“They gave me a chance to come over here and compete and maybe get a spot in the rotation,” Hernández said when he arrived in Sarasota, Fla., the spring training home of the Orioles. He told reporters he wants a chance to make the Hall of Fame, plain and simple. If he can jump-start his career with Orioles, Hernández speculated, maybe he can make it. Ifs and maybes like those are omnipresent at Orioles camp, where what happens this year will largely be evaluated by what it leads to in the future.
At spring training, when reality has yet to chip away at possibility, everyone is still willing to believe the best-case scenario might materialize sooner than later. General Manager Mike Elias said this week that he thinks the team has the talent to field “an interesting group” and a “competitive team.” The Orioles will have the opportunity to exceed expectations, in part because expectations remain low.
Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections suggest Baltimore will finish the season 31 games under .500 and put its chances of winning the American League East at absolute zero. (“The least of my concerns,” Manager Brandon Hyde said on the first day of spring training.)
“I think the last two years we’ve been projected to finish last [in the AL], and we haven’t done it yet,” 2019 all-star left-hander John Means said when he arrived in camp. “I think we’ve outplayed projections every year that I’ve been up here, and the plan is to outplay the projections again.”
Means is an example of a player who has come into his own in Baltimore over the past two years, a sudden veteran on a young team hoping to watch success rise around him. But many of the top prospects whom the franchise plans to build around are not ready to be built around yet.
The outfielder they took second in last year’s draft, Heston Kjerstad, will not participate in major league spring training this year as he works his way back from what Elias called “an episode of myocarditis” — inflammation of the heart often linked to covid-19, though Kjerstad was never diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Touted starting pitching prospects Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and Bruce Zimmermann have looked promising in brief big league stints, but they have thrown fewer than 60 innings in the majors combined and probably will need to have their workloads monitored this season. Promising youngsters Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall — both among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, both shorted a year of development after the cancellation of last year’s minor league season — are probably months behind them. A wave of pitchers is coming, but it may be a year away from crashing into the AL East at full strength.
Meanwhile, the highest-paid player on the roster, Chris Davis, has all but disappeared, sidelined by a lower back injury nebulous enough that Elias wouldn’t set a timetable for his return when asked this week. Davis is one of the last vestiges of the team’s hopeful past, a reminder of what was — and a reminder of how even the cores that franchises wait years for don’t always yield dynasties.
“We just want to stay competitive and get better every single day,” said Hyde, who has said his team’s 2021 record doesn’t matter much to him. “We’re still in the mind-set of improving as a ballclub, improving as an organization. Continuing to get our guys experience at the major league level — I think there’s no better experience than playing in the American League East. You’re only going to get better by playing the competition we play.”
Since Elias and Hyde took over before the 2019 season, the Orioles have built something new, though exactly what it is probably will be clearer in hindsight. Even without Kjerstad making an imminent arrival, they enter 2021 with plenty of young and talented outfielders: Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle surpassed expectations with encouraging offensive numbers in the shortened 2020 season.
Beloved first baseman/outfielder Trey Mancini has returned after a diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. A new big league pitching coach duo of Chris Holt and Darren Holmes and a prioritization of analytics provide optimism that, this time around, young Orioles pitchers will thrive, not sputter. Matt Harvey, another fallen star, also chose Baltimore as a place to find a future.
Even with Davis’s contract still looming over them, the Orioles are projected to have the majors’ fourth-lowest payroll. If they can get close to contention sometime soon, they should have money to spend on a difference-maker or two. Those days may be far off. Or maybe they won’t be.
For now, Hyde and his staff — like Hernández, like Elias and like the rest — hope for the best. Hernández allowed three earned runs on five hits and was victimized by some shaky defense in 2⅔ innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday. His sinking fastball topped out around 87 mph, according to MLB.com’s readings, something the former flamethrower said he’s used to now.
“That’s the kind of pitcher that I am,” said Hernández, who said he felt in command Thursday, if unhappy with the results. “I don’t care about velocity. I just want to get people out — that’s it.”
Hyde said he was just happy Hernández came out of the outing healthy.
“I think veteran guys, sometimes it takes them a little longer,” Hyde said. “You have to hang with them a little bit in spring training if they’re not getting the results early on just because they know the grind of a six-month season. They know how to get ready. We’re doing that with Félix, knowing we have 2½ more weeks to go.”
The next 2½ weeks may go a long way in determining whether Hernández can add a few more years to a career he hopes will get him to Cooperstown. They probably will be less consequential for the Orioles, for whom they are another stretch defined mostly by what comes next for an organization banking on the future being worth the wait.