Matt Blood is making sure Orioles prospects are keeping their eyes on the ball — literally and figuratively.
The team’s director of player development and the rest of the organization are dealing with unprecedented challenges with COVID-19, which has wreaked havoc across all professional and amateur sports.
There is speculation the minor-league baseball season could be canceled and those players would compete in a developmental league and play games at their respective spring training facilities.
“Obviously, we’ve never experienced this in-season,” Blood said. “We have an offseason every year where this way of life is kind of the norm. It’s a little different but we’re making the most of it.”
Players have altered their offseason preparations and training because of the travel and gathering restrictions associated with the coronavirus. Most of these young prospects have been forced to train at home. That can be a bit tricky with baseball, especially for players who don’t have access to some type of batting cage.
However, Blood is confident the Orioles prospects are still progressing with their development.
“Everyone’s a little different,” Blood said. “Some have private facilities they’re able to access. Some have more advanced equipment at their own home. Some have to get creative and find ways to get in what they need to get in. But everybody has their directives and they’ve been in communication with their coaches. They are all getting their work in.”
Still, it’s hard to simulate practice sessions without other players and live games. That inevitably is going to have an impact on many of the players. The Orioles are doing their best to make the proper adjustments.
Communication has been key. The Orioles coaches have stayed in contact with players, offering advice, instruction and guidance. The team has made the most of a difficult situation.
“They can’t be out playing games,” Blood said. “They can’t be out practicing with their teammates and their coaches in person, so that’s a challenge. But there are other things that you can do. We can work virtually. We can have sessions both on mental and physical training — a lot of one-on-ones calls or reviewing video, a lot of team calls on different topics, whether it be on hitting, fielding and pitching. There are a lot of different ways that you can get creative and still be productive.”
In the meantime, the players expected to make the Orioles’ big-league roster are dealing with the same challenges. Those big-leaguers are also working out remotely as well.
“Once we know how much baseball we’re going to play this year, we’ll start figuring it out at that point, but right now our guys are doing the best they can to stay in shape on their own,” general manager Mike Elias said in a recent conference call with the Baltimore media. “The important thing right now is that they adhere to public health guidelines.
“It’s tough to keep your full training regimen going when you’re a professional athlete, but our strength and training staffs are in touch with these guys. We’re coming up with solutions so that they can work out properly and keep their arms loose.”
Despite the uncertainty, the Orioles’ front office is forging ahead with plans to strengthen the team. The 2020 MLB Draft is expected to proceed in June — albeit on a much smaller scale. Instead of the traditional 40 rounds, the draft will be limited to 5-10 rounds.
The Orioles should be able to grab an impact player with the No. 2 overall selection behind the Detroit Tigers. The Orioles will likely have their sights on Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin, Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson, Georgia right-handed pitcher Emerson Hancock and Texas A&M left-handed pitcher Asa Lacy with that second overall pick.
While the shortened draft is not ideal, Elias is confident the team will be able to infuse more talent with the number of promising prospects that will be available.
“If you look at it with the draft order right now, we’ve got four picks in the top 75, which is a lot, and we’ve got three in the top 40, and then obviously we have the second overall pick,” Elias said. “So that’s a huge draft. If that [were to have been] taken away from us, that would’ve been quite a blow.
“I’ll take that. I think given the circumstances, even a shortened draft is going to be a tall order to prepare for, so we’ll just focus on doing a great job with those high picks.”
While the minor-league season is in jeopardy, Elias and other executives are confident MLB will proceed with some type of season — at this point likely shorter than the traditional 162-game schedule. Elias is not overly concerned about the number of games as opposed to just getting back on the field.
“I know we’re hoping to play as much as possible,” Elias said. “I think we will play as much as we possibly can and if it’s a very short season, … this season is going to be way different than anything that’s ever happened in the history of the game one way or the other, no matter how many games we play.
“I’m hoping that we play whatever we can play and probably won’t confine ourselves to some arbitrary numbers.”
Blood is also preparing for the future down on the farm — whatever it might be.
“We’ll figure something out, whether it’s extended instructional league or how to progress and keep getting better,” Blood said. “We’re already doing that now, at home by ourselves. So, I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to make the adjustments or whatever the situation is.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles