One of the mysteries in 2020 was the workings of the Orioles’ alternate site at Bowie. Prince George’s Stadium is the home of the Double-A Baysox. Its location is good, 27 miles from Oriole Park, and the facilities worked so well that when it was announced that the 2021 Triple-A season would be delayed until early May, it was an easy decision for the Orioles to elect to return there for more training.
Last year, major league teams had a 60-player pool. The Orioles brought a number of players who would have played in Triple-A to Bowie — outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna, pitchers Mike Baumann and Zac Lowther, and others who could shuttle between the Orioles and the major leagues.
They also brought some of their top prospects who would have played for lower-level affiliates — catcher Adley Rutschman, shortstop Gunnar Henderson and their two top pitching prospects, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez.
That enabled those top-shelf prospects to stay competitive. Teams were prohibited from playing against other teams’ alternate site players because of the pandemic.
This year, the setup at Bowie will last about a month, and the Orioles might be able to schedule games against teams that aren’t far away.
The Philadelphia Phillies trained last year in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the home of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, which is about three hours from Bowie. Washington’s alternate site was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where their Low-A club will play this year, which is about 80 minutes from Bowie.
“We’re going to be configuring the alternate site roster with much more of a slant towards Triple-A/core depth competition than what we saw last year across the league where it was a blend of that and also a lot of lower level, Gunnar Henderson-type prospects,” Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said in a video conference call on Wednesday.
“Things change day-by-day and week-by-week in this pandemic environment, 2020 and 2021. If we continue to feel hopeful about minor league spring training, going off in Florida the way we all want it to, sort of the trajectory of the Triple-A alternate site and the minor league opening day, and the minor league camps here in Florida, then I do think we’re going to see, a much more Triple-A themed roster in Bowie this April and a lot more of our younger prospects will remain in Florida or report to Florida if they’re not already here.”
Henderson and Rutschman are designated camp reserves and have participated in some Grapefruit League games, but they’ll be staying behind for minor league spring training when the Orioles head north for the April 1st opener at Fenway Park in Boston.
Hall and Rodriguez haven’t been in major league camp, and they’ll report to Sarasota for minor league spring training early next month.
Last year, the workings of the alternate site weren’t known because it was closed to the media. There have been numerous positive stories about lessons learned during the time in Bowie.
“I definitely think that the small instructional groups that we have to be at when we’re at an alternate site, it helps no matter what,” Lowther said. “You’ve got high-level coaches there with high-level players. With such a small group, it’s very individualized with the work that you’re doing. You’re able to hone in on some things that the game’s not going to let you do, day-to-day, so that when you have that streamlined practice, these coaches know the direction that I want to go, and they’re going to help me get there, and that’s really the only goal at the time.”
It’s likely that Baumann, Diaz, Lowther and McKenna will return to that alternate site to prepare for the beginning of the Norfolk Tides’ season.
McKenna saw the benefits of the alternate site.
“The experience was good,” he said. “A lot of players lost a full year. The group there was awesome, a bunch of elite players. Just being able to see that and face those ABs that they could learn something from was awesome, just progress as a player was a huge part of it. Then just having the opportunity to get called up was another big thing. It was another learning year, getting in what you can, not letting your body go, not taking any time off.”
Last year, the alternate site was pitcher-heavy in case the Orioles needed fresh arms. This year, Norfolk’s team will, in effect, have a month of training camp.
“We didn’t have enough position players to play a full nine on defense, but we were getting four or five ABs pretty much every day,” McKenna said.
“We had a lot of guys throwing, keeping their arms fresh. I don’t think it would have been any different if it was a normal season for me, learning about my swing, trying to get those reps in.”
NOTE: The Orioles signed 33 players to one-year contracts. These are players who are not yet eligible for arbitration. They are: right-handed pitchers Mike Baumann, Dean Kremer, Travis Lakins, Jorge López, Isacc Mattson, Mac Sceroler, Cole Sulser, Dillon Tate, César Valdez and Tyler Wells, left-handed pitchers Keegan Akin, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, John Means, Tanner Scott, Alexander Wells and Bruce Zimmermann, catchers Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns, infielders Rylan Bannon, Jahmai Jones, Richie Martin, Tyler Nevin, Rio Ruiz and Ramón Urías, and outfielders Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Chris Shaw and DJ Stewart.