In spring training 2014, the Orioles signed Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz as free agents. As a result, the team lost its first two draft picks, and its first selection didn’t come until the third round.
Third-round draft picks on contending clubs don’t usually get much notice, but the Orioles decided to bring Brian Gonzalez and the two picks that followed him, pitchers Pat Connaughton and David Hess, to a news conference after they signed.
Connaughton pitched briefly for Low-A Aberdeen before returning to Notre Dame for his senior season in basketball. Surprisingly, he had a breakout season and has spent five seasons in the NBA, and is in the playoffs with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Hess has pitched for the Orioles for parts of the last three seasons. Three other players from that draft, Tanner Scott (6th round), Stevie Wilkerson (8th) and John Means (11th) have logged considerable time in the major leagues.
The Orioles continue to wait on Gonzalez, a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher who was a late add to the 60-man player pool and is working at Bowie.
In six minor league seasons, Gonzalez is 31-35 with a 4.10 ERA and has yet to pitch above Double-A.
Last season, the Orioles decided that Gonzalez was best suited to be a reliever, and though he had a 4.32 ERA in 18 games, there were some impressive numbers. Gonzalez allowed just over seven hits per nine innings and struck out more than three times the number of batters he walked.
“It was kind of an easy transition,” Gonzalez said in a video conference call last month. “The biggest thing was routine-wise, just a different day-to-day. As a starter you have four days to prepare. In the bullpen, you have to be ready every day. I enjoyed that.
“I like being able to be in the game every day, being some part of the game. I was mostly used in long relief so I was getting length out of the bullpen, three, sometimes, four innings. It’s still the same. Here at Bowie, I’m getting built up, getting more innings every time I’m out there. I’m pretty sure I’ll be used in that long relief role. That’s what they’ve told me so far.”
Watching Hess, Means and Scott make it to the majors before him could have made Gonzalez envious, but he said he’s not.
“I get along with almost all of those draft guys that are still here,” Gonzalez said. “I know that there’s only a couple, but I never really compared my timeline with other guys getting to the league. Those guys were nothing but great when we were together, when we were on the same team, always trying to help each other out.
“I always wanted my good friends, my teammates, to succeed because that’s ultimately their dream as well. It was exciting and I was happy for them to get to their goal and to their dream. I always told myself, ‘keep grinding and keep believing.’ I always put the work in and, hopefully, good things would happen.”
Gonzalez has been lauded for his persistence, working through injuries and ineffectiveness. In the six years since he’s been drafted, Gonzalez has watched as the team stockpiled better quality arms.
“You can definitely tell that just from what we bring into the organization,” Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a lot different, but we kind of know what we’re going to get from players coming out of the draft. We’re going to get either high spin guys, or high velo guys.”
He noticed it last summer when he was at Aberdeen.
“A lot of those guys spin the ball really well,” Gonzalez said. “They have really good spin numbers so that’s kind of the one takeaway I took from last year’s draft, but the quality of arms just keeps getting better and better, whether it’s from trades or the draft coming up. The quality’s getting better, and you can tell something unique in each guy.”
One thing Gonzalez has noticed is the team’s emphasis on analytics.
“The volume of the information that we’re receiving and data from an analytical standpoint, it was kind of overwhelming,” Gonzalez said. “They did such a great job of transitioning kind of that old-school mentality to the new-school mentality, and they just provided all the numbers, especially for pitchers.
“They just brought each individual in, discussed it and said, ‘hey, this is what you do really good and this is what you do really bad. We think you can improve here. We think you can do better things if you trend towards these numbers, and we’re going to help you get there.’
“That was the cool thing. They did a good job bridging the analytical stuff into the pitching stuff. There wasn’t just throwing these numbers at you, and go figure it out on your own. We had classroom sessions. We got taught, not just about the numbers but about little mechanical things as well.”
Gonzalez attributes his improved numbers to what he’s been absorbing.
“It was a lot of information,” he said. “They did a great job teaching it. They helped bridged that gap. We saw it in the first year. I saw a stat last year, I think our whole organization went up 1k per nine as a whole organization. Just for one year for the new regime, that’s kind of incredible, and you can see it on teams. You can see the arms we have.”
Odds and Ends: The Orioles and New York Yankees play a doubleheader on Friday beginning at 5:05 p.m. at Camden Yards. Each game will be seven innings. Alex Cobb and Jorge López will pitch for he Orioles … Hanser Alberto has been named as the Orioles’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award. The award highlights players’ charitable endeavors.
Question Time: I’ll be answering Orioles questions next week. You can leave your questions in the comments or email them to me: [email protected].