SARASOTA, Fla. -- There’s a lot of newness in Orioles camp, and it’s creating quite a buzz from the top all the way down. Much of that comes, of course, from new general manager Mike Elias overseeing his first Spring Training, Brandon Hyde managing the big league club and what’s sure to be a lasting trickle-down effect as new systems are put in place.
But director of Minor League operations Kent Qualls thinks the changes really started last year under the old regime when the decision was made to hit the rebuild button.
“I think the biggest change really started last year at the Trade Deadline when we made trades and acquired 15 players back,” Qualls said from Minor League camp at the Buck O’Neil Training Complex at Twin Lakes Park. “It was a clear direction from that point and clear opportunity for young players in our system. For this Spring Training, there’s a lot of excitement about the change, there’s excitement about opportunities to play at higher levels, to break into the big leagues.”
There’s sure to be changes instituted as Elias settles in and brings in more staff, particularly in terms of bringing more analytics to player development and evaluation. Spring Training is more or less business as usual with the priority getting players ready for the season, but Qualls expects some of those ideas to be incorporated as the year goes on.
The one exception has been an increased focus on defensive shifting. Like every other team, the Orioles have used shifts, but it had been only at the upper levels. Elias and company have changed that, looking to have a uniformed approach throughout the entire organization.
“We’ve shifted in the past, but we didn’t have real defined shifts, and it didn’t come from a top down approach,” Qualls said. “Brandon and Mike brought that from their prior organizations. We have spent a lot more time practicing our infield defense and right-handed and left-handed shifts. That’s one of the biggest changes we’ve had to work on.
“It will be top down, all the way down to the Dominican Summer League. Our focus in the past had been Double-A and Triple-A with the shifts. It’s going to be top to bottom now, organization-wide.”
Machado trade acquisitions getting ready
The Orioles got five players from the Dodgers when they dealt Manny Machado last July, and four of them are on the current Top 30 prospects list. Two are in the top 10, with outfielder Yusniel Diaz topping the list and right-hander Dean Kremer coming in at No. 9. The pair had contrasting introductions to the Orioles organization, and their springs have gone in different directions as well.
Diaz, who was traded just days after hitting a pair of homers in the Futures Game, scuffled when he joined Double-A Bowie. To his credit, he wiped the slate clean quickly and arrived in Sarasota ready to go to work.
“He’s taken full advantage of it,” Qualls said. “He did come to instructional league and then he worked hard over the winter. When he had the chance to go to his first Major League camp, he’s made the most of it. He made a real positive impression over there and set himself up to have a good season.”
Diaz hit .333/.324/.515 in 33 at-bats in big league camp before being recently reassigned. Not that the Orioles were worried about his brief time with them last summer, but it’s been fun to see the real him in action this spring.
“He came into Major League Spring Training, what a great opportunity for him, he really stood out and his tools showed up,” Qualls said. “There’s a lot of excitement about a player like that. Maybe we didn’t see exactly that in Bowie last year, but this spring his talent has really shown.”
Kremer, on the other hand, kept on dominating on the mound post-trade. Eight strong starts with Bowie capped off a year that saw the right-hander lead the Minor Leagues with 178 strikeouts. He was slated to join Diaz in big league camp, but a small oblique injury kept him from logging any innings. It’s looking like he might begin the year back in extended Spring Training, but long-term that might not be so bad.
“When it’s 32 degrees in some of those April games and he’s still here in Florida, that could be a good thing,” Qualls said. “We want to put him in the best possible position for him to have another successful season. He’ll be a little bit behind, but he’ll have plenty of time to get his innings in.”
New international focus
One tangible way the new regime has impacted life in the player development department is a renewed focus on the international market. Both Elias and new international scouting director Koby Perez have already changed the look of the organization in a short amount of time.
“Already, since January 1, when Koby came aboard, we’ve probably signed more players and more talent in Latin America in that two-month period than we did all of last year,” Qualls said. “I’ve already seen it myself when I was down there in February. We all know what kind of impact that can have. A third of all the talent in baseball comes from the international market. That was an area that was not a huge focus. Now that it is a focus, we’re excited about that talent coming into the organization. It will take a while before it shows up here in the United States, but this summer we certainly expect to see it with our Dominican Summer League team.”
It looks like Austin Hays is back. Hays set the world on fire in his first full season of baseball as the 2016 draftee rocketed up to the big leagues in 2017. Then he scuffled through an injury-hampered 2018 campaign that saw him play just 75 games and finish with a .676 OPS. An ankle issue forced him off the field for an extended period and even when he was playing, he really wasn’t himself. This spring in big league camp, he looked more like the old Hays, hitting .351/.385/.892 with five homers in 37 at-bats before being reassigned.
“We’re really excited to have him back on the map, back in the swing of things,” Qualls said. “We expect a really productive season from him, kind of getting him back to where he was when he made his Major League debut. I think he’s such a tough kid, he tried to play with the injury. I think it hurt his performance, but he was just trying to play. Now that he had that repaired, he’s back to the Austin Hays from two years ago where he was one of the best players in all farm systems.”
On the mound, 2017 first-rounder DL Hall has picked up where he left off. The young left-hander had a strong second half in the South Atlantic League in 2018 and has been very strong this spring, pumping fastballs that consistently touched 96 mph in a recent outing.
“He’s been down here since mid-February, part of our early camp, and he’s continued to look really good and is making great progress,” Qualls said.