ve always that said family is so important to me. You always hear those feel-good stories about guys getting drafted and buying their parents houses and doing different things and obviously my situation is a little different.
“It’s paying for medical bills and paying for nursing and health. My sister takes care of people when she goes to work and then comes back and takes care of people, so she deserves to have a happy and enjoyable life. I would be lying if I didn’t say that was pressure, but at the same time, they’ve fought their whole lives so I could be in those situations, so I may as well enjoy it.”
Manager Buck Showalter notices that Wright has “a good look” to him this spring. It’s left to the pitcher to come up with his own interpretation.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I feel pretty confident. I’ve been to a lot of spring trainings and I did break camp in ‘16 and I felt like I worked on things last year and I got in a good spot. And just an accumulation of all that, I feel like I’m in a good spot.
“It’s exciting. Obviously, there’s rotation spots open and there’s definitely pitching spots open and Buck says all the time that we’re going to out-opportunity people, so I’m just trying to make the best out of my opportunity.”
In honor of their mother, Mike and Tiffany started the “Wright State of Mind” nonprofit organization to aid in dementia research and provide resources for those affected by the disease and their caregivers. Anyone interested in making a donation can click here.