Some of the hardest jobs in the Orioles’ organization belong to the minor league managers and coaches who supervise the team’s alternate site at Bowie.
It’s difficult because there are players with major league experience along with prospects nearly ready for the majors — and nobody wants to be there.
Players on the Orioles’ injured list and rehabbing — pitchers Hunter Harvey, John Means and Dillon Tate are at Prince George’s Stadium.
So are last year’s organizational Player of the Year, Ryan Mountcastle, who should make his major league debut next month, and the team’s brightest prospect, catcher Adley Rutschman, the overall No. 1 draft pick last year.
Pitchers Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann, DL Hall and Dean Kremer are there, too. They’re some of the best pitching prospects in the organization, as is outfielder Yusniel Diaz.
All that talent, and no games to play. Major League Baseball has yet to allow the Orioles and other major league teams to play against other alternate sites, even those that aren’t that far away.
The Washington Nationals’ alternate site is at Sunshine Ballpark, the new home of their Class-A team in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about 80 minutes from Bowie, but they can’t play the Orioles’ prospects.
It’s a difficult situation for Buck Britton, who normally would be managing the Baysox in Bowie. Instead, he’s working along with about a dozen other minor league staffers on teaching the prospects and keeping them ready.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge for a lot of these guys,” Britton said in a video conference call.
“How are they going to stay motivated? I think everybody is under the assumption that there’s going to be a ton of opportunity this year. It’s inevitable that people are going to get sick; they’re going to contract the virus. They’re going to come in contact with somebody that had it.
“Our job down here is to stay healthy. That’s the biggest thing for us and, as a staff, figure out ways to keep guys engaged, and keep them energized … It can be a grind to be on the taxi squad where intrasquads are the best thing we’ve got going for us. It can become monotonous.”
Games against the Nationals’ prospects would be fun. They’re the only team that’s really close. The Philadelphia Phillies’ alternate site is at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, home of the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs, and that’s nearly three hours away.
“Unless they come up with something,” Britton said, “it’s going to be us and only us, so we’re going to get to know each other well.”
The Orioles are trying their best to keep Britton, Norfolk Tides manager Gary Kendall and their other coaches involved. Regular zoom calls about strategy occur, but the Orioles know that there aren’t enough players, particularly position players, to field a intrasquad game.
Two of the position players, catcher Bryan Holaday and utilityman Dilson Herrera, are on the Orioles’ taxi squad. They’ll move to the Bowie alternate site on Wednesday after the Orioles return from their road trip to Boston and Miami.
“We do have a good group of players down here and guys that know there’s a lot of opportunity,” Britton said. “They’re going to do everything they can to be ready so that when they get their chance to go back up, they can stay and make an impact up there.”
Britton, a longtime player in the Orioles’ organization and brother of New York Yankees reliever Zack Britton, spent much of the pandemic at home with his 1-year-old daughter.
“It was nice to be home,” Britton said. “I started reading some books, which may shock some people on this call.”
Akin and Kremer have pitched in Triple-A and spent time with the Orioles in spring training.
“Those are two guys we expect to get a chance this year at some point,” Britton said. “They’re young guys. I’ve had conversations with both of those guys. They’re just excited for that opportunity, for that first opportunity.
“Those are two of the guys that I think are going to be driven to get their work in every day, come to the ballpark and figure out a way to get better, so I don’t think we have to worry about those two guys, as far as their focus. There could come a time when we’re 30 games into this thing, and they haven’t had a chance. Maybe it’s going to take another conversation to tell them to get going.”
The pitchers at Bowie can simulate their work without games. It’s harder for the position players.
“For hitters, there’s nothing that substitutes for live game action, the adrenaline that you have in the box. You can’t simulate that just facing your own guys,” Britton said.
“There’s not that edge that you have to facing your own pitchers. There’s a little loss there. We can still use the technology we have to see how guys’ bodies are moving throughout their swing, and clean up some swings, but that I think that that game atmosphere where your adrenaline is pumping, and you’re facing a guy that’s not on your team, we’re going to lose that. The game speeds up when you’re in that box.”
Technology has become an important part of the Orioles’ organization.
“Sometimes it gets a little much as a manager,” Britton said. “They’re sitting in front of the computer a lot of the time, and they’re looking at their pitches … Sometimes, you’re like, ‘get out from behind that thing.’ They’ve made huge strides. I think that’s one of the most impressive things the Orioles have brought in.”