SARASOTA, Fla. -- For Orioles director of player development Brian Graham, the start of Spring Training always feels a little like the first day of school. Though the players have been away from the organization's coaches and executives since the end of instructional league, most haven't stopped working. And the changes they make in just a few months can be striking.
Graham said seeing how the players have developed during the winter is one of the most enjoyable parts of Spring Training.
"These kids come back, and they've grown up and they've matured, and all of a sudden they look different," Graham said. "They're pitching different and they're swinging the bat different, and that's exciting."
This spring, Graham and the rest of the O's player development personnel have many reasons to be excited. The system has greatly improved over the last few years, even while graduating Manny Machado to the Major Leagues. Pitchers Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Eduardo Rodriguez all rank among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects.
The rest of Baltimore's latest Top 20 Prospects list is comprised of an intriguing mix of players close to the Major Leagues, such as second baseman Jonathan Schoop and right-hander Mike Wright, as well as players new to the professional ranks, including the two players the Orioles selected in the first 40 picks of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, right-hander Hunter Harvey and outfielder Josh Hart.
But the system's improvements go beyond the Top 20. The overall depth of talent has increased in recent years and more homegrown players are helping the team contend in the American League East.
Graham said the system's improvements have been gradual and are the result of the efforts of people throughout the organization. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter both come from a player development background, and their support has contributed to the system's growth.
"It's no reflection of anybody else or anything. It's just that the system has made great strides in a lot of areas," Graham said. "Obviously, we've drafted some good players. [Former scouting director] Joe Jordan drafted good players when he was here, and they rose to the top -- the Manny Machados and the number of players that he drafted that have gotten to the big leagues and Double-A and Triple-A. [Scouting director] Gary Rajsich has done a good job, and we've added good players to the system. The system itself has gotten better.
"I feel great about the development system. Outside of the players we have, we've upgraded our staff. I just feel really good about the development process we have in place."
Now, with the first day of school introductions complete, Graham is ready to put that system to work this year, developing the next wave of homegrown players to reach Baltimore.
Three questions with Jonathan Schoop
Schoop is in Major League camp, competing to become the O's starting second baseman.
MLBPipeline.com: What parts of your game do you want to work on during Spring Training?
Schoop: To be honest, I try to improve everything, every part of my game and be a better baseball player. I'm trying to improve everything that I can. I'm not perfect. I can improve everything. Hitting, running, defensively -- everything.
MLBPipeline.com: You were able to make your Major League debut last September and even hit your first home run. What did you learn from your time in Baltimore?
Schoop: It gave me the opportunity to be around the guys and learn. You see how they prepare. They gave me some advice of what I need to do to get ready. You see how they handle their business and how serious they are and how hard they play the game, too.
MLBPipeline.com: After the regular season ended, you were one of several Orioles players on the team that won the Arizona Fall League championship. What did you get out of that experience?
Schoop: You face a lot of young guys, a lot of good guys out there. Everywhere I go, I feel like I can take something, I can learn something. You can learn from all people. It was a good experience out there. It prepared me to get ready for Spring Training.
Breakout candidate: Trey Mancini
Despite being a three-time All-Big East player at Notre Dame, Mancini has always flown a bit under the radar. He hit .389 with seven home runs as a junior, but was overshadowed by teammate Eric Jagiello. While Jagiello was drafted 26th overall by the Yankees, Mancini had to wait until the eighth round to hear his name called.
After a strong finish to his college career, Mancini quickly adapted to professional baseball. He hit .328 with a .831 OPS in 68 games at short-season Aberdeen, ranking second in the New York-Penn League in both categories.
Now, as Mancini prepares for his first full professional season, Graham thinks the O's scouts may have found a good late-round selection.
"Mancini might be a dark-horse candidate," Graham said. "He's probably a little better player than where he was drafted."
Camp standout: Rodriguez
Rodriguez was one of last season's breakout stars in the Orioles' system. As a 20-year-old, the left-hander began to turn his immense promise into results, reaching Double-A Bowie and finishing the year as the starting pitcher in the Arizona Fall League championship game.
Rodriguez has built on that success in Major League camp this year. He struck out five batters in four innings in his first two Grapefruit League appearances, but he also gave up a pair of home runs.
Though the results have been mixed, Rodriguez has given the O's plenty of reason to be excited about his potential.
"He's an interesting kid, because when the pressure and the speed of the game increases, so does he," Graham said. "When you see that out of a young player, obviously it's a positive sign."