The gradual dissolving of the 2020 minor league baseball season, a painfully slow execution akin to sporadic drops of water splashed onto a pile of sugar, had the Orioles scrambling to come up with ideas to prevent it from impeding the development of their prospects.
Teams set up alternate training camp sites near their home ballparks. Plans were devised to incorporate workouts and games while abiding by rules that prohibited competition with outside clubs.
The Orioles had to construct a staff of instructors and personnel with an expertise in analytics. And they had to make it as seamless as possible while transitioning from spring training to a prolonged shutdown to summer training camp to daily gatherings at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie.
They’re making it work.
In some ways they’re flourishing.
Intrasquad games are played after the noon intake process to check for symptoms of COVID-19, stretching exercises and baserunning and fielding drills that are complicated by a thin roster of position players.
The baserunning instruction lasts about 15 minutes, with concentration on first to third, home to second, methods to cut the bases and other techniques. The individual defensive drills are held for about 20 minutes and then the catchers are separated from the pack - Adley Rutschman, Taylor Davis and Austin Wynns.
Infield drills are primarily done for Dilson Herrera and Ramón Urias, but Rutschman and Ryan Mountcastle get in some work at first base. Mountcastle is mainly in the outfield, joined by Yusniel Diaz, Mason Williams, Ryan McKenna and now DJ Stewart after the Orioles optioned him late Wednesday night.
Fly balls, ground balls, rounds of batting practice, “try to take as many balls off the bat as possible,” said Triple-A Norfolk manager Gary Kendall.
“Since we have about nine position players, what we do is we’ll keep three guys in to hit, put six defenders out there. Usually we have a staff guy standing out in right field.”
Starters must build up their innings, whether to become options for the Orioles if a need arises or to keep the developmental arrow pointed upward. Keegan Akin threw four innings and about 70 pitches on a recent afternoon, with a couple of relievers following him to the mound.
Length of games varies depending on the circumstances, including pitcher availability on a particular day. The maximum has been six and a half innings, but it’s declined to only two if no starters are working.
“Usually only off-days are days we might not have any pitching at all,” Kendall said.
“I think it’s been going great. A lot of times there are things we can’t do during the season that can be physically demanding on a player sometimes that you know you’ve got to get nine innings. Or you know that the games are mounting and it’s game 111 and there’s not much left in the tank in this player and you’ve really got to watch it in 140-game season versus this thing where it’s more about the skill development and certainly the innings.”
Statistics are kept on hard-hit balls and the quality of the at-bat, among other components.
“But it’s more in tune to the skill development,” Kendall said, “and trying to get the player to train properly to get the most out of him, so there’s a lot more higher-stress work days than there are lower-stress work days, which you normally can’t do during the season because of the taxing of the everyday player, what they need to do at 7 o’clock. You can get away with a lot more. And there’s more one-on-one attention just because of the fact that we might have limited position players. They’re getting the work and you’ve actually got think about tapering down a little bit and making sure you’ve got some energy for tomorrow.
“I think the development aspect of it has been the most impressive thing, and the fact that they can get numerous at-bats and try to play as many balls off the bat as they possibly can. Those have been the biggest things that we’re trying to emphasize.”
The initial fear attached to the minor league season’s cancellation was how it could stunt a player like Rutschman, the first overall pick in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft who should be catching every day at Single-A Frederick and moving up a level later in the summer. There’s no substitute for actual games rather than the scrimmages that, as one person in the organization put it, can cause some guys to “throttle back” because the intensity isn’t the same.
“People say, ‘Well, he’s going to miss a whole year.’ He’s getting a chance to catch, and probably getting a chance to catch pitchers that some of them would maybe be a level or two ahead of him and maybe big league quality pitchers. And they’re getting to know him,” Kendall said.
“A lot of times he’s getting more than the same three at-bats or the four at-bats because of the limited amount of players we do have. There’s a lot of turnover in the at-bats, so on any given day he could get seven or eight. So that’s the hope and the goal, to get all these guys as many reps as possible and to play as much game-like as we can, and to encourage the intensity level even though that could be trying at times with the heat and no fans and you’re facing a teammate.
“We’re making the best out of it.”
The drills at first base aren’t an indication that Rutschman is changing positions - now or in the immediate future. There’s a method to his move.
“I think it’s a healthy thing,” said Kendall, who’s joined by a group of managers and coaches that includes Buck Britton, Kennie Steenstra, Butch Davis, Tom Eller, Ryan Fuller, Justin Ramsey, Anthony Villa and Ramon Sambo.
“I don’t know what the organization’s plans are, but old school managers always had catchers take ground balls at the corners. I always found in my experiences that if you can catch, you can play third. It’s kind of a comparable position where it’s step and a dive and fearless, they’re not afraid of anything that gets barreled up 90 feet. I think it helps his hands, it helps his feet, and it could be a good secondary position to keep his bat on the days that he’s off. I think it’s good.”
Rutschman was in major league camp in Sarasota and played in intrasquad games at Camden Yards before his assignment to the alternate site.
“I’m really impressed with him,” Kendall said. “He has a chance to be really special. This is the first time I’ve gotten a chance to really see him for an extended amount of time and I’ve just been overly impressed with how he handles himself. I think he’s going to be a really good receiver.”
Rutschman won’t make his major league debut this summer, but Mountcastle is on the clock. And not the service one.
Mountcastle is still learning another position, his fourth after the Orioles made him the 36th overall selection in the 2015 First-Year Player Draft. The reps in left field are a big part of his days, though there’s also the work done to improve his walk-to-strikeout ratio at the plate. To make him more selective without taking him out of attack mode.
He’s fed data as if in a buffet line, and the individualized instruction is made easier in a camp setting.
The bat has always been described as one that “will play” in the majors. By the past and present regime. But Mountcastle wasn’t going to make it as a shortstop or third baseman. And while he still keeps a first baseman’s mitt in his locker, he’s viewed as a left fielder and the Orioles aren’t blocking his path.
They just aren’t going to shove him down it.
“I think he’s looking fine,” said Kendall, who managed Mountcastle at Norfolk last summer. “I think every day he goes out there I see improvement because a lot of it is about his routes and his angles, his glove position and first step, and all those things are being addressed during our practices. They’re worked on in our practices and in batting practice and during our game situations.
“They’re the things that, he needed innings. Last year when the change was made to more or less go with left field primarily it was later in the season, maybe a month left to go in the year, and he really adapted well and made some nice plays. But I see more confidence and I see a much stronger arm, better spin on the ball when he lets it go, more finish. I’ve been pleased.
“Certainly, he knows what he’s up against and he knows what it takes to be a good major league outfielder, so I think he needs to keep continuing to put that work in. But I definitely see a lot more out of him than I did last year. And with the thought of losing this season and seeing the gains that he’s made since we started this program, I’ve been impressed with it.”