SARASOTA—There’s definitely a different feel around Orioles spring training this year. Sure, they’ve won the first two games, scoring 10 runs in each, but it’s the array of young talent that’s been on display during the first two games.
Adley Rutschman has yet to catch; he will on Tuesday, and Gunnar Henderson hasn’t played at all. He’ll play Tuesday as well. They’re the veterans of the youth movement that includes infielders Jackson Holliday, Coby Mayo, Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, César Prieto and Jordan Westburg and outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad.
Each of them except for Holliday, Kjerstad and Prieto started over the weekend, but all played significant time. Monday’s lineup includes not only regulars Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, who’ll be gone within a week to play in the World Baseball Classic, but also Ryan Mountcastle at first and Austin Hays in left and Jorge Mateo at short, each getting their first action of the spring.
Manager Brandon Hyde isn’t certain that winning is important in Grapefruit League games.
“I thought last year was really important,” Hyde said. In 2022, spring training was truncated because of the lockout, and the Orioles finished 8-8-2 on their way to their first winning season since 2016.
“I wanted our guys to feel, coming off such a bad year, I wanted our guys have the feeling of shaking hands after games and feeling good about themselves and playing good,” Hyde said. “The difference with spring training is the majority of guys who start aren’t finishing games. They’re not shaking hands. They’ve already got their work in and gone out.
“There’s so much that goes into winning a spring training game because you have two teams playing against two other teams. You might have pitchers out there that might not be with you during the season. It’s important that the first five, six innings we play well. That’s the most important thing for me.”
With the young prospects entering the game, there hasn’t been as much of a drop in ability as there was in previous years.
“We’re so much more talented in our minor leagues,” Hyde said. “Especially swinging the bat. The way we’re swinging the bar right now, guys without much experience is super encouraging. It’s still extremely early, but a lot of these guys are showing what kind of hitters they’re going to be.”
How many left-handers? One of Hyde’s decisions this spring is the number of left-handers he’ll have in the bullpen in addition to Cionel Pérez, Keegan Akin, DL Hall, Drew Rom, Nick Vespi, Bruce Zimmermann, who’s Monday’s starter are the possibilities on the 40-man roster. Darwinzon Hernandez and Cade Povich are the left-handers are non-roster invitees.
“Ideally, you’d definitely want at least two,” Hyde said. “Hopefully, we have a good competition with the left-handers. Pérez is going to be in there. Let’s hope he stays healthy throughout camp and breaks for us healthy.
“There’s opportunity after that. Akin had a great first half last year. That was overlooked. We know what he can do as well.”
Akin’s background as a starter helped last season. His first 19 appearances were at least two innings, a major league record.
“I definitely need some guys that can go multiple innings, especially early in the year when starters might not be all the way built up,” Hyde said, but that second left-hander doesn’t have to be a multi-inning reliever.
Urías won’t get spring time at short: Mateo will get his time exclusively at shortstop this spring, and Gunnar Henderson could occasionally play there. Ramón Urías, who’s starting at third on Monday, isn’t expected to play there this spring. He’ll play third and second this spring.
“I want to make sure he’s comfortable at both spots before we leave,” Hyde said. “I definitely think he can play shortstop. Last year, he played short a lot in spring because we weren’t sure who our shortstop was.”