I had a chance to talk to Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim last month in Sarasota about his thoughts concerning the upcoming season.
He said he never truly felt uncomfortable in a rollercoaster season last year, because the Orioles’ players and staff always made him feel welcome.
This year, though, feels a little different for the Korean import. He knew where everything he needed was – in Sarasota and Baltimore — and how to best complete his routine.
“I feel more comfortable this year. More familiar with everything here,” he said through interpreter Derrick Chung. “The city, the facility, and all of the people. It’s not like I wasn’t comfortable using the facility or anything like that, but I now definitely know what to do and how to go about things this year.”
By now, we all know the crazy season Kim had in 2016.
He struggled so mightily last spring that the Orioles asked him to start the year at Triple-A Norfolk and he refused the assignment, which was his contractual right. But last Opening Day, Kim was booed by Orioles’ fans when he was introduced and ran down the orange carpet.
It was a harsh beginning, but Kim turned the jeers into cheers by continually getting hits and getting on-base once he began receiving regular playing time. At the end of the year, the Orioles had a Kim T-shirt night that was well attended.
So, all is forgiven, but not exactly forgotten. When I asked Kim what he thought about this year’s Opening Day, he flashed his signature sense of humor and, with a laugh, said, “Hopefully they don’t boo me this year. Hopefully, it’s a little different.”
He’s not the only one joking about Kim’s early experiences with the Orioles last year. Manager Buck Showalter said Sunday that while the team was playing an exhibition game at Triple-A Norfolk on Friday, Showalter looked at Kim and teased the outfielder that he could have had the glory of playing there last year.
“I was talking with him in Norfolk after he had come out of the game and I said, ‘You know, you could have been here. You could have played here.’ He says, ‘Noooooo,’” Showalter said. “He loves Norfolk and the city and everything …but I couldn’t help myself. I just went over to him, ‘Remember, last year this time, you could have been out in left field. He went, ‘No.”
Like all of us, Showalter doesn’t expect a repeat of that 2016 Camden Yards introduction, especially considering how warmly Kim was treated as the season progressed.
“It’s a real identifier of our fans too. They saw he is a good player and a hard trier and having a good year and understand and respected his decisions and it worked out well for us and him,” Showalter said. “I don’t know how much he is expecting this, that and whatever, but I think he’ll get a different response.”
Losing Tavarez to the Red Sox; Mullins’ angle
I wrote earlier that I thought the big factors in the decision to offer Rule 5 outfielder Aneury Tavarez to the Boston Red Sox was the emergence this spring of veteran Craig Gentry and the health of Joey Rickard, both right-handers that can play strong outfield defense.
Showalter said there were “a lot of different variables” that led to Tavarez not being one of the 25 to start the season with the Orioles, but he said the club tried to work out a trade with the Red Sox – they talked up until early Sunday morning – but couldn’t get a deal done.
He said the Red Sox put a hefty price on a trade for Tavarez, joking that, “we didn’t really want to trade Manny (Machado) for him. … I’m just kidding. But we liked him, just like we did when we took him in the Rule 5 and we tried to make every step possible up until 8 or 9 o’clock this morning.”
There was another interesting factor brought up by executive vice president Dan Duquette that I hadn’t considered. Having Tavarez in the organization – a speedy, 24-year outfielder who can hit – became less of a need with the emergence of Cedric Mullins, a 22-year-old outfielder that really caught everyone’s attention this spring with his power and speed.
Mullins, a 13th-rounder in 2015 who will start at Double-A Bowie this April, made it easier to allow Tavarez to return to Boston, Duquette said.
It’s not that the Orioles couldn’t use a bevy of talented young speedsters, but they just felt, because they had Mullins, it didn’t make sense to give up something valuable to keep Tavarez.
Oliver Drake story gets better
One of the best Orioles’ stories in recent years is reliever Oliver Drake, who was selected in the 43rd round out of the U.S. Naval Academy – when most clubs didn’t know he was draft-eligible. He’s pitched 27 games in the majors in the past two seasons, but was out of options, and looked like he was on the roster bubble.
Instead, Drake, 30, made the roster and will be part of his first Opening Day at Camden Yards, a real accomplishment for someone who has been in the organization since 2008.
“I’m just excited. First time for Opening Day, it’s going to be a new experience, so I’m thrilled to get the season started,” he said. “It was kind of weird not knowing what my situation was or where I was going to be.”
After a rough start to spring training, Drake turned it around in his last couple outings, and his track record of success in Baltimore (a 3.48 ERA) was enough for the club to want to keep him.
“I’ve been with this organization a long time, so it’s really cool to finally get a chance to experience Opening Day here,” Drake said. “And I’m really looking forward to it. I heard it is an awesome experience.”
Duquette’s optimism and realisim
One of the things I’ve liked about covering Duquette over the years is sometimes he surprises you with his sheer candidness.
We’re used to Duquette explaining how a new player is a qualified major leaguer who can help the big league club. But he also gets that if his acquisitions don’t work, it’s on him.
And he did both during Sunday’s workout, as he detailed why he feels the Orioles can be better than last year’s 89-win playoff team: The bullpen is good, the rotation could take a step in the right direction and the powerful offense has been supplemented with some speed (Gentry, Rickard) and on-base (Seth Smith) guys.
“There should be a lot of hope for Orioles fans going into this season. We’ve tried to address the needs of the club and to add to the ballclub to eliminate some of the weaknesses from last year’s ballclub.”
And then Duquette added this honest gem, “We’re gonna find out if we did our job well.”