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Shorebirds Learning The Oriole Way on the Eastern Shore

Shane Davis signs autographs
Shane Davis (photo: Eric Garfield)
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Not expecting any sub-75 degree weather, I didn’t pack sleeves or pants for a trip home to MD’s Eastern Shore to watch Delmarva host Fayetteville. In typical baseball nature, Salisbury’s weather was relatively unkind especially at night when it was cold enough to get my teeth chattering.

Easy to make an icy metaphor as they went 1-4 and were outscored 43-18 but that’s not how I see things despite the low win total and stats on the scoreboard.

Lots of players are onboard the Oriole pipeline and tracking well in development. Milestones are being approached and passed. It’s hard sometimes when the bounces don’t go your way and the spin of the ball goes away from your glove. At this level of competition starting off strong and causing positive momentum can carry a young squad for weeks. The Shorebirds have had such periods this year and they will again. The trip was planned for a few specific reasons; fortunately there were even more great surprises to see. And as usual, some only to see temporarily.

On Tuesday OF prospect Isaac Bellony and IF prospect Erison Placencia were in the lineup and contributing. By Wednesday’s game they were gone to High A Aberdeen. That’s how it works in the minor leagues. Here today, gone tomorrow.

The Woodpeckers didn’t bring star power to the series but the Orioles certainly did. 2020 top draft pick Heston Kjerstad had been working out with organizational trainers in the days leading up to Monday in anticipation he could enter games and gradually increase action. It looked right away that the work with the hitting instructors has been going well as his timing was right on mid-90’s heat. Just like a BP session the first few touches went opposite field and gradually worked more pullside. The athletic corner outfield prospect had one shot hard to 1st on a bounce that was scooped up.

When things are going well he’s a good enough hitter to aim it slightly more in the 2nd base hole for a a hit but at this stage clean, hard contact is not a net loss. Showing his skill Heston started his professional career 3-7 (.429) adding in a double and an RBI groundout. Through the first time seeing an A level pitching staff he took one walk and struck out twice. On Saturday night, slowly extending the game action in a 7-inning contest he was able to make a sliding catch in deep right and shift into a higher gear on the bases to extend a single into a double, finishing off the play by sliding under the throw. The sample size is small, but there’s some positive momentum to build on right there.

Who knows how long he’ll be Salisbury bound, but leaving the sweltering complex level was a goal and it’s clearly been met.

Tethered to Kjerstad for several reasons is fellow 2020 draft class member Carter Baumler. Baumler has also had his sights set on leaving Florida for a while after undergoing Tommy John surgery and it’s required rehab. The righty starter was flat out dominant in the rookie leagues despite a schedule that was as regimented as it could be. Now the plan for the developing ace is to do the same thing to hitters who are better. On Wednesday he continued to show that’s a reasonable goal for him. Of Baumler’s 10 outs, 6 were strikeouts. 33 of his 53 offerings hit the zone and his defense turned 3 ground balls into outs. The efficient outing continued a trend of great appearances for Carter who has 15k’s and 4 hits allowed through his 9 total innings. Rehabbing from an elbow ligament surgery comes with a great deal of concern but he looks like full exertion isn’t one of them. Baumler had the gun in the low 90’s while hitting his spots along the corners to stay ahead of the Pecker hitters.

Having these two pedigree picks on the field together is a huge priority for this front office. Fans may want to accelerate that climb up the ladder but Mike Elias and staff may want to let things occur more organically and let each of these players reach optimal health and levels of everyday use.

Seeing players from the GCL a rung up at Low-A was as much a positive experience but for different reasons. The off the field maturation process is underway, even in full gear. Some lessons in English are paying off for players I couldn’t communicate with at all before. Tough to ignore growth like that. It’s just as clear that on-field they’re being tested the hard way everyday. Batting averages are low and strikeouts pile up like peanut shells under a box seat. Players like Isaac De Leon, Moises Ramirez and Misael Deson are truly taking their respective lumps.

Young as they are there’s plenty of pride in their games so they’ll learn and adjust to show the skill that has them at this level. DeLeon needs to field with confidence that borders on aggressiveness and I saw it in flashes this time around. An accurate and sizzling throw to second for a force fading into the 3B hole here. A pivot out of a grounder giving him a clear lane to first there. Mixed in with a bobbled bouncer that affected the next few hit his way, it’s not a different player I’m seeing but a different level of pressure.

Pitching is the same. Righty Dan Hammer looks much better than last summer in Sarasota so it was good to see him have a strong appearance. He fought through some adversity and found his stuff somewhere through his 5 inning stint ending up with 7 strikeouts.

Like Kjerstad, Hammer’s family was around to see him perform. Both groups were proud in their own unique way.

Another former Floridian who had family in the house was OF prospect Trendon Craig.

Craig is a great example of the team’s new emphasis on development gone right. Signed for a significantly larger bonus than the majority of players picked around him in round 20 Craig didn’t follow his fellow draftees up the ladder once camp broke in March. TC stayed at extended spring and started to warm up with the weather. Lots of everyday use, a good amount of base hits and a good but increasingly improving defensive skill set is what he brought to the table at the complex level. After about a month at Delmarva, Craig’s family including his very cute cousin Kendall (SS)got to see a player making the adjustment in outstanding fashion. Craig’s in a 9-game hit streak and his June slash line is a scalding .395/.465/.579. In Wednesday’s win he had both a home run and a deep triple out to left field showing the level cut/bat speed combo that became familiar to Birdland South fans.

photo: Eric Garfield

Wednesday featured a complex arm gone quite right as the stocky righty Juan De Los Santos came in for 6 frames after Baumler left. In Florida there wasn’t the ease of motion leading to 96mph gas like there is now. Incorporating a powerful lower half into his delivery has created drive that powers fastballs hitter after helpless hitter. Throwing breaking balls at a rate of about 1 for every 3 fastballs he struck out 10 of his 18 outs. Juan looked right on the line of gassed and lasting maybe a batter or 2 more leaving the field after the game so this potential starter has the steam to save a pen. In the minor leagues, at least for now he’s part of one. Righthanders Edgar Portes, Angel Vargas and Joel Benitez pitched the night before opening up the series with mixed results. Benitez had his curveball breaking big and with enough yank to induce the weakest of contact. His former FCL’ers combined for 17 baserunners in 6 innings so the results ended up flat. Vargas clearly had movement on his stuff but the pitches ended up with too much plate. Righty starter Moises Chace is finding A to be a different type of battle than the rookie leagues were. Chace just turned 19 and returned from a short IL stint to make a start on Friday. It got a bit bumpy but he missed some bats in the return to action. Ump didn’t help him. Enough to build on going forward. Seeing some growth in the arm action department could have his naturally floaty stuff even harder to track a la Jean Pinto.

Catcher Brayan Hernandez showed dependability and a powerful bat hitting a few out of Ed Smith Stadium. Seeing him do the same at Perdue Stadium in Salisbury didn’t come as a surprise at all. With him as a backup the catching position is in good hands as of now. 2021 draft pick Creed Willems is clearly emerging as a fan favorite and a leader. Seeing his fast forward from Florida to Low A has been really impressive. At the plate his stroke looks strong and quick. Once his hands drop into move mode positive things happen as far as contact. But the growth has been in Willems’ selectivity. Now he’s choosier overall, maybe even too much as he had a few K’s looking on close ones including a game ender on Friday night before the fireworks. With more maturity on display each time he leaves the dugout Creed is helping himself grow in the game at such a young age while guiding the arms from warmups to their time on the hill.

Starters Shane Davis and Ryan Long have differing righty slots and arsenals but each were effective in their outings this week. According to the friendly Long he’s an ‘extreme pronator’ so his fingers do as much work as his wrist to hold back change ups and spin sliders. Davis throws a more traditional curve ball but operates with a fast but not too fast pace that keeps hitters from getting comfortable. Life on the farm means that Davis shared the warm-up field with a few hundred little leaguers and Long signed all of their baseballs on the way off the field into the stands.

Coming from Sarasota to Maryland I expected to return to a familiar lineup as the rookie league starts. Instead, one of those positive surprises was 3 FCL teammates being called up during the homestand. Long speculated was the arrival of OF prospect Stiven Acevedo but the ones of IF Frederick Bencosme and C Wilkin Grullon were less so. Bencosme has been stateside for only a matter of weeks while playing well at all aspects of the game. Still lacking in overall game experience but not at all in belief the Orioles smartly accelerated his pace. Smartly, he returned the favor getting hits and making solid contact in his debut. Leading the team in prayer he displayed uncommon maturity and a lack of nerves making the jump. Acevedo was the Sarasota squad’s hottest hitter so his bat making its way to an affiliate was about due. Grullon brings experience in games and years to provide depth at catcher and corner. If he gets on the mound that means the pen’s out of juice.

Staying at the same hotel as them for a few days I saw their happy transition away from complex ball up close. Ready and willing to be a part of a high ranked system they’re on an affiliate and proud to wear the Orange and Black.

The years ago trade of Andrew Cashner to Boston is aging well as OF Elio Prado is at Delmarva trying to get back to health too. Seeing him contribute and beat out a few choppers before leaving a game represents both the good and bad in his current state. IF Noelberth Romero was also in that deal and while his at bats were marked with misguided cuts he made two sparkling plays at 2B. Both times diving toward the middle online drives he caught each but neither looked off the bat like they had a chance to be seen much less gloved. Laser quick reflexes pushed his 1st step in the right direction into well-timed dives.

Finally a pair of players who made favorable impressions were IF/OF Luis Valdez who profiles as a leadoff hitter with skill but not selectivity and righty reliever Thomas Girard. The high-energy Valdez likes to swing if it’s close, bringing his uppercut to the ball. Once on base his light is blinking neon green as he displays more speed than a backstop group like Fayetteville could handle. On Wednesday he stole when the catcher was tossing back to the pitcher sizing up the scenario perfectly. Then, he did it again showing more explosion towards 3rd forcing an errant throw that allowed him to score. Valdez shows better than average range and speed. Girard has been spinning the ball well since being drafted by the O’s. His appearance in this series showed that’s still going on. Darting down and away from right handed batters his stuff features lots of whiffs and quick at-bats.

The trip was worthwhile, the learning and observations invaluable as more info on the team’s rebuild is always worth it to glean. The team’s mood is upbeat, positive and full of forward focus even through the losses.

There were high level Orioles executives in the stadium to see the new additions so I imagine they came away pleased with Baumler, Kjerstad and the new callups from the complex.

I had a lot of fun meeting the players and their families and talking baseball with lots of Oriole supporters so the vacation was just perfect. Sitting in the front row and watching the action was a great way to spend a week, I highly recommend it.

One of my friends was able to join me on Friday and we had so much fun seeing it all up close. Then it got even closer as we returned to the hotel and saw Portes, Bencosme and a travel weary Grullon sitting in the lobby talking baseball with little leaguers.

This trip afforded me the chance to meet pitching coach Joe Haumacher and his family visiting from New Jersey along with the families of both trainer Julio Ibarra as well as longtime bullpen catcher and all-around nice guy Alfredo Gonzalez. The vibe of being an extensive O’s family wasn’t lost on me. They were very outgoing and ready to talk rebuild. We all want to win.

Having never been recognized in person before that changed this week so hello to Todd and Carl. These Bird fans talked O’s with me and gave me tips on the team. Knowing that I can help to educate and motivate a couple of O’s fans means a lot so thanks for the confirmation.

Soon it’ll be back to the FCL for me so there’ll be more info and results once I return to Florida this week.

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