The Orioles are going to take the competitive side of their fall instructional league to the next level.
Games will be played with teams from other camps beginning on Monday. Thus far, the Orioles have been arranging intrasquad matchups, which started this week, similar to the activity this summer at the alternate site in Bowie.
The Pirates and Rays will provide the opposition as two of the three closest teams to the Ed Smith Stadium complex. The Pirates are based in Bradenton and the Rays in Port Charlotte.
The Braves moved into their new facility in North Port, a shorter drive than Port Charlotte, but they aren’t on the schedule.
The Rays are the first opponent on Monday, followed by the Pirates and then the Rays again in alternating fashion.
“It’s like seven or eight days of games,” said director of player development Matt Blood. “We have a couple split squads in there, so it’s two seven-inning games that are going on at the same time on some of those days. I think ultimately it might come out to nine or 10 total games against other teams.”
The Ed Smith complex is back in operation after the March 12 shutdown that lasted through the summer. No interruptions in workouts in the instructional league.
“It’s been going really well,” Blood said. “We’ve got a really nice group of players, the staff’s got great energy, we’ve had a nice schedule lined up. It’s been working pretty well through all the protocols we have now with intake and everything. It’s been really productive so far. I’ve been pleased.
“We test three times a week and we have a lot of pretty intense safety protocols that we’re following here at the fields, but then also back at the hotel we’re basically in a bubble situation where we just go from field to hotel and back. Nowhere else. And nobody else is in the hotel except us. We have the whole hotel.
“Keeping your fingers crossed, but also being very proactive and careful about everything. We’re taking it seriously and it’s going pretty well so far.”
The staff creates six schedules each day for six groups of players, and the workouts aren’t identical to those at the secondary camp site, since the Orioles ended their season on Sept. 27.
“Development is development, but this camp, we’re not having to worry about covering or servicing the major league roster, so we’re not necessarily preparing for a game the next day that matters,” Blood said. “We’ve got a little more freedom and flexibility to spread the day out, and we’ve got a lot more space, facility-wise, with more fields and a lot more bullpens and cages and all that stuff. We have much longer days, a lot more work on skill acquisition. Just a lot more going on and we’re able to get a little more creative.”
Short-season Single-A Aberdeen manager Kevin Bradshaw is the camp coordinator and is on the field to handle a heavy coaching workload. Director of pitching Chris Holt also is in Sarasota.
Others on the staff tasked with offering instruction in hitting, pitching, development and fundamentals include Tim Gibbons, Ryan Fuller, Anthony Villa, Josh Bunselmeyer, Matt Packer, Tim DeJean, Collin Woody, Christian Frias, Kyle Moore, Dave Schmidt, Josh Conway, Andy Sadoski and Robbie Aviles.
There are five development coaches responsible for video duties, and four strength-and-conditioning coaches. It’s a socially distanced full house.
“It’s a nice staff and there are a lot of cool things going on between them in terms of collaboration,” Blood said. “It’s been really fun to watch.”
* Bullpen improvement can be charted by comparing ERAs, WHIPs, stranded runners, save conversions and a host of other readily available statistics.
What about protected leads?
Orioles starters ranked 25th in the majors with 267 innings. The bullpen was kept busy. And the club was 20-1 when leading after the sixth inning, 21-1 after the seventh and 20-1 after the eighth.
On the other hand, the Orioles were 3-6 when tied after the sixth, 1-7 after the seventh and 3-5 after the eighth.
Some of the comebacks are memorable. There just needed to be more of them.
The Orioles went 2-28 when behind after the sixth, 2-21 after the seventh and 1-23 after the eighth.
But going back to the ‘pen, the unit could have collapsed with the trades of Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro, injuries to Hunter Harvey, Dillon Tate and Shawn Armstrong and the inability of Cole Sulser to throw strikes and hold onto the closer’s role. But a 3.90 ERA ranked seventh in the American League after Orioles relievers registered a 5.79 ERA in 2019 to settle at the bottom.
A .222 average-against ranked third in the league, compared to the .271 average in the previous summer that put them 14th.
You want WHIPs? It improved from 1.51 to 1.27.
You hate homers? Orioles relievers allowed fewer than one per game after leading the league in home runs surrendered with 126 in 2019.
* Segue alert: Do you know which Hall of Famer’s home runs allowed didn’t include a grand slam?
Jim Palmer, of course, and he’s mentioned here because he’s turning 75 today. On the 50th anniversary of the Game 5 win over the Reds that clinched the 1970 World Series title.
The man pitched 19 seasons in the majors, logged 3,948 innings and retired with a 2.86 ERA that actually rose due to his 4.23 and 9.17 ERAs in the 1983 and 1984 seasons, respectively, which marked his last 19 games. Marinate in that for a while.
If fielding is your thing, Palmer won four consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1976-79. No one talked about WAR in those days, but Palmer’s was 67.6.
Palmer won the second of his three American League Cy Young Awards in 1975 after going 23-11 with a 2.09 ERA and a 1.031 WHIP in - get this - 323 innings. He tossed 25 complete games and 10 shutouts. And he averaged only 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
I’m more curious about the one relief appearance he made among his 39 games, which resulted in the third of his four career saves.
He earned it by recording the last two outs in a 5-1 victory over the Athletics in Game 2 of a July 19 doubleheader at Memorial Stadium. Palmer replaced Ross Grimsley with the bases loaded and Sal Bando grounded into a double play.
Palmer also won the 1976 Cy Young, but finished second to Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle in ‘77 despite going 20-11 with a 2.91 ERA and 22 complete games in 39 starts. I remember being extremely bitter about that as a young teenager.
Cakes didn’t give up grand slams, and I was a tremendous homer.
The 2020 season didn’t feel right for a lot of reasons, including how I never saw Palmer at the ballpark. No quick exchanges in the hallway between the broadcast booths and media dining room. No conversations in the clubhouse. No interactions with the pitcher who started the first game that I attended as a kid - Game 2 of the 1971 World Series at Memorial Stadium.
Palmer worked eight innings, the Orioles won 11-3 - Richie Hebner hit a three-run homer in the eighth - and I missed a day of school to hang out with my dad.
I don’t remember Palmer’s eight walks, how the Pirates went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranded 14, or how all 14 of the Orioles’ hits were singles. Or how my favorite player, Paul Blair, wasn’t in the lineup. (I’m sure my dad got an earful about it.)
But I’ll never forget the importance of that day, especially now after losing my father to cancer, and the importance of Palmer in my sports life. And I’m happy to remember him this morning on his birthday.
Six-time All-Star. Hall of Famer. Only pitcher to win World Series games in three decades. Superb analyst on MASN.
Happy 75th, Cakes.