Why the Orioles’ latest scouting triumph is a 34-year-old journeyman pitcher

Albert Suárez is not your typical Baltimore Orioles phenom. His path was quite different than that of Jackson Holliday, the game’s No. 1 prospect; Colton Cowser and Jordan Westburg, the back-to-back American League Players of the Week; or Heston Kjerstad, the latest young hotshot to join the club after leading the Triple-A International League with 10 homers in 21 games.

Those players were high draft picks, top 100 prospects, the products not just of enviable draft positions stemming from years of tanking, but also of a front office hitting on one selection after another. Suárez, after only two starts, looks like another organizational triumph. But he’s 34. The Orioles are his fifth major-league organization. And he spent the past five seasons in Japan and Korea.

When Suárez made his Orioles debut on April 17, he had gone six years, 204 days between major-league appearances. He pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins that day, another 5 2/3 scoreless against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday night. Not bad for a guy who joined the Orioles on a minor-league contract last September. Blake Snell, who signed a two-year, $62 million free-agent deal with the San Francisco Giants, has an 11.57 ERA after three starts.

The addition of Suárez, announced by the Orioles as one of seven minor league deals on Dec. 30, was the kind of offseason transaction that elicits little more than a yawn. But for Mike Snyder, the Orioles’ director of pro scouting, the move was years in the making. He first identified Suárez as a possible target in the fall of 2017, while preparing for the Rule 5 draft. Mike Elias was a year from becoming the Orioles’ general manager.

Suárez had been a swingman for the San Francisco Giants in 2016 and a reliever in ‘17. But the Giants, after re-signing him to a minor-league deal, declined to protect him on their 40-man roster. The Arizona Diamondbacks grabbed Suárez in the Rule 5 draft, then stashed him at Triple A. Suarez, who signed at 16 out of Venezuela with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006, sought a fresh start. The following year, he began his journey to Asia.

He often was injured during his three seasons in Japan, but pitched well as a starter during his two seasons in Korea.

The Orioles continued to monitor him. Snyder wanted to sign him in the fall of 2022. But Suárez returned to the Samsung Lions with a seven-figure guarantee — a better opportunity than any major-league team was willing to give him.

What changed last year?

Suárez suffered a left calf injury in early August. The Lions, facing a Korea Baseball Organization cap on the number of foreign players they could carry, released him to replace him with another import, Taylor Widener. Snyder, seeing an opportunity that had not existed previously, contacted Suárez’s agent, Peter Greenberg.

“He’d been trying to get Albert for maybe the last three years. But the market in Asia moves very quickly,” Greenberg said. “He would always come to me early in the offseason here, but Albert would already have signed back in Japan or Korea. (Last year), though, he came to me and said, ‘I’m not going to be late this time. I want to try to sign Albert.’”

Snyder’s timing finally was right. The Lions wanted Suárez back, Greenberg said, but at a reduced salary in the $700,000-$800,000 range. Suárez was tired of being away. He is married with three children, ages 11, 8 and 4. The family lives in Katy, Texas. He had made decent money in Asia. He was ready to return full-time to the U.S.

The Orioles under Elias generally are selective in signing minor-league free agents. They don’t like releasing such players in spring training, and prefer their draftees to get the bulk of playing time in the minors. Elias, though, said he entrusts Snyder and his pro scouting group to handle minor-league deals for pitchers. Special assignment scout Will Robertson and pro scouting analyst Ben MacLean, in particular, vouched for Suárez, Snyder said.

“We are always conscious of the difficulty of finding starting pitching. And we saw flashes with him over the years,” Snyder said. “He had been working in a length (role), throwing strikes. He had gained some velocity, starting in 2018 in relief, and sustained that a little bit in Asia. He (also) improved his secondaries.

“We sold him on an opportunity in spring training, that we would give him some rope. We didn’t promise he was going to make the rotation. We didn’t make any promises. If anything, we undersell things. And I think in the long run, that really helps us. When we say we have an opportunity, it’s a legitimate opportunity.”

Signing Suárez in September enabled the Orioles to bring him to their fall pitching camp in Sarasota, Fla., where he met their high-performance, training and coaching staffs. Assistant pitching coordinator Adam Schuck and minor-league pitching coordinator Mitch Plassmeyer developed a plan for him. A number of other coaches also worked with Suárez, helping him tweak his delivery so that he wouldn’t need to make adjustments while trying to make the club in the spring (Plassmeyer is now the major-league team’s assistant pitching coach).

Suárez’s ERA in spring training was 5.17, but he nonetheless impressed manager Brandon Hyde and his staff, striking out 19 and walking only two in 15 2/3 innings. In one exhibition against the Philadelphia Phillies, he struck out seven in three scoreless innings against a lineup composed predominantly of regulars.

“He opened our eyes from the stuff that was coming out of his hand,” Hyde told reporters when the team summoned Suárez to replace the injured Tyler Wells. “You see 96 and you see him throw his fastball by guys with life, and then the secondary stuff he was throwing for strikes also. And he kept doing it every five days. We were excited about it.”

Suárez was excited, too, telling Greenberg even after he got sent down, “This was my favorite spring training in a long time.” In Snyder’s view, Suárez returned from Asia as many pitchers do, more refined in his approach, more advanced in his craft. He also learned to pitch in front of large crowds, making the majors less intimidating than perhaps they once were.

It’s only two starts. But the Orioles appear to have nailed it again.

“They saw something a lot of people didn’t,” Greenberg said.

(Top photo of Albert Suárez: Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

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