The summer training camp is moving into its next phase for the Orioles. Past the routine workouts that define the spring version.
Bring on the intrasquad games and some semblance of competition while manager Brandon Hyde turns up the heat on the evaluation process that’s going to pare the roster to 30 players on opening day.
Orioles versus Orioles is happening at Camden Yards for at least the next four nights. All of them 7 p.m. starts with two-hour media access.
“These guys are itching to intrasquad,” Hyde said. “They’re getting tired of going through the daily workout and ready to play some meaningless games. But at least face pitching and pitchers face hitters in a game environment.”
Not to slam live batting practice sessions, which provided some copy and an opportunity to check which players might be missing - outfielders Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Santander are on that short list - but these games are more entertaining and certainly more important in a three-week camp.
“For me, it’s really exciting,” said outfielder DJ Stewart, who’s been full-go after last year’s ankle surgery. “I was kind of that little kid on the sidelines, not allowed to play during the first spring training and could only watch. So for me to get back out there and get into a competitive atmosphere ... Obviously, that’s our teammates, but we’re trying to get each other better. We’re all going to treat it as a competitive atmosphere to get ready for Game 1 and the rest of the season. So I’m really excited about it and looking forward to the opportunity to compete.”
The energy level will jump a few notches tonight. Not that the group has collectively been going through the motions. But there are jobs to be won here, especially with the opening night roster expanding to 30 players.
The shutdown was hard on everyone, but there are some players who benefited in a baseball sense from the long delay. Stewart and Evan Phillips are prime examples, both headed to the injured list in March but candidates for the outfield and bullpen, respectively, now that they’ve healed.
Stewart is in position to start in one of the outfield corners or be counted among the reserves on July 24. The ankle surgery in October is a distant memory and discomfort. .
“It helped me tremendously,” Stewart said of the idle period. “I thought that I was in a really good place, ready to come back kind of toward the end with everything was shut down, but being home and having this second offseason to do what I normally do during the offseason put me in a really good place, I feel like, as far as my body and just being ready to come out here and compete and just feeling 100 percent. I thought the ankle was good then, but I’m even more confident now in it, just being able to go through all that stuff that it’s ready to go.”
The Orioles have only four outfielders in their player pool. Stewart and Austin Hays are the only ones to participate in workouts, with Smith and Santander unavailable.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Stewart said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone out there. The situation of our team rebuilding and just for everyone to get an opportunity to play, I think it’s huge, but for me, I don’t really look at the depth chart or anything. I’ve just got to go out there, be myself and play my game, and everything else will take care of itself.”
He needs to stay healthy, which proved to be a challenge in 2019 with the sprained ankle and concussion.
“The best version of me is the guy who earned his way to the big leagues last year, as opposed to last year,” he said. “It was kind of just a September call-up type of thing. Last year, I showed that I no longer needed to be in Triple-A. My numbers proved that. And I was off to a pretty hot start when I got called up, and just kind of the injuries back to back, I was just never able to become myself, and get my timing and routine stuff cut down just because I had to go in the trainers’ room so much. I think that me just being able to focus on baseball, getting back into my routine and just being DJ, the guy I was in that month of May before I got called up, that’s who I know I can be.”
Stewart appreciates how the Orioles have set up their clubhouses and taken every precaution to avoid spreading the virus. To keep everyone safe, or as much as possible in such an unpredictable climate. But there’s always going to be a certain level of concern. He can’t escape it.
“To be honest, yes, there is fear,” he said. “It’s something that you don’t know if the next person beside you could have it at the time, but our medical staff and our team is doing an incredible job of taking the extra measures and safety precautions of just being safe so we do everything in our power to avoid it, because we want to get this season in.
“Obviously, there’s always a chance that the season doesn’t happen, just like when we were in spring training the first time. We were all good, ready to go. Just one day, out of nowhere, everything shut down, so we know that it a possibility, but I know our team, I can speak for our team, that we are taking every safety measure that we can to get this season in.”
Stewart shagged fly balls in left field yesterday and shifted to right for more work. The former first-round pick is going to get a substantial look - or as much as possible in a second version of camp and the opener set for July 24.
“Last year was a tough year for him from an injury standpoint,” Hyde said. “He didn’t get the at-bats that we would have loved to see him get, as well as the innings defensively. And then spring training, he was behind. I’m going to play him as much as possible in these next 2 1/2 weeks. He’s come in in great shape and he’s swinging the bat really well right now. Really making defense a priority, also. Getting a lot of extra work in defensively. Doing a great job. So he’s put himself in position to play a lot, to really get evaluated the right way.
“He’s healthy and he’s in great shape. I’m looking forward to seeing him compete these next 17 days before we start and I’m looking forward to him being a big part of our lineup.”
Phillips was a late addition to the 60-player pool, which is holding 45. We should get confirmation soon that most, if not all, of the other 15 are reporting to Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie.
Right elbow soreness in March led Phillips to get an MRI and made him an easy placement on the 60-day injured list (which will be reduced to 45 days.) But he’s facing hitters after the shutdown - he was warming in the bullpen yesterday as media access ended - and could be assigned to the taxi squad if he isn’t on the opening night roster.
Alex Cobb had a blister on his pitching hand shortly before the closure of spring camp. He also was coming off hip and knee surgery last summer. Asher Wojciechowski wore down over the final month as his workload moved beyond the accustomed level.
“I thought we were pretty healthy in camp,” Hyde said. “I think maybe a couple months off probably helped out Cobb, too, possibly. Wojo threw a lot of innings last year, so I think that maybe giving him a few extra months possibly would help him. I’m not really sure.
“I think position player-wise, I thought we were in pretty good shape. I was happy with how we were playing in camp. I was happy with the condition our guys were in and I think that they’ve kept that. Everybody looks really healthy and in shape and ready to go. I just think maybe a couple of the pitchers who threw quite a bit last year or were coming off injury, that might have helped them a little bit.”
Moving the camp from Sarasota to Baltimore and developing a 60-player pool aided pitcher David Hess, who had been optioned to Triple-A back in March. César Valdez became a non-roster invite this month after impressing in his four appearances as an extra from the minor league side.
“We’re going to do the best we can in evaluating our own players,” Hyde said. “I think these next couple weeks of intrasquads are a nice time as well, where we’re really watching our guys play. Our guys are in game shape and ready to go. We’ve got two-plus weeks of watching our guys play games against each other, as well as (three) exhibition games and then a 60-game season where we’re going to find out more about our guys. “
Hyde already found out about the 2020 schedule, which was released on Monday.
“We’re playing in the American League East, which we’re used to,” he said. “We’re playing against the National League East and that’s a tough division. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of the players in the National League East. I know a lot of the pitching staffs we’re going to face. It’s just more really good competition.
“Listen, I just want to start playing. I don’t care who we play. I’m worried about us, I’m not concerned about other teams. Our schedule is going to be tough going in and I just want us to get better and compete and continue to grow as a major league club. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go out and compete every single night. We’re going to play some really tough teams. We know that. And we’re not going to shy away from that. And we’re going to do the best we can.”