The trade deadline passed Wednesday with Orioles general manager Mike Elias standing pat with his major league roster.
Despite plenty of speculation since veteran starting pitcher Andrew Cashner was traded to Boston for two 17-year-old prospects on July 13, Elias elected not to deal the likes of second baseman Jonathan Villar, relief pitcher Mychal Givens, starting pitcher Dylan Bundy, and slugger Trey Mancini, who all remain under club control beyond the 2019 season. With Cashner being Baltimore’s only real trade chip hitting free agency this fall, Elias felt little urgency to make a deal if he didn’t believe the return was improving the overall talent level in the organization.
Villar is under club control through next season while Givens and Bundy aren’t scheduled to become free agents until after 2020, but none are having standout seasons, meaning Elias wasn’t negotiating from a position of great leverage and can always revisit trade talks this offseason.
There was reported interest in Mancini, but the right fielder and first baseman doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season and is the rebuilding Orioles’ most recognizable player, which likely made the asking price too steep for possible suitors. Mancini’s defensive limitations also dent his overall value as he’s been worth just 2.1 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. In other words, the 27-year-old is probably more valuable to the Orioles at this point than to a contending club that’s likely reluctant to part with top prospects for a player ideally suited for first base or the designated hitter spot.
The Orioles did complete a minor-league trade before the 4 p.m. deadline, sending right-handed pitcher Dan Straily to Philadelphia for cash considerations. Straily, 30, was designated for assignment on June 20 after pitching to an awful 9.82 ERA with 22 home runs allowed in 47 2/3 innings and had accepted a minor-league assignment to Triple-A Norfolk where he’d posted a 2.38 ERA in six starts.
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With the Orioles trading veteran starting pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Boston Red Sox for 17-year-old Venezuelan position prospects Elio Prado and Noelberth Romero, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. No one knows whether these academy-level prospects will even sniff the majors one day, but it was refreshing seeing Mike Elias target long-term upside over moderate-floor, low-ceiling talent only guaranteed to clog up the 40-man roster. There was way too much of that in the past.
2. This trade was a reminder how difficult it is prying away prospects today, something we saw last year with even an elite rental piece like Manny Machado. You’re not getting much value above the lowest minor-league levels for 2 1/2 months of a career league-average starter making some real money.
3. Credit Cashner for reinventing himself by pitching up in the zone more and doubling his changeup usage from 2018. That’s become his best pitch, evident by FanGraphs’ pitch value metric ranking it the second-best changeup in the majors among qualified hurlers. The new regime’s fingerprints are all over those tweaks.
4. Elias cited the strong numbers from Prado in the Dominican Summer League, complimenting the center fielder’s pop and speed while adding Orioles scouts have liked what they’ve seen from him in his first professional season. He received an $85,000 signing bonus last July, per SoxProspects.com.
5. Romero has more modest numbers and has mostly played third base, but the Orioles like the contact he’s been making and believe he has a chance to develop as a shortstop. Boston gave him a $275,000 last July, per SoxProspects.com.
6. Elias said no other deals were imminent, but Mychal Givens will be an attractive chip if he strings together a few more outings like Saturday’s two-inning save. His 4.50 ERA is mediocre, but he’s striking out a career-high 12.8 batters per nine innings and is under club control through 2021.
7. The Orioles entered Sunday with a record just 2 1/2 games worse than Detroit, who sported a minus-163 run differential for the season and a 6-27 record since June 1. Thoughts of the 2020 first overall pick had to cross Elias’ mind when dealing Cashner.
8. Dylan Bundy isn’t expected to be out long with right knee tendinitis, but the current starting rotation behind surprising All-Star lefty John Means consists of three pitchers who weren’t even in the organization at the start of June. That’s astonishing.
9. Cashner’s Sunday replacement, the soft-tossing Tom Eshelman, didn’t have a good final line after giving up a two-run homer in the sixth, but he was competitive and struck out seven in 5 2/3 innings with five coming on his curveball. There’s plenty of opportunity for minor-league “misfits” in Baltimore now.
10. Cashner signed with Baltimore 17 months ago thinking he was joining a club with at least a chance of competing for a wild-card spot in 2018. The Orioles went 75-178 over his time here.
11. I’m not saying a division rival would be your top choice as a trade partner, but any “old-school” belief that the Orioles shouldn’t deal with AL East rivals is as foolish as marginalizing the international market for years. End of discussion.
12. Asked to comment on the Cashner trade after Saturday night’s 12-4 loss, Brandon Hyde said the Orioles are “a million miles away from being where we’re going to be here sometime soon.” I couldn’t help but think the Baltimore manager needed a hug after the veteran starter was dealt.
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With the Orioles playing better recently before hitting the All-Star break, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. John Means may not continue pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA, but going from an organizational afterthought to the first Baltimore rookie since 1966 to be named to the All-Star team in three months is extraordinary, regardless of the club’s record or any disappointment over someone else not making it.
2. I couldn’t help but think Trey Mancini would have made the Midsummer Classic if he were an everyday first baseman. He tries his best in right and has arguably improved going off the eyeball test, but the defensive metrics really dent his overall value in terms of wins above replacement.
3. After going nearly eight weeks without back-to-back wins and over two months without a series win, the Orioles had two sets of consecutive victories — including a three-win stretch — and won two series in 10 days. Even when you’re the worst team in the majors, baseball remains weird.
5. Andrew Cashner has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of his last five starts to shrink his ERA to 3.83. The 32-year-old could be an attractive rental, but don’t completely dismiss his value as a rotation anchor and veteran presence if you’re only fetching spare parts in return.
6. DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez each tossed a scoreless inning in the MLB Futures Game in Cleveland. The pitching at the major-league level couldn’t be worse right now, but Sunday offered a reminder of the talented arms in the minor-league system, especially at the lower levels.
7. Renato Nunez joined Boog Powell and Manny Machado as the only Orioles under age 26 to homer 20 or more times before the break. His raw power and streakiness remind me of a less patient Mark Reynolds, but Nunez has drawn 13 walks over his last 110 plate appearances.
8. Though Chris Davis has nudged his average up to .189, Brandon Hyde should continue to be very selective with playing time. The 33-year-old has been better against right-handers with a .213 average and .699 OPS this season, but he’s batting .100 with a .243 OPS against lefties.
9. On waivers four times last offseason, Hanser Alberto ranking sixth in the AL in average is a good story. He’s been useful, but it’s an example why batting average offers a limited picture of ability. The free-and-light-swinging infielder owns a .718 OPS, well below the league average.
10. A few months ago, center field appeared to be a position with an encouraging future with the presence of Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays. Instead, Mullins was demoted after a 6-for-64 start and is batting just .205 at Triple-A Norfolk while injuries continue to stunt Hays’ development. Very disappointing.
11. It will take more time for Mike Elias and senior director of international scouting Koby Perez to start landing the higher-profile signings in the international market, but the mere sight of the Orioles section not being barren in Baseball America’s signing tracker on July 2 was refreshing.
12. Putting aside my dislike for the mostly ugly holiday uniforms we’ve seen across baseball in recent years or the comparisons made to Boston’s hat, I wouldn’t mind seeing an alternate “B” cap. The script style used for the road jersey would be a better choice than the block letter, however.
When the most optimistic of forecasts suggest a club might find a way to avoid 100 losses, you know you’re nowhere close to being in a good place. But general manager Mike Elias and the new Orioles regime made no false promises after a 115-loss season, easily the worst campaign in club history.
There were never going to be shortsighted moves made in the name of a quick fix, nor should there have been. The goal is to build a championship-caliber organization in the years to come — not to exhaust enough resources to lose 92 games instead of the number with which the Orioles will ultimately finish. Signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper wouldn’t have transformed this year’s team into anything close to being a contender, let alone spending money on lesser players to try to grab a few extra wins that no one would have cared about in the big picture.
In other words, no one should be surprised Baltimore owns the worst record in baseball as the season nears its midpoint. But that hasn’t made it any easier to watch on a nightly basis — if you still have the stomach for it in late June. Those suggesting it couldn’t get worse or citing historical examples as a reason to anticipate some slight improvement in the win-loss department were clearly wrong.
After a 1-6 road trip that included three losses to a Seattle team that had gone 19-44 since a 13-2 start to begin the season, the Orioles are now on pace to lose more games than they did last year. Brandon Hyde’s club has gone 9-34 since last winning back-to-back games to improve to 13-22 on May 6. Over that seven-week stretch without consecutive victories, the Orioles went a combined 4-9 against the Mariners, Detroit, San Francisco, and Toronto, four of the seven worst teams in the majors right now.
Baltimore hasn’t won a series since April 24, the day before the start of the NFL draft. A month from Tuesday, the Ravens will hold their first full-squad training camp practice, and there’s little confidence the Orioles will have won a series by then either.
The other phases of the game have been bad, of course, but the pitching has been the biggest culprit as the Orioles entered Monday with the worst ERA (5.85) in the majors, a half-run worse than the 29th-place Mariners. They’re on pace to obliterate the 2016 Reds’ major league record for home runs allowed by 66, but it’s at least fair to note three other clubs are on pace to break Cincinnati’s mark in this homer-crazy 2019. The Orioles rank last in starter ERA (5.59) and next to last in bullpen ERA (6.16) with only Washington to thank for being slightly worse in relief.
The hope was the Orioles would find another pitcher or two in a mold somewhat similar to John Means, who’s been the most pleasant surprise of the season with his 2.67 ERA. You’d like to see more young hurlers take advantage of these generous opportunities to at least perform at a semi-respectable level, but that hasn’t happened beyond a fleeting week or two for any given name, a frustrating reality becoming more audible in Hyde’s post-game comments. He knew what he was getting into taking this job last December, but it can’t be easy managing this on a nightly basis.
Evident by the “Norfolk Shuttle” working overtime in recent weeks, this club just doesn’t have the pitching to even approach being competitive on too many nights. In games in which Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, or Means have started, the Orioles are 17-25, which is still bad but far from historically poor. But they’re an unthinkable 5-31 when anyone else starts, which is 1899 Cleveland Spiders kind of terrible. Alex Cobb making only three starts before undergoing season-ending hip surgery doomed a rotation that was already far too thin.
What happens if Cashner, Bundy, or both are traded by next month’s deadline? What if Means’ shoulder issue becomes a bigger problem than anticipated? Other than prospect Keegan Akin, we’ve already seen most of what Triple-A Norfolk has to offer in the pitching department, and the answer isn’t pretty.
Nearly halfway through a season from which many fans have already tuned out, it’s time to ask if the 2019 Orioles could be the worst team we’ve seen in the major leagues since at least World War II. Yes, that includes the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120 in their inaugural season and are viewed as the Unholy Grail of modern baseball ineptitude.
Currently on pace to finish 45-117, the Orioles own a minus-181 run differential through 78 games. Only six teams over the last decade have finished an entire season with a run differential of minus-200 or worse. The last major league team to finish with a minus-300 run differential was the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who went 43-119 and scored 337 fewer runs than they allowed.
The Orioles’ current run differential translates to just short of minus-376 for an entire season, which is dramatically worse than last year’s club (minus-270) and the 1988 team (minus-239). The 1962 Mets finished at minus-331, so that tells you what kind of pace the Orioles are keeping as they sport just four June wins entering the final week of the month.
If you buy into the value of run differential to predict future wins and losses, you might want to take a trip or two to Camden Yards to witness history before the season’s over. The Orioles have played like a 128-loss team over their last 43 games, more than a quarter of the season. And the numbers say they haven’t been particularly unlucky either.
This could be the worst major league team of the modern era. All bets are off trying to argue otherwise at this point.
It’s worse than most of us even thought it would be.
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With the last-place Orioles limping into late May, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. We know the Orioles lack the talent to win, but the growing frequency of “ugly” losses is disappointing after they at least played fundamentally sound through much of the season’s first six weeks. There’s no excuses for throwing to the wrong base or botching the most routine of plays.
2. A stretch of 11 losses in 13 games is when Brandon Hyde really earns his money. Combating the mental fatigue of so much losing and knowing when to put your arm around a struggling player or give him the figurative kick in the tail are important aspects of this job.
3. Since taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his first start of 2019, David Hess has allowed a major-league-worst 17 homers and sports an 8.27 ERA over 37 innings. The problem is the shortage of alternatives at Norfolk. You’d rather not rush Keegan Akin after just eight Triple-A starts.
4. Andrew Cashner is throwing his changeup a career-high 22.2 percent of the time and ranks in the top 10 in the majors in FanGraph’s changeup value metric. His fastball is also averaging just under 95 miles per hour in recent outings. He’s making a case as a rental trade chip.
5. Is it a coincidence Chris Davis went into a 4-for-26 slump with 17 strikeouts immediately upon being placed in the cleanup spot for the first time this season? It’s best to keep him in the bottom half of the lineup and limit his starts against lefty pitching at this point.
6. Stevie Wilkerson is unlikely to be a good fit for the leadoff spot with only two walks in 85 plate appearances entering Tuesday, but a .770 on-base plus slugging percentage and respectable defense in center field — a position he’d never played before 2019 — is called taking advantage of the opportunity.
7. With DJ Stewart on fire at Norfolk and Wilkerson starting most games in center, Joey Rickard could be running out of time to improve upon his .198 average. He has over 900 career plate appearances, meaning we should really have a good idea of what he is at this point.
8. Shawn Armstrong has been impressive in his first seven appearances with Baltimore, but his immediate placement in some high-leverage spots says much more about this bullpen than his ability. Incredibly, playoff-hopeful Washington has been even worse in relief this year.
9. Mark Trumbo is moving closer to a rehab assignment after beginning to play in extended spring games, but Hyde described the return timetable for Alex Cobb as “open-ended” Tuesday. The two are making a combined $27.5 million this season, more than a third of the entire payroll.
10. After homering in back-to-back games in his rehab stint at Single-A Frederick, Austin Hays figures to be moving up sooner than later. Meanwhile, Cedric Mullins entered Tuesday batting just .233 with a .666 OPS at Norfolk since his April demotion.
11. The Orioles gave up their 100th home run in just their 48th game Tuesday to best the 2000 Kansas City Royals, who needed 57 games to allow 100. Perhaps “2131”-like Warehouse banners are in order as Baltimore moves toward shattering the major-league record of 258 surrendered by Cincinnati in 2016.
12. Rebuilding isn’t fun. Some clamored for Baltimore to sell as early as 2015 to better position themselves for the future, but the organization kept kicking the can down the road for the low probability of contending. That all but guaranteed the painful rebuild you’re watching — or not watching — now.
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With the Orioles rapidly approaching the quarter mark of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Dan Straily failed to complete five innings for the third consecutive start, elevating his ERA to 8.23. Some patience was warranted after his spring was disrupted, but the Orioles hoped he’d at least eat innings and just maybe pitch well enough to become a small trade chip. He’s done neither.
2. The pitching staff has onlytwo 100-pitch outings and seven starts of six innings or more almost 40 games in. I do believe the Orioles are trying to be proactive with health and effectiveness the third time through the order, but starters simply haven’t pitched well enough to go deeper.
3. Baltimore entered Friday — which wasn’t pretty — still ranking last in the majors with a 5.52 ERA, but starters held a 3.65 mark and relievers a 3.14 ERA through the first seven games of May. Baby steps, especially after giving up an obscene 73 homers in the opening 30 games.
4. I was surprised to realize Trey Mancini ended a month-long home run drought Friday, but 11 doubles gave him a solid .437 slugging percentage over those 22 games. Not only has his bat been outstanding, but his right-field defense passes the eyeball test more than how he looked in left.
5. The Orioles are throwing the most changeups in the majors after ranking seventh last year, but they’re ninth in FanGraph’s changeup value after finishing 28th in 2018. It isn’t only John Means as Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy are throwing them more frequently and effectively. Other pitches are another story.
6. Since improving his batting average to .301 on April 24, Renato Nunez has only four hits in his last 48 at-bats. He’s still among the club leaders in average exit velocity, but he’s really been struggling after a good start.
7. Mychal Givens has recorded more than three outs in eight of his first 13 appearances of 2019. That should look much more appealing to potential trade partners than if he were being used as a conventional ninth-inning closer on a club with few save chances.
8. With recent first-round Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall striking out a combined 16 over 9 2/3 innings for their affiliates Thursday and 2018 third-round pick Blaine Knight being promoted to Single-A Frederick Friday, there’s some pitching light at the end of the tunnel if you peer patiently.
9. If you believe the many draft pundits, I’ve yet to hear an overly compelling argument for general manager Mike Elias taking someone other than Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman first overall next month. If he’s indeed the best prospect, don’t overthink it.
10. The extended absence of Nate Karns (forearm tightness) was the reason why the Orioles gave the talented, but oft-injured pitcher only an $800,000 contract. Alex Cobb (lower back) making just three starts while earning $14 million this season is a different story.
11. I admire Brandon Hyde’s positivity managing a club constructed with no designs of winning, but the Orioles striking out a club-record 22 times Wednesday probably warranted a little more criticism from him in his post-game press conference, no matter how good Chris Sale is.
12. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s game-saving catch on Trey Mancini’s 11th-inning drive Wednesday goes down as one of the best catches in Camden Yards history when you consider the game situation, but I’ve yet to see one better than Mike Devereaux robbing Joe Carter in the inaugural 1992 season.
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With the Orioles off to an 8-12 start after their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:
1. The Orioles entered Friday with the majors’ third-worst run differential — defending World Series champion Boston was shockingly second worst — but a 3-4 trip left them a respectable 7-6 road record. The 2018 club had 19 away wins all season. A roster overmatched on paper nightly has played with good energy.
2. Credit Baltimore for getting off the mat to win in extra innings Thursday, but that doesn’t wipe away the bullpen squandering a 5-2 lead with five outs to go. Orioles relievers have allowed seven more homers than any other team in baseball. Who can you really trust out there?
3. The top answer could be John Means if he doesn’t settle into the rotation. The lefty will fill a hybrid role for the time being with Alex Cobb returning, but a 1.72 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings have made him fun to watch in whatever capacity he’s pitched.
4. I’m glad to no longer be tracking a historic hitless streak for Chris Davis, but we’re a long way from suggesting he’s made meaningful improvement. I will note his average exit velocity (91.1 mph) is the best it’s been since 2015, but we’re talking about a very small sample size.
5. An 0-for-5 Thursday dropped Cedric Mullins to an .089 batting average. Patience is warranted and he’s defended well in center, but you wonder how hard a healthy Austin Hays — who’s just beginning a hitting progression after recovering from the thumb injury — might have been knocking at the door.
6. The Orioles own only two starts of six innings or more so far this season. It’s fair mentioning the handful of times they’ve used someone who wasn’t fully stretched out as a starter, but that still doesn’t say much for veterans like Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy.
7. Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino have combined to hit barely above the Mendoza line, but the catchers have thrown out eight of 13 runners attempting to steal this season. I would like to see Severino receive a few more opportunities since he’s five years younger.
8. Trey Mancini has been far and away Baltimore’s best hitter, but Dwight Smith Jr. has been the biggest surprise so far as he’s shown some power with a .474 slugging percentage and gone 9-for-24 with four extra-base hits against lefties. He has a nice swing.
9. After a slow start at Triple-A Norfolk, Ryan Mountcastle has homered in three of his last four games and has received all but two of his starts in the field at first base. His development is the most relevant baseball-related factor in the Davis saga at this point.
10. In his first three starts for Single-A Delmarva, 19-year-old Grayson Rodriguez has pitched to a 0.54 ERA and struck out 28 batters in 16 2/3 innings. I suppose that’s not too shabby for the 2018 first-round pick.
11. Brian Roberts has been impressive as a color analyst on MASN, especially considering his limited experience in the role. He clearly does his homework and presents those insights in an entertaining way. I’d like to hear more of him on broadcasts.
12. This FanGraphs article offered a look at Brandon Hyde, his daily routine, and how he interacts with Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal. It’s also a reminder the infrastructure of baseball operations is far from complete as the manager notes the current size of the front office and analytics department.
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With the Orioles having lost seven of eight before embarking on their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:
1. Chris Davis’ record hitless streak is national news, but allowing 37 home runs in 13 games borders on the unthinkable. No other team entered Friday surrendering more than 26. The major league record for a season is 258 allowed by Cincinnati in 2016; Baltimore’s current pace is 461.
2. Watching Dylan Bundy strike out five — four on sliders — and not allow a hit the first time through the order before giving up four home runs Thursday makes you wonder if he’s better suited to relieve. It could help an average fastball velocity that’s down to 90.8 miles per hour.
3. Miguel Castro has never missed as many bats as you’d expect despite a mid-90s fastball and a slider that’s often shown good movement, but he’s been a mess so far. After posting a solid 3.77 ERA the previous two years, Castro should have been ready to graduate rather than regress.
4. There was never a guarantee Richard Bleier would be ready for the start of 2019 following last June’s lat surgery, so sending him to the injured list with shoulder tendinitis is the responsible move. He and that sinker that sparked a 1.97 ERA the last three seasons clearly weren’t right.
5. Brandon Hyde expressed optimism about Alex Cobb’s back issue not lingering beyond the 10-day minimum, but even a rebuilding club still needs starters to eat innings and provide stability. Especially with a contract that will be difficult to move, Cobb needs to be a big part of that.
6. Many expected Mychal Givens to be the closer, but Hyde said he “wants to use Mike when the game’s on the line,” whether that’s the ninth inning or sooner. It’s a refreshing stance, especially for a club without the options to have a paint-by-numbers bullpen like Buck Showalter enjoyed.
7. Even having pitched his first two games as an “opener” and being on a schedule, Nate Karns showed diminished velocity in each of his outings before going to the IL with forearm tightness. You hope for the best, but his injury history is why he was available for $800,000.
8. Paul Fry has been the Orioles’ best reliever so far with a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings and the highest game-entering leverage index on the team, an indication of the kind of game situations in which Hyde has used the lefty. He was a nice find by Dan Duquette.
9. Despite the apparent Houston influence from Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal that has Andrew Cashner throwing more sliders and fewer fastballs, his swinging-strike percentage has decreased from last year. The veteran just isn’t missing bats, which makes it much more challenging to succeed.
10. John Means pitched into some bad luck in his first start, but he’s been a pleasant surprise early, especially with a changeup that’s fetched 18 swinging strikes out of the 73 times he’s thrown it. Hyde wants to give him more starting opportunities.
12. If the intention behind optioning Tanner Scott to Triple-A Norfolk after a poor spring was to make him succeed at that level after he originally went from Double A to the majors, recalling him after just two appearances for the Tides didn’t seem to make much sense.
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With the Orioles suffering a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees to begin the 2019 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Last year brought the joy of a walk-off win on Opening Day and hope before the soon-to-follow revelation of the Orioles being the worst team in baseball. There would be no falsehood of optimism this time with Luke Voit’s blast giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the opening inning.
2. File “an Oriole runner being struck by a batted ball to end the first half-inning of 2019” into the category of stuff you just couldn’t make up when pondering what this season was going to look like.
3. It was a disappointing day for Andrew Cashner in his second career Opening Day start — the other with San Diego — as he lasted only four innings. Brandon Hyde needs his veterans to at least eat innings if this pitching staff is going to survive on even a functional level.
4. If you’re looking for a sign of the Houston analytics influence, Cashner threw fastballs 45.3 percent of the time, a lower percentage than in any 2018 start, and used sliders 32 percent of the time, a higher mark than in any 2018 outing. You still have to execute, of course.
5. Fourteen of the first 17 pitches thrown by the Orioles in the fifth inning were balls, leading to two more runs. They issued eight walks and hit a batter in the season opener. Then again, I’d probably walk everyone too if I had to face that Yankees lineup.
6. Trey Mancini was a rare bright spot with two infield hits and a run-scoring double that chased New York starter Masahiro Tanaka with two outs in the sixth. Mancini accounted for half of Baltimore’s six hits off Tanaka.
7. Striking out three times was the last way Chris Davis wanted to start 2019, but Hyde batting him seventh and removing him for a pinch hitter couldn’t signal any louder a new brain trust being in town. He batted seventh — and never lower — only 18 times last year.
8. The off-day helps, but Hyde using David Hess — Monday’s expected starter in Toronto — behind Cashner and Mike Wright seems less than ideal with Alex Cobb already on the injured list until next Thursday. I suspect the Norfolk shuttle will be as busy as ever sooner than later.
9. Richie Martin looked smooth defensively at shortstop, but late-spring struggles resulted in him finishing with a .582 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League. Some patience is definitely warranted for someone who had never played above the Double-A level until now.
10. Mike Elias joining the MASN telecast for a lengthy conversation was a good decision and one the Orioles should repeat as often as possible with the current state of the major league club. Without compromising ideas, he offered insight on the big picture and what’s going on behind the scenes.
11. If Elias is able to eventually build a championship club, will we look back on the 2019 opener and see a keeper or two in such an anonymous group or merely look at these names in the way we remember the likes of Pete Stanicek, Jay Tibbs, and Rick Schu?
12. The Orioles lost their first opener since 2010, the last time they were managed by someone other than Buck Showalter. That’s no knock on Hyde, but it’s a nod to the man who was at the helm for an enjoyable run that’s not erased solely because of last year.
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With a new season upon us, here are nine questions on the rebuilding Orioles entering the 2019 campaign:
Will the Orioles be even worse than last year?
Their 115 losses last season set a club record and were the fourth most in the majors since 1900, but the Orioles now begin 2019 without Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach, who all began 2018 with the organization and made meaningful contributions to previous playoff runs. Of the four other clubs to lose 115 games in a season since 1900, all won at least 11 more games the following year and only the 1962 Mets suffered triple-digit losses again. In other words, the probability of the Orioles plummeting to the same level of ineptitude remains low with many projection models forecasting somewhere between 98 and 105 losses. Still, looking at that Opening Day roster reminds you of those early scenes in Major League, doesn’t it?
How will manager Brandon Hyde handle his first season?
The former Chicago Cubs bench coach received positive reviews in his first spring camp for creating an upbeat and efficient working environment, but now the games count and the dark shadow of losing lingers. No one expects Hyde to be a miracle worker with a club that wasn’t constructed with any intention to contend, but how he handles a young clubhouse and how hard players compete on a nightly basis will reflect on his managing acumen more so than the AL East standings. The 45-year-old knew what he was getting into when he accepted this job in December and understands the organization’s focus on the big picture, but the reality of a long season is upon him. No matter how ugly it might get, the Orioles still have to show up and play the games.
Who will begin — or continue to — establish himself as a piece for the long run?
The late-spring demotions of catcher Chance Sisco, outfielder Austin Hays, and lefty reliever Tanner Scott took much of the air out of this balloon for fans desperate to at least watch interesting prospects in what’s expected to be a losing season, but Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins certainly stand out on a 25-man roster consisting mostly of fringe placeholders and veterans likely to be long gone before Baltimore’s next competitive window opens. With so many changes over the last year, we forget Mancini has just two full seasons under his belt as he tries to find more consistency after a rough first half in 2018. Meanwhile, Mullins opens 2019 as the starting center fielder, but Hyde and general manager Mike Elias have shared the potential they see in Hays as an eventual center fielder, which should serve as motivation for the incumbent. There are fair questions about his throwing arm and ability to hit from the right side, but the switch-hitting Mullins will have his opportunities to establish himself as an everyday player this season. Though not exactly prospects, Miguel Castro, David Hess, and Jimmy Yacabonis are under-the-radar pitchers who could benefit from the analytical advances introduced by the new regime.
Which veterans will play well enough to become trade chips?
The reward for guys like Jonathan Villar, Andrew Cashner, Nate Karns, and Mark Trumbo having good seasons is a likely ticket out of Baltimore as Elias aims to add more talent in the farm system. That’s just reality in the early stages of a rebuild, regardless of how much an organization might say it values veteran leadership. The cases of Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens will be more interesting to monitor as they’re both under club control through 2021 and would carry more trade value than the aforementioned names if they can rebound from their underwhelming 2018 performance levels. Some might add Alex Cobb to the list of potential trade chips, but the 31-year-old would have to pitch exceptionally well for another club to be willing to commit to the additional $29 million he’s owed beyond 2019.
What will happen with Chris Davis?
We’re all aware of the historic nightmare that was last season for the 33-year-old first baseman, but where does the new Orioles regime go from here with a player who is still owed $92 million over the next four seasons and will be collecting deferred money long after that? Davis fared a little better late in the spring, but he still batted .189 with 19 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League. It will be interesting to see where Hyde uses him in the batting order – Davis batted third or fourth for much of the spring before dropping to sixth in Monday’s finale – or how long he sticks with him as a starter if he looks like the same guy from last year. Everyone hopes a new front office and coaching staff can salvage some semblance of value, but the Angelos brothers will be the ones to make the ultimate call on Davis’ status if he’s no better this year. It’s one thing to talk about Davis as a sunk cost on a losing club, but Mancini has already been pushed to left field and a strong 2019 from Mountcastle — who worked extensively at first base this spring — will have him knocking on the major-league door. You don’t want Davis blocking other young players ready for the majors.
How will the Rule 5 picks fare?
The Orioles will enter a season with three Rule 5 picks on the roster for a second straight year as reliever Pedro Araujo has a couple more weeks to go to fulfill his requirement in the majors and new Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson both made the team. It appears Martin will begin the year as the starting shortstop despite a difficult finish to spring training while Jackson was used in a super utility role this spring. A rebuilding club desperate for more talent is smart to carry promising Rule 5 picks, but let’s hope the practice brings more value than it did for Dan Duquette. For all the roster headaches and shorthanded situations the Orioles endured carrying Rule 5 players while trying to contend from 2012-18, those players netted a total of 1.1 wins above replacement in their time with the organization.
When will more interesting prospects be arriving in Baltimore?
Aside from Sisco and Scott, Hays appeared to be the next prospect on the cusp of the majors before spraining his thumb over the weekend. Beyond that trio, many fans will follow how Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle fare at Triple-A Norfolk with hopes of them making their major league debut later this season. Of course, how Elias handled Sisco, Scott, and Hays – three prospects already having major league experience – should make everyone take pause about the development timeline for any prospects at this point. The Orioles are prioritizing player development over attempts to squeeze out a couple more wins at the major league level or to appease fans hoping to watch more exciting young players. That said, other names acquired in last year’s deadline deals – many of whom already made cameos in Baltimore — appear likely to show up at some point this season. Lefty Keegan Akin, a 2016 second-round pick, and 23-year-old right-hander Dean Kremer, acquired in the Manny Machado trade, are two starting pitchers to monitor in the high minor leagues.
How much innovation and experimentation will we see from a club with nothing to lose?
Entering a season with expectations lower than they’ve been at any point in the history of the franchise, the rebuilding Orioles should embrace the opportunity to innovate and experiment, making it refreshing to hear Hyde reveal plans to use an opener in the second game of the season against the New York Yankees. Why not dive even deeper into infield and outfield positioning and explore new ideas for pitch sequencing, bullpen usage, and batting orders? Why lose with conventional practices when you can at least explore some new ideas and theories contenders might be afraid to try? Perhaps the Orioles even discover an edge or two that might help in the future when they’re ready to contend again. Much of this work with technology and analytics will remain behind the scenes, of course, but any new ideas making their way to the field will be interesting.
What will attendance look like at Camden Yards?
Asked to give his pitch for why fans should still come to the ballpark this season, Elias offered the following on Tuesday:
“We’re doing things the right way, the way that they need to be done. The end goal here is not to try to cobble together a one-year-wonder .500 club that could be a disaster if it doesn’t work out right and then we spend a few years digging out of that hole. We want to put together a perennial contending organization. And we’re initiating that process. We know how to do it. We’re going about it the way that we need to go about it. In the meantime, there’s going to be young talent on the field. These guys are going to be hustling, playing hard. There are going to be ‘tools’ as we say in the scouting world — big talent out there — that we can watch. And we’re in a wonderful baseball environment here in Camden Yards and here in the Inner Harbor. You come appreciate the sport and see some good baseball and watch this team grow.”
While I agree with those sentiments, expecting fans to pay major-league prices to watch a rebuilding team is a lot to ask, especially with attendance having already fallen annually since 2014 when the club was coming off a 96-win season and still in the midst of its competitive window. The Orioles ranked 26th in the majors in average attendance (20,053 per game) last year despite there being some hope of contending entering 2018. To be clear, no one should be crying the blues for an organization that’s cut its payroll in half over the last 18 months, but an empty Camden Yards hurts nearby businesses and seasonal stadium workers. The “Kids Cheer Free” initiative is a positive step that will be continued this year, but more ticket deals, promotions, and imagination are required if the Orioles hope to draw people to watch an inferior on-field product.
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