Will spring training games now hold more importance?

All you have to do is remember that catcher Jake Fox once looked like an All-Star during spring training. Some fans were clamoring for him to play over Matt Wieters. Yep, that did happen.

Every year, we see players crush the ball in spring training but struggle when the season starts. And the reverse is often true.

Every year, we wonder how much stock, if any, to put into spring training stats. It’s all we have throughout February and March. I’ve always felt we certainly can’t just dismiss the numbers. But how we look at them can vary by individual. An established veteran’s performance should not get the scrutiny of a rookie or a player on the bubble to win an opening day roster spot. The stat sheet, in this sense, is not created equal for these games.

That likely applies this year, too.

For years, former Orioles manager Buck Showalter would remind us that spring stats can be “foolers.” And current O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has expressed thoughts that the spring stat sheet has only so much meaning and value for him, too.

But this is the first spring where the game is returning from a season shortened to 60 games by a pandemic. And a season where some players opted out the previous year.

Thumbnail image for Elias-Sunglasses-Visor-ST-Sidebar.jpgThe O’s have one of those such players in right-hander Félix Hernández, a pitcher with 169 career wins who has six All-Star appearances, two American League ERA titles and one Cy Young Award to his credit.

Even if he faces hitters who have no chance of making the majors when he pitches in the next few weeks, no doubt everyone will be paying close attention to see what the hitters tell us. When he last pitched during the regular season - for the 2019 Seattle Mariners - Hernández went 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA. He pitched to an ERA of 1.98 over 13 2/3 innings for Atlanta last spring, including a two-inning scoreless outing with two strikeouts versus the Orioles, but he hasn’t been in a game that counts since September 2019.

During his Friday Zoom session with O’s reporters, I asked Elias if the club had any scouts that saw Hernández throw in recent months and what encouraged him that he might help have something left to help his team this year.

“Not really,” said Elias of seeing Hernández throw recently. “We all saw him in person in North Port at the new Braves facility last year. He looked great. And then the shutdown happened. Obviously, he’s been keeping his arm in shape and keeping his body in shape. Recently there is not a whole lot to go on there.

“He’s a (future) Hall of Famer. He’s got a lot of moxie and pitchability in this phase of his career. And I think we hopefully will be seeing what that Félix Hernández looked like with the Braves last spring. He had a couple of opportunities, and he eyed our situation and it was attractive to him.

“So, yeah, there will be a lot of unknowns. Some of these guys haven’t played in a while. And that’s why we’re doing this. I actually think spring training performances and exhibitions of skill will probably be a little bit more meaningful than they have been in the past few years. Just because there are some guys that haven’t played in a year in an organized fashion. No one’s seen them in a year.”

Hernández is now one of three veterans the O’s are taking a flier on this spring with a minor league contact. Earlier, they re-signed lefty Wade LeBlanc and on Saturday it was reported they agreed with former Mets right-hander Matt Harvey.

If you look at these pitchers and their last seasons, Hernández, even at 6.40, has the best recent ERA, topping LeBlanc at 8.06 and Harvey at 11.57.

So the O’s are indeed taking fliers on these pitchers. And maybe it’s about math, hoping to get maybe one pitching well enough to make the opening day rotation. Two would be a surprise bonus. Three seems completely out of the question, not to mention the fact the O’s probably have, at most, two rotation spots open.

Between 2012 and 2015, Harvey went 25-18 with a 2.53 ERA and a 1.000 WHIP. But over his last two seasons - pitching 19 games for the Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals - he is 3-8 with a 7.82 ERA and a 1.738 WHIP over 71 1/3 innings.

The minor league deals make these low-risk contracts. If all three pitched all season for the Orioles - something very unlikely - the team would owe them a combined $2.7 million.

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