Flying South (and everywhere else) for the Winter

The focus in the offseason is on player moves.  Free agents signings and trades – or rumors of – draw the most attention.  It is often overlooked that there are dozens (and dozens) of players already in each organization who are not spending the winter months looking for a new team, but rather attempting to make themselves and their current team better.

To that end, the Orioles have spread out around the US and beyond in pursuit of offseason conditioning and improvement.

This week about twenty players – mostly pitchers – will gather in Sarasota, Florida at the Oriole’s spring training complex for a mini-camp.  The organization has held a similar camp for the past several years as a means of meeting with pitcher and identifying any possible issues before Spring Training.  This year the camp takes on a slightly elevated importance, given that pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti are new to the organization.  They will use the time to get to know many of the pitchers and begin their evaluations.  Given that is it is still January, the pitchers will not be going full force but likely will do a little throwing.

2013 Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland will be in Sarasota this week after spending some of October and most of November playing for Caribes de Anzoategui of the Venezuelan Winter League. Players participate in winter leagues for a variety of reasons and McFarland’s purpose in Venezuela was to rack up a few more innings so that he will be ready for a full season as a starter in AAA Norfolk.  T.J. added 39 1/3 innings to his 74 2/3’s innings during the regular season for 114 total, which makes throwing 160-ish innings in 2014 a very realistic target.  He pitched well in Venezuela, flashing a 1.6 SO/BB ratio and an impressive 5.13 GO/AO ratio for a 2.97 ERA over eight games.

After playing in the Venezuelan Winter League earlier this winter, T.J. McFarland will be among the Orioles in Sarasota for the mini-camp this week.  No word on whether the mustache will be with him.

After playing in the Venezuelan Winter League earlier this winter, T.J. McFarland will be among the Orioles in Sarasota for the mini-camp this week.  No word on whether the mustache will be with him.

McFarland was joined in Venezuela by new Oriole Edgmer Escalona.  Escalona – in fact – is still in Venezuela and pitching in the playoffs down there so he will not be joining McFarland and the other Orioles in Sarasota.  The Orioles signed Escalona after watching him pitch in Venezuela and coming away impressed with a new changeup he developed to combat left-handed hitters.  His winter league stats support the notion that the change has been an effective tool for the right-handed pitcher against left-handed batters.  Lefties hit only .179 off of Escalona during the regular season portion of the Venezuelan winter league and he allowed only one homerun to a lefty in 24 innings.

Edgmer Escalona has had a successful winter ball campaign as he prepares to compete for a spot in the Baltimore bullpen this Spring.

Edgmer Escalona has had a successful winter ball campaign as he prepares to compete for a spot in the Baltimore bullpen this Spring.

In total, the former Colorado Rockies reliever threw 56 2/3’s regular season innings – all as a starter – with a 1.80 SO/BB ratio and a 3.34 ERA.  On Saturday, Escalona scattered seven hits and allowed one earned run while striking out seven batters in a playoff game.  From a performance standpoint, Escalona has had a very productive winter.  If there is a negative to all of it, it is that he has put 60+ additional innings of work on his arm on top of the 46 innings he threw during the major league season.  106 innings is by no means a big red flag but at the same time one hopes that the additional work won’t slow Escalona down come Spring Training and the regular season.  It should also be noted that despite working as a starter in Venezuela, the Orioles almost certainly view Escalona purely as a reliever.

Staying down in the Caribbean winter leagues, we find a pair of former San Francisco Giants and current Orioles in catcher Johnny Monell and outfielder Francisco Peguero.  On Sunday Monell – playing for Criollos de Caguas of Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League in Puerto Rico – hit a pair of homeruns in a playoff game adding onto another one he hit last week.  In the regular season portion of the schedule, Monell hit .245/.339/.400.  He will compete for the backup catching job in Spring Training but with minor league options remaining, he is likely ticketed for Norfolk.

Meanwhile, Monell’s teammate with the Giants – Francisco Peguero – tore up Dominican Winter League pitching this offseason.  During the regular season portion of the schedule, the contact hitter put up a line of .380/.400/.620 in 71 plate appearances.  Clearly Francisco was not working on his (already very low) walk totals but the power (five homeruns and a pair of doubles) is nice to see.

Far away from Sarasota and the Caribbean, knuckleballer Zach Staniewicz threw five innings of three hit ball on Sunday in Australia for the Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League.  Zach is joined in Australia by fellow Oriole minor leaguers Allan de San Miguel, Nathan Tuckers, Kevin Grendell, Matt Wilson, and New Zealand native Pita Rona.  Although the ABL generally features non-prospects, that does not mean it is not worth following.  Last winter Michael Ohlman tore through the ABL and carried that momentum into the regular season where he was able to put himself back amongst the top Oriole prospects.

A little closer to home, several Orioles that are in Sarasota this week – Tim Berry, Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Ohlman, and Henry Urrutia –  who competed in the Arizona Fall League late this past fall.  Of the Birds that played in Arizona, Berry turned the most heads by virtue of his 3.67 SO/BB ratio and 1.84 ERA in 14 2/3’s Fall League innings.  Berry appears to possibly be coming into his own and has a big season for his development ahead of him when he heads to AA Bowie in April.  Rodriguez and Urrutia also had notable, positive performances in Arizona.

Urrutia – as noted – will be in Sarasota this week.  He is one of only three non-pitcher, non-catcher players expected at the camp.  He will be joined Nolan Reimold and Manny Machado in the non-pitcher, non-catcher group.  Manny and Nolan are in Florida so the team can monitor their progression from 2013 surgeries, while Urrutia’s participation seems largely to be an attempt to get him additional instruction.

Not every Baltimore pitcher will be in Sarasota this week.  As part of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, post-arbitration players are not required to attend any offseason workouts and the organization must contact the player’s agent first for permission.  Beyond that, it is simply not practical from a logistic standpoint to have every pitcher fly-in from all around the country for a one-week camp.

The majority of the Orioles’ projected opening day rotation will remain in California this week to continue their offseason workouts with front office member and former Oriole, Brady Anderson.  After he finished beating fans in foot races at the winter meetings, Anderson set up shop in California for his usual offseason conditioning program with interested Orioles.  This year, Brady was joined by Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Bud Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Brian Matusz.  Those pitchers will remain in California this week, but will not miss out an opportunity to get to know their new pitching and bullpen coaches.  Both Wallace and Chiti will fly out west after leaving Sarasota to visit with the pitchers stationed in California.

There are several Orioles unaccounted for above.  It is very important to note that just because a player is not attending a mini-camp, is not working out with Brady, or did not play winter ball does not mean they are slacking or going against the organization’s wishes.  For the most part these players are veteran position players, guys like Chris Davis, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, and Adam Jones.  Rest assured, all are following offseason workout routines to prepare themselves for 2014.  Just because their routines are not as visible as some of the others does not mean they are not happening.

Ryan Flaherty is among several Orioles that have worked out over the winter at OPACY.

Ryan Flaherty is among several Orioles that have worked out over the winter at OPACY.

For example, as we learned in December several Oriole players have been regulars in the Camden Yards workout rooms this winter.  Ryan Flaherty has spent significant time working on his hitting with former Oriole B.J. Surhoff while both Jones and Markakis were also amongst the regulars at OPACY this winter.  Those players’ specific situations make it convenient for them to work out during the winter months at the ballpark, but players like Davis and Hardy are no doubt getting their workouts in at locales more convenient to their offseason homes.

In just over one month, all of the Birds scattered over the United States (and the world) will reconvene in Sarasota for the start of Spring Training.  We tend to scoff at the notion that six weeks of Spring Training can make a significant difference on a player’s upcoming season.  That might be true, but it is also true that – as detailed above – the preparation for the next season starts much earlier than mid-February.  During a time of the baseball calendar where everyone is focused on improving through external means, I think it is nice to take a look at and remember all that is going on within the organization and with the rostered players to promote internal improvement.