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For Young Orioles, Opportunity Knocks ... And They're Responding

May 23, 2019
Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde is impressed by several players who are seizing the opportunity to show they can become cornerstones of the rebuilding franchise. 

Whether they've been overlooked, designated for assignment or simply did not fit into the plans of other big-league clubs, the door is open at Camden Yards. 

"A lot of our guys have a lot to prove," Hyde said. "They're getting an opportunity to play in the big leagues and getting an opportunity to play consistently. Maybe they haven't had that chance. I feel great about our guys taking advantage of the playing time they're getting. I hope they're taking every opportunity to take advantage of it because they don't know if it's ever going to happen again."

Infielders Renato Nunez and Rio Ruiz, outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. and catcher Pedro Severino are headlining the new wave of positional talent. While this group has performed well so far, the margin for error remains thin because the Orioles have several prospects in the minors pushing for roster spots.

The fierce competition for playing time that began in spring training has carried over to the regular season. Hyde faces a delicate balance: developing talent while trying to win games.  

"Our guys in there know that I'm going to continue to support them," Hyde said. "I'm honest. I have their backs. I want them to believe in what we're doing. I want them to believe in the coaching staff. I want them to believe in each other. I think we have a really good clubhouse. I think our guys like playing the game and like playing the game as our club. There's a good feel."

General manager Mike Elias has said numerous times the focus is getting better each day rather than competing for a division title. The Orioles are not going to jeopardize the long-term strategy to win games in April, May and June.

Still, Hyde conceded it's no fun being on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

"You want to win," said Hyde, who was on the Chicago Cubs' coaching staff from 2014-2018. "I have been to the postseason four years in a row. And it feels good to win. ... I have been through the other side also where I've been through a 100-loss team with a group of young guys that were getting their feet wet in the big leagues. I have seen the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel type of situation. I feel like this is where we're at right now."

Smith, a former first-round pick by Toronto, was acquired from the Blue Jays in exchange for international signing bonus slots in March. The 26-year-old has thrived as an everyday player and made some highlight-reel plays in left field.

"I've been used to playing every day since I got drafted. It's nothing different to me," Smith said. "Just a bigger stage, just got to stay calm at all times and just be the same person that you always were."

Nunez has also found a consistent role because of his versatility and production. The 25-year-old has played first base, left field and served as the designated hitter. Nunez was tied with Trey Mancini for the club lead with six home runs after the first month of the season. 

Last year, he appeared in 60 games for the Orioles, hitting .275 (55-for-200) with 13 doubles, seven home runs and 20 RBIs. If he continues to play well, Nunez very well could have a role with the franchise long term.

"What I really want is to be in the lineup, even DHing," he said. "I don't mind. But if I'm in the lineup, of course I'm going to be happy."

Ruiz has also been a pleasant surprise. The 24-year-old third baseman has shown versatility as a hitter and a willingness to get on base however possible. Sometimes that entails bunting against the shift, which ultimately can produce an effective at-bat. 

"... Whenever I had the opportunity to bunt or work on bunting, I kind of took some pride in that," Ruiz said. "Made sure that I was doing things right and my technique was right and made sure the bunts were down."

The Orioles opted to keep Severino on the roster rather than Jesus Sucre when the injured Austin Wynns was ready to rejoin the team. Severino, who was claimed off waivers from the Washington Nationals in March, has been solid managing the pitching staff and has shown some power with his bat. 

"You have to prepare yourself to be an everyday player," Severino, 25, said. "My confidence is back, and I feel really good here with my teammates. I think we're doing a pretty good job."

Hyde said Severino is a perfect example of a player who has made the most out of his opportunities. In return, the club has a catcher who can be productive in the bottom third of the lineup.

"Pedro plays with a lot of life," Hyde said. "He's got an abundant amount of energy, fantastic in the clubhouse, loves to play. I like the way about him. I think he's really competitive. I think he battles. He's just a super-tough kid that likes to play the game, and it shows, how he goes about things. He's tough on himself, lives and dies with the pitcher who's out there, tries to get through innings. It matters to him to put a zero up. He shows it and it's fun to watch."

Hyde served as Rick Renteria's bench coach with the Cubs in 2014, and the two still have a close bond. Renteria is facing a similar rebuilding challenge now with the Chicago White Sox -- albeit in a much more forgiving division, the American League Central. 

"You are always trying to give guys opportunities to learn certain things through particular experiences," Renteria said. "Sometimes, I think you're trying to balance out everything while trying to win ballgames at the major-league level, which can be trying at times."

"... I always say if you're developing, you're winning because at the end of the day, when it's all said and done, when they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, you give yourself a really good chance in the long run of winning," Renteria added. "I think you find a way to make sure that you keep encouraging, teaching, motivating and, by the same token, keeping a perspective on what's going on in the process."

Even the more seasoned players for the Orioles are buying into the plan. They understand the growing pains that accompany this strategy. 

Still, the vets have been impressed by the way the team has responded to some of the early adversity.

"I think we've shown some flashes of being really good in some certain areas, and I just think we've been really inconsistent," starting pitcher Andrew Cashner said. "I think the biggest thing for us is trying to find a way to be more consistent. If we can be more consistent, I think we'll be a pretty good ballclub." 

Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 254: May 2019 

Originally published May 15, 2019