The ability of a 60-game season to thrust teams with normally low expectations into contender status has become a fascination of sorts in Baltimore.
Fans wonder if the Orioles can make the playoffs, or at least flirt with the possibility from their lowered bar until closing time, due to the unusual dynamics brought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Media is, at the least, curious about the possibility. The playoff field isn’t expanded, since Major League Baseball had to implement its own vision of the season, but fewer games could produce more Cinderellas.
Do the Orioles place a greater emphasis on winning games - not that anyone ever stated that losing was acceptable or encouraged in a rebuild, just the usual product of one - or do they stick to the development and talent-increase blueprint laid out by executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias as he interviewed for the job?
“I think we’re going to try to do both, to be honest with you,” manager Brandon Hyde said during Friday’s Zoom conference.
“This is a sprint. Anything can happen in 60 games and we’re going to try to win every single game. I’m going to manage to win every single game, but we still are organizationally in the mode of thinking big picture. What hurt this year is (the lack of) development of a lot of our minor league players and getting at-bats and innings for guys. We’re going to try to hopefully make that up. But yeah, we’re going to try and win every single game and still try to develop at the big league level.
“We’re going to give guys a taste of the big leagues and at the same time the goal in the clubhouse and we’re talking with each other in the clubhouse is about going out and shocking people and going out and we’re winning some games. I like where we are in that way. Anything can happen.”
One of Hyde’s drills in camp is to field the same question about contending and how it could alter his approach to managing.
He handled another one yesterday during his daily Zoom, which requires him to leave his seat behind home plate, head back to his office and remove his mask.
Could a fast start impact the length of the leash that Hyde places on some of his younger players?
“Well, I’m going to try to win,” he replied. “We talked a little bit about it (Friday) where we’re still balancing some development, but we’re going to try to win every single game.
“I think that you manage a little differently with the short season with the last two months to go and you’re in it. Your managers might do some things a little bit differently to try to win more games. It’s not as much a marathon anymore, but it’s a sprint to the end, so I don’t see that changing. I think we’re going to try to win every single game. We’re still going to try to see young players play and balance that out.”
The Orioles are hoping to have a few more bodies available in camp. A couple of players from the Dominican Republic have remained in the intake process for COVID-19 testing.
The club hasn’t shown a willingness to confirm whether anyone tested positive as numbers around baseball continue to grow.
Two-hour media access and press box seating only make it more challenging to conduct a roll call and accurately report if any players are missing from camp. In the first two days, I haven’t been able to find outfielders Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. among regulars or players with an opportunity to receive significant at-bats.
Smith is definitely in Baltimore, arriving last week and undergoing the necessary testing.
First baseman Chris Davis, second baseman Hanser Alberto, shortstop José Iglesias, third baseman Rio Ruiz, infielder/designated hitter Renato Núñez, outfielders Austin Hays and DJ Stewart, and all four catchers are working out. Utility candidates Stevie Wilkerson, Dilson Herrera, Pat Valaika and Andrew Velazquez also are active in camp.
Any absences are going to become more obvious after the Orioles begin playing intrasquad games later this week.
Ruiz didn’t opt out despite some concerns about his family. Luca James was born last summer.
They stayed in Sarasota until the end of May, drove to California and relocated to Arizona. That’s a lot of maneuvering and varying state health codes and protocols prior to summer training camp opening in Baltimore.
“I think the thing that my wife and I worried about the most is our son,” Ruiz said yesterday. “How he’s going to adjust to all the changes, all the different things he’s going to be seeing, the different places we’ve been staying at. That’s our biggest and main priority is just how we’re going to take care of him and how we’re going to keep him safe throughout all this.”
Asked how it’s going to feel playing games later this month without fans, Ruiz offered a succinct answer.
“But at the end of the day, it’s no different,” he added. “Guy’s on the mound trying to throw his best stuff at you and you’ve got to do your best to square it up. I really don’t think it’s going to be any different once the games get going because ...
“I lied. It is going to be different. It’s going to be way different, man. But we’re really looking forward to just getting going and playing baseball again and give the fans something to watch and look forward to.”
The preparation won’t be the same with a three-week camp leading into the truncated season.
“I think a lot of us within a week or two are going to be ready to go,” Ruiz said. “We’ve done our job in the sense of staying ready. We’ve jumped into live BPs already and guys look good on the mound, guys look good in the box and I think we’re ready to get some games going here in the next couple days.”
Ruiz had a spectacular Florida camp before the shutdown, showing up a little bigger and going 11-for-25 with three doubles and a home run. He stayed on the same program at home, retreating to his offseason workouts and following his hitting routine. He also was able to take some swings against live pitching.
“I was with (Chance) Sisco for the majority of the downtime and whenever we’d throw BP to each other, we’d scoot the L screen a little closer and we’d put something on it,” Ruiz said. “We’d chuck it from pretty close distance and I’d say that’s as hard as we’re going to see it during the season.”
“The first thought I had was my walk-off last year,” he said.
“Getting in the box was just a good feeling, man. I was just amped, I was ready to go. I was probably swinging out of my shoes too early, but the last couple at-bats that I had I kind of settled in, settled down and felt really good at the end of the live BPs.”