It was in Clearwater, Florida, where Albert Suárez first showed the Orioles that all the efforts of the past six months amounted to tangible progress.

He was a 34-year-old right-hander who hadn’t stepped on a major league mound since 2017 and, yet, with each fastball that leaped out of his hand and flew past the bats of Philadelphia Phillies players, the radar gun flashed, the fans gaped and the coaching staff looked around at each other.

Ask Suárez and he’ll say this came as no surprise. But, to just about every onlooker, to see what Suárez accomplished that spring training day in March ranged from validation to astonishment.

“You work on this, you do it in bullpens, you do it in live at-bats as we’re getting him prepped for winter ball,” said Mitch Plassmeyer, one of the Orioles’ pitching instructors who worked closely with Suárez in Sarasota. “But it was like, ‘All right, now when the lights are on, is it gonna hold up? Is he gonna be able to do this in that [setting]?”

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Suárez struck out seven Phillies and forced 10 swings and misses with his fastball. So, could he do it?

“He did it,” Plassmeyer said, thinking back two months later.

The resurrection of Suárez’s major league career was first noticed then, midway through spring training, and it has reached new heights after he filled an injury-induced rotation hole in Baltimore. In two starts as an Oriole, Suárez has pitched 11 1/3 scoreless innings — with his most recent display against the Los Angeles Angels earning him his first major league win as a starter since 2016.

But the story of Suárez’s journey back to the big leagues starts earlier. It begins with a calf injury — a setback that cost him a place on a South Korean baseball roster yet opened another door. It was a door he long hoped would reopen.

“For the past two years, 2 1/2 years,” Suárez said, “I started working on almost whatever it takes to get a chance to play in the States.”

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A pro scouting gem

The baseball world is wide. To the public, there are the stars, the Shohei Ohtanis and Ronald Acuña Jrs. who dominate the highlight reels nightly. There are the 26 players on an active roster for each of the 30 major league teams each game.

And then there’s everyone else — the prospects, the depth pieces, the dreamers.

Suárez would fit in the last category.

He has been here, flitting through the minor leagues for eight years before serving as a starting pitcher or long reliever with the San Francisco Giants in 2016 and 2017. From there, though, Suárez largely fell out of the public eye. But, through each twist and turn, the Orioles were watching.

“Our task in pro scouting is to track the universe of players signed professionally in the U.S. and abroad,” said Mike Snyder, Baltimore’s director of pro scouting.

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“We’re spending a significant amount of time on free agent decisions and trade possibilities,” Snyder said. “But we’re also investing massive amounts of energy on those lower-profile markets. Waivers, DFA trades, Rule 5 picks, minor league free agency.”

They tracked him through winter ball seasons in Suárez’s native Venezuela, then monitored his performances in Japan. They watched as Suárez’s velocity increased while abroad, especially when he began having sustained success in the KBO, Korea’s top baseball league, in 2022.

By that point, Suárez had recentered his attention on the United States.

“I was like, what do I need to get better on so I can go back to the States?” Suárez said. “And everything to me was metrics, how I make my pitches good enough so a team will like it.”

To maximize his metrics, Suárez began working with Eric Cressey, a high-performance trainer in Florida who helped Suárez do more than just work out. Together, they learned how to maximize Suárez’s body movement, elevating his velocity through improved mechanics.

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Two scouting analysts in particular, Ben MacLean and Will Robertson, noticed all of this. They noticed the 2.49 ERA in 173 2/3 innings in 2022 while Suárez was playing in Korea, with a strike-throwing ability on multiple pitches.

When a calf injury in 2023 meant Suárez’s roster spot with the Samsung Lions was jettisoned — roster constraints on international players leave little leeway for injuries — an opportunity opened. Baltimore knew Suárez.

“We felt this was a short-term issue, and we jumped at it,” Snyder said.

Albert Suárez’s first win with the Orioles was the fourth of his major league career. (Ulysses Muñoz / The Baltimore Banner)

In September 2023, the Orioles signed Suárez to a minor league contract. The timing was interesting — it came much earlier than the usual offseason transactions — and the deal hardly left a ripple; the major league club was preparing for a final push to the postseason.

But, to Suárez, this was the break he needed.

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“I was like, this is the opportunity I was looking for,” Suárez said. “And I’ve been working so hard for this, I’m gonna take my chance.”

‘A heavy dose of realism’

The Orioles weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel when it came to Suárez. Still, upon Suárez’s September arrival in Sarasota and before he would leave for winter ball in Venezuela, there were tweaks Plassmeyer, Adam Schuck and other pitching instructors went about introducing.

The first change Suárez recalls is a focus on hip-to-shoulder separation. The Orioles also emphasized keeping his left shoulder closed longer to avoid missed locations. They wanted him to move at a fast tempo, to get his left foot down early to provide a solid base that would allow him to unleash the best version of his fastball.

They weren’t massive overhauls. They were just enough for him to take to Venezuela, where he focused less on results and more on pitching form, before returning to Florida for spring training.

“We don’t look at like, necessarily, deficiencies,” Plassmeyer said. “It’s more like, what are his strengths? And what does he do really well? And how can we find little things that enhance that and add to it? Maximize strengths, right?”

The Orioles knew his fastball was Suárez’s major strength. They worked to accentuate that pitch but also bolster his cutter, changeup and curveball.

“It takes a mix of creativity with a heavy dose of realism,” Snyder said. “We try not to be too far out there suggesting changes left and right. A lot of times it is just giving a player runway, giving him comfort, emphasizing what he does best, or tweaking a skill that he doesn’t do quite as well right now, but he might be able to improve. And coordinating that with all of our departments throughout the organization is so key to successful acquisitions and to building a successful team.”

That was all part of Baltimore’s pitch to Suárez. In convincing him to sign with the Orioles, they pointed to their previous successes in player development, such as how first baseman/outfielder Ryan O’Hearn and left-hander Danny Coulombe broke out for career years in 2023. Right-handers Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista became All-Stars.

Suárez could follow that path.

There are only so many high-round draft picks available to a franchise, and while there’s no guarantee those players work out, they have in Baltimore with Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Colton Cowser. But, for a team to be truly great, there are far more low-end pick-ups required — such as Suárez.

“Players with Albert’s path certainly don’t become household names,” Snyder said. “But those are the markets where we feel we can make a real impact.”

Still, baseball is hardly ever a straightforward game to predict.

“We’re humble enough to know that it’s often not going to work,” Snyder said, “that we’re going to do our best, the player is going to do his best, but the opportunity may not align every time.”

That has happened with countless players. For every Suárez, the minor leagues and foreign leagues are rife with dreamers who hope for another chance they may not get.

It’s still early days. Suárez has pitched only two games, and hitters can adjust quickly now that there is more available video and scouting reports on the otherwise unknown 34-year-old.

But, no matter what the future holds, no matter how long Suárez remains here, he’s made it back to the mound in a major league ballpark.

“Here we are,” Suárez said, looking out at Angel Stadium this week.

He’s cherishing every day.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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