Checking in with the pitching coaches and Rule 5 picks at FanFest

For the first time since the 2013 season, the Orioles will have a new pitching coach this year with Roger McDowell replacing Dave Wallace.

Before the 2006 season, McDowell replaced Leo Mazzone as Atlanta Braves pitching coach. Over the next 11 seasons, the Braves staff went 905-876 and ranked fourth among major league clubs with a 3.88 ERA, including a 3.58 ERA posted by relievers, which ranked second in the majors. Each season from 2009-14, Atlanta’s ERA ranked in the top five among big league teams, including a major league-best 3.18 ERA in 2013.

So McDowell brings a solid resume to Baltimore. Now he has to learn his new staff and players. At FanFest, he was asked if that will make for a challenging spring training.

McDowell-Braves-Sidebar.jpg“I don’t know how tough it will be,” he said. “This is a game we all love and have tremendous passion for. As for getting to know the players and them getting to know me, that becomes my job.

“When I look back to past spring trainings, I think last year we had 40 or 42 pitchers in camp with the Braves and 22 I’d never laid eyes on. The process of getting to know players as quickly as I can is not unfamiliar. It is a process of building relationships with each pitcher and treating them as individuals. But collectively it’s how do we get 12 to 13 guys to compete and have a successful season.”

McDowell’s best asset in his new position may be his bullpen coach, Alan Mills. They were teammates in the bullpen on the 1996 Orioles and Mills already knows well many of the pitchers after working the last five years on the O’s farm, the past two seasons at Double-A Bowie.

There, Mills worked with Donnie Hart, Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy, along with others like Parker Bridwell, Jason Garcia, Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee, Jesus Liranzo, Tanner Scott and Jimmy Yacabonis.

“That will be a tremendous asset,” McDowell said of Mills. “Obviously, we go back to 20 years ago. We were teammates here in the same bullpen. We’ve seen each other maybe a handful of times over 20 years, but when we sat down at minicamp in Sarasota, it was like time really hadn’t passed. We knew each other, the ins and outs of each other, what we like about each other and how we move forward to help our pitchers. His knowledge of the system - the players and kids he had come up to the Orioles - is going to be huge and I’m looking forward to leaning on him, as well.”

I asked Mills at FanFest if he felt he needed to make any changes coaching now in the majors or if he would use the same style that worked for him on the O’s farm.

“Coaching, it’s a funny animal,” Mills said. “Sometimes when people think you are doing well as a coach, usually it’s the players. When I get complimented that, ‘You did a great job with this guy, you did a great job with that guy,’ usually those guys are talented. For me, I try to stay out of their way and help them in any way I can.

“When I do the most coaching, it’s usually with a guy that is struggling. A guy that is not having a lot of success. Then, you kind of strap your boots on, you go back to the drawing board and start over. But the guys that are doing well you sit back and try and not get in their way.”

Rule 5 picks interviewed: There were 18 players selected in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft in December, two by the Orioles. And outfielders Anthony Santander and Aneury Tavarez were at FanFest.

Santander, from Margarita, Venezuela, hit .290/.368/.494 with Lynchburg of the Single-A Carolina League last season, with 42 doubles, 20 homers, 90 runs and 95 RBIs in his age 21 season. A switch-hitter, Santander had shoulder surgery after last season. He said he felt right field was his best position.

The 24-year-old Tavarez was signed out of the Dominican Republic in October 2010 by Boston for $80,000. The lefty swinger hit .330/.394/.495 in 116 games last year (111 were at Double-A Portland) with 19 doubles, 13 triples, seven homers, 20 steals and 47 RBIs. Tavarez was hitting just .246 at the end of May when his bat took off big time in Double-A. In June, July and August with Portland, he hit a combined .378.

The Rule 5 duo was interviewed with the help Ramon Alarcon, the Orioles’ Spanish translator/media relations assistant.

Santander on getting picked by Baltimore: “I felt very surprised, but at the same time very happy for the opportunity and looking forward to taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Santander on trying to make the leap from Single-A ball: “Right now, what I am thinking is take the most out of the opportunity to be in spring training. Learn as much as I can, learn from the veteran guys and hopefully make the team.”

Santander on his shoulder issue: “I feel good right now. Just getting ready for spring training, as soon as that starts, to start my rehabilitation process.”

Tavarez on joining the Orioles: “Very excited to be here. I know I can make and contribute to the team.”

Tavarez on playing both second base and outfield in his career: “In the outfield is where I feel most comfortable, either corner outfield spot.”

(Tavarez has not played second base since he was in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2011.)

Tavarez on the best part of his game: “I always feel the most comfortable running and hitting at the plate. I know I can help with hitting.”

Tavarez on having two Rule 5 picks at spring training: “Friendly competition is always good. I look forward to it with the utmost respect to my teammates. So I’m looking forward to it.

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