‘We’re locked in and focused’: O's begin minor league spring training with MLB side absent

NATHAN RUIZ
Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Adley Rutschman, left, of the American League, talks with Rachel Balkovec during the third inning of the MLB All Star Futures baseball game, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Gabe Christus)

On the verge of the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league side of spring training beginning in earnest, the way Triple-A Norfolk manager Buck Britton described coaches and players’ approach to that camp carried quite a bit of irony.

“I know all the craziness that’s going on in Major League Baseball, but we’re in full swing,” Britton said. “We’re locked in and focused.”

Baltimore’s major leaguers, conversely, are locked out, leaving the Orioles’ full attention on their minor leaguers in Sarasota, Florida. The sport’s first work stoppage in nearly three decades amid negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement has prompted MLB to cancel four weeks of major league spring training games and the first week of the regular season. But the owner-imposed lockout affects only players on teams’ 40-man rosters, meaning spring training marches on for minor leaguers. After pitchers and catchers reported last week, the rest of the Orioles’ minor league players join camp Tuesday.

It’s not without the overhang of the circumstances happening at the major league level.

“I think there’s just a real, like, anticipation,” Double-A Bowie manager Kyle Moore said. “Like, ‘When is this thing going to end? And when are we going to get back to normal as far as the entire organization from the major leagues down being at work?’ I think that’s the biggest thing that’s there. It’s just a little bit of anxiety and a little bit of hurry up and wait. Kind of just wanting everything to be as it should.”

Protocols relaxed: There is some normalcy, Moore said, in the sense that the COVID-19 protocols that hovered over last year’s spring training have been somewhat relaxed. But it’s counteracted by the fact it’s early March and there are minor leaguers practicing at Ed Smith Stadium, the Orioles’ major league spring training complex.

“It’s almost as if we’re kind of out of time and out of place,” Moore said. “I’m just so happy that what’s going on didn’t affect the players that are here right now because they’re getting a tremendous opportunity to do this, to work out with our whole minor league staff in a beautiful facility.”

MLB remains without an official start date for its spring training. All exhibition games have been canceled through March 17, and Opening Day has been delayed from March 31 to April 8 for the Orioles, with the possibility of more games being lost as negotiations between the league and MLB Players Association continue. But, weather pending, Norfolk’s season will start regardless April 5, with Baltimore’s three other full-season affiliates — Bowie, High-A Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva — beginning their seasons three days later.

Added attention for the farm system: The circumstances could lead to added attention on Baltimore’s budding farm system, one that ranks among the best in the sport amid the organization’s rebuild.

“I think the focus for us has been on the minor leagues in a sense here in the last couple of years with what we’re doing and trying to build,” Britton said. “But some of these exciting players are now starting to get to Double-A and Triple-A. If Major League Baseball was not happening, it would definitely give fans a chance to maybe come on out to a minor league game and check out the progress some of these kids are making and get to watch baseball. That’ll be good for everything.”

There would be some notable faces absent. All players on teams’ 40-man rosters are barred from team activities, including prospects who have yet to actually play in the majors. For the Orioles, that’s a group that includes left-hander DL Hall and right-hander Kyle Bradish, two of their top three pitching prospects, and outfielder Yusniel Diaz, who once ranked as the organization’s top prospect after coming over in the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Grayson Rodriguez, the Baltimore Orioles' 2018 first round draft pick, stands on the field during a baseball game between the Orioles and the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Rutschman and Rodriguez will be there: Most of Baltimore’s top prospects can continue training with team guidance. The spring training camp will feature eight of the Orioles’ top 10 prospects per Baseball America, including catcher Adley Rutschman and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, generally regarded as the sport’s top position player and pitching prospects, respectively.

Beginning March 16, Orioles prospects will play games 19 straight days, with 12 matchups against Pittsburgh minor leagues, two against Tampa Bay, one against Atlanta and four intrasquads. All home games will be at the Buck O’Neil Complex at Twin Lakes Park, the traditional home of Baltimore’s minor league spring training.

Fans will be able to attend workouts, taking place at both Ed Smith Stadium and Twin Lakes Park through March 15, at no cost beginning Thursday, with the games at Twins Lakes Park also open starting three hours before first pitch. At a time with no major league action, the setup allows the Orioles’ fanbase to get its baseball fix before the minor league regular seasons begin with certainty next month.

“A lot of excitement in the organization with these guys,” Norfolk pitching coach Justin Ramsey said. “Hopefully, we get some additional fans out there to enjoy the show.”