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Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Sarasota nine days from now, and over the weekend, the Orioles brought most of their key players to events around the area in a four-day Birdland Caravan to build on last season’s good feelings.
In the three public events I attended, happy hours at breweries in Salisbury, Baltimore and Odenton, hundreds of fans crowded to mingle and take photos with the players.
At the Crooked Crab Brewing Company in Odenton on Sunday, one enthusiastic fan handed her 5-month old baby girl over the bar to Austin Hays, who was pouring drinks for fans. He eagerly posed for a photo.
At Saturday’s bowling event in College Park, one fan startled executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias by telling him he’d just named his newly adopted rescue dog after him.
Eighteen players participated, though third baseman Gunnar Henderson could only be present at the Maryland Food Bank event, where first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and outfielders Ryan McKenna and Kyle Stowers joined him, Oriole officials and members of the media in preparing food and household goods for families in need.
Most of the team’s bigger names were there: Henderson, Mountcastle, Hays, Adley Rutschman, Cedric Mullins and John Means, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Starting pitcher Dean Kremer, who’ll be missing from spring training for a few weeks because he’ll be playing for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, was a late cancellation for Sunday because of illness.
Anthony Santander, who’ll be playing for Team Venezuela, wasn’t available this weekend. Pitchers Kyle Bradish, Cionel Pérez, Austin Voth and Tyler Wells weren’t there, either. Nor were any of the newly acquired players — starters Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin, catcher James McCann, reliever Mychal Givens and second baseman Adam Frazier.
Nearly everyone else was there, and the fans seemed to love it, despite waiting in long lines outside Checkerspot Brewing Company on Saturday and the Crooked Crab on Sunday.
“I’ve never seen an offseason like this before,” Means said. “I wasn’t in the big leagues when we were doing well. To see all the support in the offseason like we’re seeing, doing things like this and seeing all fans [with] smiles on their faces and cheering, it’s really, really fun to see.
“Baltimore has such great fans. I’m glad we’re finally getting them out to support and cheer us on.”
While most players talked about their excitement for the coming season, after the 31-game improvement from 2021 to 2022, there was some actual news this weekend.
Elias declared that the rebuild was over, though he said the team would still look to sign free agents or swing some trades this month. He also predicted that Means, whose Tommy John surgery occurred last April, would be ready to pitch in July, a forecast that Means didn’t dispute.
“I can’t wait,” Means said. “This team’s so good, the vibe’s so good. I just can’t wait to get back and try to do my part.”
Means is throwing from 140 feet and will begin throwing off a half-mound in the early days of camp. He knows he can’t push his recovery and has to resist that temptation.
“I’m kind of getting to that point right now,” Means said. “I feel really good. I’m throwing hard, but I still can’t throw any breaking balls. I’m only throwing fastballs. Every week is a new week. It is a slow process, but there is something new every week. I just kind of take it day-by-day.”
Since Means’ injury, Bradish, Kremer and Voth joined the rotation. Gibson and Irvin have been added, and DL Hall made his major league debut while Grayson Rodriguez waits his turn.
“I think it looks great,” Means said about the rotation. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Infielder Terrin Vavra will be fighting for the final position player spot on the team, and though he took some balls before games at first base late last season, he hasn’t played there yet. He knows that Mountcastle will need a backup, and he’s eager to do it.
“I know that’s an area where they would like the idea of having a left-handed [hitting] option,” Vavra said. “I want to show that I can do that. The more I take reps there, the better it gets, the more comfortable I get. I don’t think until I play a game over there I’ll truly feel like the most comfortable. That’s what spring training’s for.
“There’s a lot of competition going on,” he said. “I think it will be difficult, something you can’t really shy away from. You’ve got to embrace it head on.”
Left-hander Nick Vespi had hernia surgery last month and will have to pass on a chance to pitch for Team Italy in the WBC but says his recovery is going well.
“I was cleared to throw, so I’m throwing already, and I’ll be ready for Opening Day,” Vespi said.
Only a handful of players — Hays, Means, Mullins and Santander — have been with the Orioles throughout the rebuild. Hays, who made his debut in September 2017, notices the changes.
“We’ve gone through a couple of different stages,” he said. “It was an All-Star filled roster, and a couple of years later, it was all the guys I played with in the minor leagues.
“We were up in the big leagues with not much experience at all, and now you’re starting to see those young guys and the core group that’s been able to stick in the big leagues for a few years be a core part of this team. Now, you’re getting some younger talented guys and some veteran guys signed in each year.
“We had a lot of success last year. We really have something to build off of going into this year. We’re expecting to win this year. That’s how we view ourselves.”
Call for questions: I’ll be answering Orioles questions early next week just ahead of spring training. Please email them to: [email protected].
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