O's balance player pool, prospect growth needs

June 30th, 2020

On Wednesday morning, the first wave of Orioles players is set to walk through the gates of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, reporting to a ballpark for the first time in more than four months. They will undergo two days of staggered COVID-19 screening, with baseball activity beginning Friday for what’ll be a three-week summer camp.

After four months on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, Orioles baseball is almost back. Yet it is unlike ever before. Here are four things to look for as the O’s return to the field for sanctioned workouts.

1. Full participation

On Monday, Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Nats pitcher Joe Ross and D-backs righty Mike Leake became the first players to decline to play during the 2020 season due to health and safety concerns. Others could potentially join them, but the O’s don’t expect it to be anyone from their ranks. Speaking on a Zoom call Monday evening, general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias said all 44 players in the O’s initial pool are expected to participate, though he acknowledged the possibility that could change in the future.

“We recognize that this will be fluid and everyone is having to make personal decisions and circumstances might not be fully understood until the season starts, but so far we are expecting full participation,” Elias said. “You see it in the news around the league that’s not the case everywhere and I wouldn’t be shocked if that ends up happening, but that’s going to be part of this.”

Per MLB rules, any player who is considered high-risk will be paid and earn service time if they opt out. A player who decides not to play this season won’t receive salary or service time if he does not qualify as high-risk.

“Everyone who’s coming really wants to be here and our approach is this is an unusual situation, everyone’s got their own circumstances,” Elias said. “We’re not pressuring anyone or shaming anyone that feels they shouldn’t be here and we’re making that known and I think it’s well received. And so far no one has decided not to come, but we’ll see how it goes.”

2. A healthy player pool

Outside of a lone case of a young international prospect who exhibited symptoms overseas and subsequently recovered, the Orioles have not had any possible COVID-19 cases in their player ranks, per Elias. Again, Elias acknowledged the possibility of that changing, potentially as early as later this week in pre-camp screening. While several southern states are experiencing significant spikes in coronavirus cases, Maryland’s metrics have been trending downward for weeks.

“It was a situation that occurred overseas,” Elias said of the lone instance of symptoms. “Other than that, we’ve been remarkably lucky thus far. I don’t expect that to continue throughout the season. We’re going to have cases. That’s been the expectation for Major League Baseball all along and we’re going to do the best we can to be prepared for it and contain any situations that occur and keep everyone healthy even when they do test positive and try to have the best outcome that we can. But we all know we’re heading into a situation that is not without its pitfalls and we’re going to do the best we can.”

3. Prospects comin’

The Orioles have one of the league’s smallest initial player pools, using 44 of their 60 possible spots all on players Elias characterized as in competition to make the 30-man Opening Day roster. While other rebuilding clubs like the Mariners and Tigers maxed out the back rungs of their player pools with prospects, the Orioles decided to hold off ... at least for now. The reason is flexibility.

“The way that we have analyzed the rules, is that it’s easier to add people than take them off that 16, especially certain types of people,” Elias said. “A young prospect, a young Minor Leaguer who we would add more for player development purposes cannot be removed from that list unless you release them and certainly we don’t want to get in a situation where we would even consider something like that. Or if their presence might otherwise cause us to release or waive someone that we didn’t want to otherwise. So we’re being very cautious about fleshing out that list.”

Translation: The big prospects will likely be included eventually. But after using 58 total players and 35 different pitchers last season, the O’s also first want to make sure they’re covered at the big league level for whatever the next three weeks and the scheduled 60-game sprint have in store.

Which is why names like Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall weren’t included in the initial pool, and why they stocked it with 26 pitchers without including near-ready prospects like Keegan Akin or Bruce Zimmermann as part of that depth. Both could very well factor in later, and the development of Rutschman, Rodriguez, Hall and others will be a priority of the organization this summer. But none were candidates to make the 30-man Opening Day roster, and the Orioles are trying to handle one thing at a time.

“I do expect that we will have players appear from the low Minors that realistically otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to come participate at the high Minor League or Major League level this year, [and] will be there primarily for player development purposes,” Elias said. “Logic would dictate it will be some of our top prospects, but we’ve also got a lot of prospects that perhaps aren’t publicly ranked as highly but they are closer to the Major Leagues and we need to get them ready for eventual or possible Major League debuts this year.”

4. Off-site options

The plan is for those players to train at a satellite secondary camp that would open “at some point during the quote unquote Spring Training period of time,” Elias said. It will be held at one of the Orioles’ Minor League affiliate parks, though it is not clear yet which. Elias indicated 2020 Draftees could eventually be part of the offsite workouts as well.

Asked how it would be determined which prospects were included, Elias said “it’s going to be kind of a sliding scale between who you are and how close you are to the big leagues, but also filling out depth for the Major League team this year. So there’s a lot of considerations and it just makes it a case-by-case, person-by-person decision.”