Of course it’s too early to draw impressions about this club. Opening Day is still a month away, and MASN practically isn’t even televising anything. But hey, even baseball that doesn’t count is better than no baseball, and even a sketchy first impression is better than sitting at home reading the ZiPS predictions. Sorry, not sorry!
With that, here’s a quick series of reactions to the Orioles’ first week of Sarasota ball:
1. A surprising number of the rotation candidates have showed up ready to play.
Lefty Cole Irvin’s stuff already looks sharp, with two innings of one-hit ball on Tuesday. No, it’s not so surprising that a veteran lefty would immediately have a feel for his arsenal, but it is nice to see him showing up for the games that don’t count. Irvin says he doesn’t consider his rotation spot to be guaranteed, but I don’t think we should believe him.
Dean Kremer is another pitcher who looks hot to trot. Partly this is because he’s got only one more scheduled start before he leaves to join Israel’s WBC team. But it’s also because last season, Kremer seized control of his professional career in a big way, turning a 7.55 ERA in 2021 into a 3.23 ERA in 21 starts in 2022. Kremer’s 2022 was the lowest ERA by an Orioles starter since Miguel González posted the same 3.23 mark in 2014. So understandably he’s out to prove it was no fluke.
Kyle Bradish already has his arsenal working, too, throwing two hitless, scoreless innings on Wednesday in which he hit 96 on the radar gun and struck out two. Last season, Bradish would flash brilliance and then badness before he settled down for a 3.28 ERA in his last 13 starts, so it’s cool to see him putting together last season’s lessons already.
Meanwhile, Grayson Rodriguez is not exactly giving up his shot, either. On Thursday, he rolled through two innings in 21 pitches, facing the minimum six batters, allowing just a walk followed by a GIDP. He says he feels like his stuff is even better this season than it was last year. Considering Rodriguez put up a 2.62 ERA with 109 K’s in 75.2 innings in Triple-A last season, this wouldn’t exactly be a bad development.
2. The prospects in camp seem to have heard that the Orioles have the No. 1 ranked farm system in America, and they’re playing like they’re eager to prove it.
Heston Kjerstad is an early standout in this category. He’s been flashing impressive gap-to-gap power in batting practice and in game action, where he already has a team-leading two HRs and four runs scored, as well as six hits (tied for first with Terrin Vavra) and three runs batted in. Meanwhile, Coby Mayo is putting on BP clinics already, socking massive home runs off the light towers, foul poles, billboards, or whatever is in his way. His teammate Connor Norby said Kjerstad and Mayo were his favorite BPs to watch, for that very reason. Meanwhile, the O’s are a perfect 2-0 in games Jackson Holliday has played in. The 19-year-old is shockingly good already for someone who was in high school last year. I say keep playing him.
3. The tougher competition seems to be forcing some of the contenders play harder.
Terrin Vavra, whose roster spot is less than guaranteed with all the lefties who are breaking camp, leads the team right now in average (.545), ABs (11), OBP (.583), slugging (1.091) and OPS (1.674). I’m not saying these numbers mean anything, but I’d like to see Vavra win himself a job. Not that his competition is slacking, either. Lewin Díaz has four hits, including a home run. Franchy Cordero unleashed a bomb the other day.
4. This Orioles front office may not draft them, but appears to be pretty good at spotting, signing and developing pitchers.
Just like last year’s out-of-nowhere success stories Cionel Pérez, Austin Voth and Félix Bautista, a couple of new pitching pickups in 2023 — Andrew Politi, the Rule 5 guy snatched up from Boston, and Cade Povich — have outside chances to make the team. Povich’s stuff, in particular, is said to be making a splash: he pitched two innings with three strikeouts on Monday, while Politi threw two scoreless the other day and whiffed three..
5. A few players, mostly bullpen pieces, are off to slow starts.
Joey Krehbiel and Bryan Baker are in this ignoble camp. Krehbiel gave up eight runs in 1.2 innings thus far. Bryan Baker managed to surrender three runs in just one inning. The bats are a little flat, as a near-no hitter by the Rays and Thursday’s 10-3 loss would indicate. Pitchers may have the early advantage before the bats warm up.
6. Brandon Hyde is already sizing up his options for coveted roster spots.
Guys like Ryan McKenna, Kyle Stowers, Jordan Westburg, Ryan O’Hearn and Vavra are getting lots of starts, not just appearing as late-inning pinch hitters. These are the players with the most to play for this spring, and for whom the innings matter!
7. The injury news is getting better for the team on the whole.
DL Hall, slowed down to start camp with lower back stiffness, is throwing off a mound now. And Félix Bautista, who was rehabbing a knee in the offseason, looks sharp enough already that former Orioles closer Jim Johnson singled him out as his favorite arm to watch on the team right now. Anthony Santander got plunked on the knee in one of this week’s games, but he’s doing fine. John Means is throwing on flat ground again, and hopes to be back in the rotation in July.
8. Finally, Colton Cowser is a hoot. The Orioles mic’d him up in a vid released on Tuesday. What did we learn? Cowser’s got a nice flow en español, telling Cuban infielder César Prieto, Tú eres muy feo (“You are very ugly”). He also does a mean Gunnar Henderson impression.
For real, though, from the glimpses into the culture of this club, this seems like a real solid bunch. Coming up through the minors must do that for a core group.
All in all, spring training doesn’t mean anything, and definitely not one week of it. But it’s hard not to feel the contagious enthusiasm coming out of this system right now.