The Orioles intend to set up their alternate camp site at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, as expected, with a heavy slant toward Triple-A players rather than funneling lower-level prospects.
The vision that began to come into focus last week hasn’t undergone any changes.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias named one exception today, with 2020 second overall draft pick Heston Kjerstad skipping major league spring training and reporting to the secondary site for workouts when it’s active.
“Everything’s continuing to trend very well with him and look very good,” Elias said in a Zoom conference call. “With everything going on with the alternate site decision, we’re much more likely to direct him directly to the alternate site once he’s ready to begin, rehabbing back into game shape.
“Much more fixated on having him join activities in Maryland at the time those open. It’s something where he’s going to need a little bit more time after this layoff to go through a rehab protocol, to return to game shape, but we’re very hopeful that he’ll be able to do that this season and I know that we’re all eager to see him in action. I know he’s eager to join the activities finally after what he’s been through.”
Kjerstad had an episode of myocarditis, a viral infection that causes inflammation of the heart muscle, that kept him out of last year’s alternate camp and fall instructional league. Elias said there haven’t been any setbacks in his recovery.
“All plans and indications right now, obviously given some of the extra uncertainty that’s provided with a health situation like this in general, but also in context of the coronavirus atmosphere that we’ve all been living in, I think that he’s going to be there as soon as we start,” Elias said.
The Bowie complex will be loaded with Triple-A, major league support, depth competition, which creates a contrast of sorts from 2020. This is going to happen across the league.
“Things change day by day and week by week here in this pandemic environment in 2020, 2021,” Elias said, “but if we continue to feel hopeful about minor league spring training going off in Florida the way we all want it to, and sort of the trajectory of the Triple-A alternate site and the minor league opening day and the minor league camps here in Florida, then I do think we’re going to see a much more Triple-A themed roster in Bowie for this April and then a lot more of our younger prospects will remain in Florida or will report to Florida if they’re not already here.”
The Orioles used Bowie for last summer’s secondary camp and had no reason to conduct a new search after learning that the Triple-A season would be pushed back to early May.
“It is our plan and expectation to start the quote/unquote Triple-A season in an alternate site setting,” Elias said. “The Orioles’ plans at this point are very strongly focused on replicating our alternate site setup from Bowie last season. Went very well. (President) Ken Young and (general manager) Brian Shallcross and the entire Bowie staff were terrific to work with and we’re very hopeful to replicate that setup and also hopeful it’s only something that’s only going to be play for the early part of the season, namely in April and then we’re able to transition into regular minor league competition that we’ve all been sorely missing for a while. And I think the Orioles in particular are very eager to get back to minor league play.”
The Orioles have been granted permission to play other teams at the camp, with the Nationals and Phillies logical opponents based on proximity.
“I think it’s a good guess that something like that will happen if it’s at all feasible,” Elias said, adding that there could be more players in Bowie than found last summer.
The Orioles are rumored to have interest in free agent third baseman Maikel Franco, but Elias indicated that the club isn’t close to adding to its spring roster.
“I think that we’re always looking,” Elias said. “I don’t feel that there are any imminent additions at this time coming from the free agent market. That could change, but I don’t see anything kind of barreling down the pike here right this second. We are monitoring players in other camps and what may happen to them in the short term or more likely at the end of camp as players have outs or don’t make the cut or a team looks to move them, so we’re looking at all that and we’re certainly staying in contact with a couple of different aspects of the free agent market, but I don’t have anything imminent on the horizon.”
“We continue to have a lot of competition - a lot of decisions to make on our roster - and fortunately we have more time to continue to evaluate those competitions as I think we’re going to need. There’s still a lot to be determined about the roster that we break camp with and I think that we’re looking at everyone and are seeing interesting things from basically everyone here and want to continue to evaluate those competitions.”
Third baseman Rio Ruiz is dealing with an illness that’s kept him out of the lineup again today, his third game missed in a row.
“He’s just not feeling well, so he’s day-to-day,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Hopefully, he’ll be back in there tomorrow or the next day.”
“With CD, he’s getting checked out, he’s rehabbing,” Hyde said. “I don’t know what the timetable is on him.”
Said Elias: “Hard to say yet how long a back injury can linger. In my experience, it’s a very unpredictable thing in terms of timelines, but I do think as we deeper in spring training the level of pessimism that he’ll be able to break camp and have the necessary preparation and run-up to opening day that you’d want, the clock’s ticking on that. But we’ll have to see in terms of an ultimate timeline. Right now there is none.”
The team hasn’t decided on the number of starters and long relievers on the opening day pitching staff.
Félix Hernández starts Thursday afternoon against the Pirates in Bradenton. He sounded confident after his first start that his velocity would increase over time.
“He hasn’t pitched in a year, and if it does or if it doesn’t a ton, I still think that, as I said when we signed him, this is a pitcher with an incredible amount of skill and savvy,” Elias said. “He’s transitioned into a different phase of his career. I think we were seeing that last spring before the shutdown and I thought he pitched well the other night. He looked good. He was in command of the game. Kind of the mound presence, just set a tone, threw strikes.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him use his pitchability, his experience, but obviously as he builds arm strength that can only help, too. It’s been terrific having him so far and I’m really looking forward to his next few outings and seeing where we’re at with him down the stretch, because I think having an effective Félix Hernández on our team would be great from a number of angles, but we’ve got competition and we’ve got time left where things can happen and we’ll see where this goes.”
The Orioles are 2-6-1, though coming off a crisper performance yesterday against the Twins in Fort Myers that resulted in a 1-0 loss in seven innings.
“I think aspects of play have been uneven,” Elias said. “We’ve had games with terrible defense, we’ve had games with terrible pitching, we’ve had games with good defense and good pitching. The offense has come and gone. I think that we’re all seeing the same thing there. The important thing to us is the competition we need is here in order to staff this roster, in order to put an interesting group out that will have an opportunity to carry forward our goals, and have a competitive team and a team that will continue to develop into the playoff team that we’re ultimately building toward.
“We’re all still watching that. It is a thick camp. There are a lot of guys here, there’s a lot of pitchers here, a lot of pitchers that are being stretched out to length that need innings, and then mixing that with the dynamic of a smaller spring training schedule, fewer B games, fewer innings, a lot of six- and seven-inning games. Innings getting rolled. It’s been challenging and I think it will continue to be challenging to get the playing time all around and the innings all around that we want, just given that we have so much competition and so much uncertainty on our roster right now relatively speaking. But we’re trying to navigate that. There’s a lot of time here left.
“I think we’re all in particular very encouraged from what we’re seeing so far from a lot of the young players that came up last year, had good steps forward last year. They’ve all shown up in good shape and are swinging the bat well, are throwing pretty well. And obviously what we’re seeing from Trey (Mancini) has been terrific. So there have been a lot more positives than negatives so far, but we’re certainly assessing things and seeing the ups and downs that we’ve seen so far in camp.”
The club issued a statement this morning regarding the possible reopening of Camden Yards to fans for the 2021 season:
“As always, the health and safety of our entire Birdland community remains our top priority. In accordance with Governor Hogan’s announcement yesterday, we are continuing to work with the City of Baltimore, state officials, and Major League Baseball to safely welcome fans back to Oriole Park at Camden Yards with proper social distancing guidelines. As soon as we are able, we will share our plans to re-open along with our Gameday Health & Safety protocols.”
Said Elias: “I think we’ve been preparing as an organization for all types of eventualities, so internally our planning will be in place for whatever comes down the pike. ... We’ve been seeing some really encouraging things lately and I know that obviously our organization, but our players in particular, it will be a sight for sore eyes to see fans at Camden Yards, so we want to see that as soon as possible.
“Optimistic I think is a very good word I think for where we’re at right now. We’re doing this in Florida. So far it’s gone pretty well. We’re seeing other jurisdictions and venues announce plans. I think people are wanting to try this and we’ve learned lot about how to carry forward these types of public events in a safer fashion. And I think we’re planning for hosting people as soon as we possibly can and we’re very optimistic.”