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Castoff Orioles providing no shortage of fun early in weird season

Posted on 13 August 2020 by Luke Jones

Imagine back to what you hoped to see from the 2020 Orioles a month ago.

It hasn’t really gone as planned.

John Means has made only two starts while Hunter Harvey has yet to throw a pitch in this abbreviated 60-game season.

His recent inside-the-park home run aside, Austin Hays entered Thursday batting just .200 with one extra-base hit and a .519 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Ryan Mountcastle has yet to be promoted from the alternate camp at Double-A Bowie while Keegan Akin has only observed from the bullpen since being recalled last weekend.

Chris Davis looks no better, hitting the ball with less authority than ever and not even walking much. Only two more years to go on that nightmare contract.

Meanwhile, the likes of Dylan Bundy and Mike Yastrzemski are thriving elsewhere, which typically makes fans cringe and dwell on why that didn’t happen here.

But the 2020 Orioles are competing, entertaining, and — to the surprise of everyone — winning. Frankly, you couldn’t ask for more fun after some wondered aloud if this rebuilding club with more castoffs than prospects would win even 10 games in this unusual season.

“We’ve got a little bit of a renegade group here that has been dismissed by other clubs,” manager Brandon Hyde said before Wednesday’s win in Philadelphia. “It’s still early on in their careers. They’re trying to fight their way to stay in the big leagues, and they’ve found a home here. I think they like to play here. I think you’ve seen a lot of them improve.”

It’s not always pretty, evident by the embarrassing season-opening loss in Boston or the four-game home sweep suffered at the hands of the virus-depleted Miami Marlins last week. You’ll still see some head-scratching mistakes reminiscent of the last two seasons that produced a combined 223 losses, but the Orioles are almost always in ballgames, suffering just two defeats by more than four runs so far. That’s something they haven’t done consistently for a long time.

Yes, we’re only talking about 16 games here, which would be just 10 percent of a normal schedule and too small a sample size in a six-month season. But this is 2020 when that amounts to just over a quarter of the schedule and the Orioles would currently qualify in the expanded AL playoff field of eight teams with their 9-7 record. Even if you’re skeptical about this continuing — I definitely am — there’s less time for regression toward the mean with just over six weeks of regular season remaining.

While the baseball world laments the lack of offense with 442 fewer hits than strikeouts around the majors entering Thursday’s action, the Orioles rank first in the AL in batting average (.261), third in on-base percentage (.329), and second in OPS (.794) despite not having 2019 Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini in the lineup. Despite registering only one quality start so far, the pitching has been an otherwise passable 11th in the AL with a 4.41 ERA with Hyde leaning more heavily on an effective bullpen thanks to the expanded roster.

But the real story has been the improvement and production from so many players previously told they weren’t good enough somewhere else.

Instead of regressing from his surprising 2019 that included a .305 average and .398 mark against lefties, Hanser Alberto is hitting the ball harder against all pitchers with a .342 average and 11 extra-base hits in his first 76 plate appearances. The 27-year-old second baseman hardly ever walks, but he doesn’t strike out very much either, making him an interesting outlier in today’s game consumed by “the three true outcomes” approach.

Despite missing a large portion of summer training due to a COVID-19 infection, outfielder Anthony Santander leads the club in RBIs and is tied for the lead with 11 extra-base hits. The former Rule 5 pick won’t turn 26 until October and continues to state his case to be a long-term piece.

Having quietly hit for more power up after a summer stint with Triple-A Norfolk last season, Rio Ruiz has carried that over to 2020 with four homers. The 26-year-old has also made some plays at third base of which Brooks Robinson and Manny Machado would be proud.

Defensive limitations aside, Renato Nunez and Pedro Severino continue to hit for the power they showed last year while Dwight Smith Jr. and Chance Sisco are also off to good starts at the plate. These guys may not resemble long-term answers, but their production speaks for itself.

This group of castoffs — that also includes veteran newcomer shortstop Jose Iglesias and his lofty .372 average — isn’t playing like a team picked by most to be the worst in baseball. In fact, seven of the nine players in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s crazy win in Philadelphia had been waived, designated for assignment, or claimed in the Rule 5 draft.

That’s sure to put a chip on anyone’s shoulder.

“Once you’ve been [designated] or put on waivers, that’s tough for a player to go through mentally,” Hyde said. “To be able to get another opportunity, I know you’re going to try to take the most of it. … I think that you’re naturally going to play with something to prove all the time.”

So, what does this surprising start mean for the Orioles’ rebuild?

Probably not much, and it shouldn’t.

We’re still talking about a small sample size in an unprecedented, weird season. That’s not to say general manager Mike Elias should be giving away players at the trade deadline to further cut a payroll that’s already low enough, but the Orioles shouldn’t entertain being buyers at this stage either. Enjoying some short-term winning and prioritizing the long haul aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

It’s still difficult looking at the current roster and identifying good bets to be part of Baltimore’s next sustainable contender if we’re to assume the current prosperity is more diversion than breakthrough. Should some of the aforementioned names sustain their success for the rest of 2020 and beyond, Elias still must weigh whether their value over the next couple years would be better served elsewhere with younger talent coming to Baltimore in return.

Regardless, the improvement shown from such unheralded players reflects favorably on Elias and Hyde, the coaching staff, and the entire baseball operations department. That’s more important in the long run that fretting over not securing the first overall pick in next year’s draft.

Whether it’s the unknown Pat Valaika providing the walk-off hit and a socially-distanced celebration, two runs scoring on a dropped popup at the pitcher’s mound, or the Orioles winning four of their first six series, we all needed some unexpected fun in this weird 2020.

Why Not?

BUCKle up.

No matter how long this lasts, let’s enjoy it.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following series sweep over Tampa Bay

Posted on 02 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles completing a series sweep with a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Recording their first series sweep since August of 2018, the Orioles played a good brand of baseball over the weekend disposing of a struggling Rays club with higher expectations. The 5-3 start doesn’t change anything for a rebuilding team, but it’s been fun, plain and simple.

2. Averaging more than a strikeout per inning thus far, Baltimore set a club record by striking out at least 10 batters for a fifth consecutive contest. The 2020 Orioles setting this mark says everything about today’s game. Entering Sunday, there had been 279 more strikeouts than hits across the majors.

3. Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc pitched as well as you could expect from soft-tossing lefties, but Milone stood out with eight strikeouts and no walks in five-plus innings Sunday. Entering 2020 with a career 6.7 strikeouts per nine rate, he has 13 in eight frames. That changeup was tough.

4. Hanser Alberto was one of the good stories last year with a .305 average and .398 mark against lefties, but many — this writer included — anticipated regression in 2020. So far, the 27-year-old is batting .429 with an 1.145 OPS and already has three three-hit games. Perhaps 2019 wasn’t a fluke.

5. Give Cole Sulser credit for rebounding from the brutal loss to the Yankees last Thursday with two saves in the Rays series. Brandon Hyde clearly likes the 30-year-old’s stuff and didn’t hesitate going to him in the ninth inning 24 hours after Aaron Judge’s three-run homer. I respect that conviction.

6. Hyde gave Austin Hays “a little bit of a breather” Sunday after his 3-for-28 start to 2020, but the center fielder went 0-for-2 as an in-game replacement. It’s too soon to panic, of course, but you worry about the mental drain of a poor start for a young, unproven player.

7. If we learned anything about Renato Nunez last year, it was how streaky the right-handed slugger can be. Nunez homered in each of the last two games of the series. Defensive limitations hurt his value, but the power is evident with 40 homers in 219 games as an Oriole.

8. Mike Elias says there’s no set date for Ryan Mountcastle to be promoted, but the longer DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins fail to hit, the tougher the sell becomes on restricting Mountcastle to workouts and simulated games at the alternate camp in Bowie. He needs to play in games.

9. The highlight of the weekend was the socially-distanced celebration after Pat Valaika drove in the winning run on Saturday, but the former Colorado utility infielder showed off his pop with a homer on Sunday. Valaika, 27, hit 13 homers in 195 plate appearances for the Rockies in 2017.

10. Placing a runner on second base in extra innings is weird, but it’s kind of fun. That’s not necessarily a long-term endorsement, but an open mind for this season and 2020 in general is a must. At least we saw the first leadoff double play in major league history, right?

11. The Richard Bleier trade after Friday’s win was a reminder of where Elias and the Orioles stand no matter how this crazy 60-game sprint goes. I don’t expect the player to be named later to be anything of consequence, but the 33-year-old lefty reliever wasn’t part of the future either.

12. With Miami scheduled to come to town this week after having its season paused due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the doubts, questions, and concerns about this season are impossible to ignore. I don’t have the answers, but it’s difficult envisioning this continuing much longer with repeats of the past week.

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Finding value in 2020 Orioles season challenging and easy at same time

Posted on 23 July 2020 by Luke Jones

I love baseball.

I’ve really missed it.

One of my cathartic moments in the early months of this dystopian world in which we currently reside was dusting off my glove to play catch in the backyard for the first time in who knows how long. Such an experience was therapy at a time when the only live baseball being played was half a world away

Like so many, my feelings are mixed and my fingers crossed about navigating an unprecedented season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I respect those individuals who’ve elected not to participate and the many players, coaches, and team personnel trying to push through the bizarre circumstances and risks to complete a 2020 season and provide an outlet of temporary escape. I’m hoping for the best while recognizing the undesirable outcomes that could again bring baseball to an abrupt halt.

That paramount acknowledgement aside, finding value in this abbreviated season for the Orioles is challenging

A 60-game sprint of a schedule dares even the worst clubs to dream about a small-sample-size run to the postseason — especially with the playoff field expanding from 10 to 16 teams — but we’re talking about an outfit that hasn’t had as much as a winning month of baseball since August of 2017. Last year’s world champion Washington Nationals and their 19-31 start are the popular citation for the unpredictability of a short season, but 60 games is much more often than not an accurate barometer to distinguish legitimate contenders and teams with a fighting chance from the ones having no shot.

The Orioles lost 108 games last year and won’t have the services of team MVP Trey Mancini (recovering from colorectal cancer), positional player WAR leader Jonathan Villar (traded to Miami), and innings pitched leader Dylan Bundy (traded to the Los Angeles Angels). Making short-term feelings worse, the club placed starting ace John Means (left shoulder) and promising reliever Hunter Harvey (right forearm strain) on the 10-day injured list to begin the season even though manager Brandon Hyde says both should be back sooner than later. Frankly, none of these developments are encouraging beyond the Orioles’ chances of securing the top overall pick in the 2021 draft.

With Means temporarily sidelined, the Baltimore rotation currently consists of 30-somethings with little upside or trade value. Perhaps a healthy Alex Cobb will look more like the pitcher he was in Tampa Bay, but the four-year, $57 million deal a playoff-hopeful Orioles club invested in him 2 1/2 years ago simply isn’t going to bring real value for the future.

Of course, there’s Chris Davis, entering the fifth season of a seven-year, $161 million contract that’s been nothing short of disastrous. Even if his surprising Grapefruit League performance was the harbinger for a modest renaissance, it just won’t mean much beyond the short-term surprise.

Worst of all, the minor league season isn’t taking place with top organizational prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman and pitcher DL Hall restricted to working out at the secondary camp in Bowie. So many of the young players critical to Baltimore’s long-term success simply aren’t getting the desired seasoning to expedite a multiyear rebuilding effort, a cold reality from a baseball perspective.

But all isn’t lost.

Austin Hays will man center field and hit at the top of the order on Opening Day in Boston. It’s easy to forget after two injury-plagued years that the 25-year-old was the first player selected in the 2016 draft to make the majors, but Hays should have every opportunity to prove he belongs if he can stay healthy.

Outfielders still in their mid-20s such as Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, and Cedric Mullins present varying degrees of intrigue and can improve their standing for the future over these next two months.

Veteran reliever Mychal Givens could become general manager Mike Elias’ most appealing chip for the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but the 30-year-old will have just over five weeks to regain his pre-2019 form.

The most anticipated development of the summer will be the debut of Ryan Mountcastle, who is expected to arrive in Baltimore sooner than later. His latest defensive endeavor is learning left field and a problematic strikeout-to-walk ratio should temper expectations, but the 2019 International League MVP’s 61 extra-base hits last year provide more than enough reason for excitement.

There’s also the potential promotions of young starting pitchers such as Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who seem like decent bets to pitch for the Orioles by season’s end. Outfield prospect and Manny Machado trade centerpiece Yusniel Diaz appears less likely to be promoted after failing to progress to Triple-A Norfolk last year, but his progress in the Bowie camp will be monitored closely.

Yes, you’ll need to look closely for those signs of promise while hiding your eyes from what’s likely to be plenty of losing, but we’re all looking for signs of hope — in the Orioles, baseball, and beyond. A 60-game baseball “season” — perhaps it’s better described as an event — with empty ballparks, COVID-19 testing, fake crowd noise, and social distancing is so far from ideal, but so is the rest of life these days.

Weird baseball — even bad baseball — is better than none at all. It’s a difficult reminder of where we are as a country right now and the normalcy for which we long. If the game can safely — a colossal caveat — bring a few hours of smiles, laughs, or even some groans over something trivial, yet important every night, it’s worth it to try, even if that hot dog and cold beer at Camden Yards will have to wait.

In that regard, finding value in this season — even one likely to be forgettable for the Orioles — is easy.

With fingers crossed, let’s play ball.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts entering abbreviated 2020 season

Posted on 20 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With an unprecedented Opening Day set to take place later this week amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With Major League Baseball’s most recent testing report revealing a 0.05 percent positive rate from more than 10,000 samples, the 2020 season will indeed begin later this week. The impact of travel will further reveal the viability of navigating the 60-game season. Fingers crossed.

2. From masks and dugout overflow tents to the absence of fans, the ballpark experience is strange, but artificial crowd noise is preferable to an almost distracting silence otherwise. “Reactions” to in-game events are awkward, but the normal ambience of a “crowd” can help the suspension of disbelief for TV viewers.

3. The Orioles are playing a 7:30 p.m. Opening Day game at Fenway Park on Friday and a 7:35 p.m. home opener a week from Wednesday. That lack of weekday baseball makes perfect sense in the absence of fans, of course, but add it to the lengthy list of weird.

4. Not counting potential promotions later this summer, Austin Hays tops my list of interesting youngsters to watch on a rebuilding club still with many more placeholders than prospects. A strong defender in center field with pop emerging as a long-term piece would be quite valuable.

5. A rotation with four projected starters over age 30 lacks upside, but you hope Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone, and Asher Wojciechowski are functional enough to keep Brandon Hyde from burning through relievers at an alarming rate, especially with the limitations created by the cancellation of the minor leagues.

6. Remember that spring hype over Chris Davis adding weight and going 7-for-15 with three home runs and nine walks in the Grapefruit League? That was such a simpler time, but we’ll see what the veteran with two more years remaining on his contract after 2020 can do.

7. After missing large chunks of five straight professional seasons, Hunter Harvey was finally healthy last season, but the former first-round pick transitioned from a starting role to relief. Can we get this talented 25-year-old both sustained health and a normal season eventually?

8. Let’s hope the Orioles won’t wait long to promote Ryan Mountcastle as the 2019 International League MVP will work at the alternate camp in Bowie for now. Mountcastle, 23, isn’t a slam dunk, but let’s see the bat and whether he can find a defensive home in left field.

9. It was a surreal Friday night intrasquad game in mid-July, but seeing top prospect Adley Rutschman bat at Camden Yards was still a pretty cool scene. Sorry the outcome below wasn’t a little more exciting.

10. Dwight Smith Jr. hasn’t been ruled out for the opener yet, but the Orioles placed him on the 10-day injured list. With left field seemingly wide open, it’s quite the contrast in fortunes for Smith and DJ Stewart, who wouldn’t have been ready in late March due to ankle surgery.

11. Dilson Herrera may still find himself on the wrong side of the roster bubble, but the former top 100 prospect in the Mets system offers some positional versatility and has shown power in intrasquad games. The July restart has been kind to the 26-year-old vying for a job.

12. The absence of Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne — both over 70 — from regular telecasts is understandable, but MASN still not providing in-market subscribers the ability to watch games on their phones or computers is inexcusable. The network remains absent from all streaming services. This isn’t OK in 2020.

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Four long-term story lines for start of 2020 Orioles season

Posted on 16 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With the start of an unprecedented and abbreviated 2020 season now only a week away, the Orioles are in an undesirable place from a baseball perspective.

That a rebuilding club has no reasonable shot to contend in even a 60-game schedule conducive to statistical noise isn’t the problem as no one envisioned the AL East standings being of consequence for the Orioles after a combined 223 losses in the previous two seasons. But the cancellation of the entire minor league season leaves general manager Mike Elias and the goal of fostering “an elite talent pipeline” with limited avenues to develop the young prospects vital to Baltimore’s future.

Like last season, the number of veteran placeholders and overmatched players on the major league roster will greatly outweigh the interesting talents fighting to become long-term pieces for the Orioles’ next contending club, a contrast exacerbated by 2019 Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini’s season-long absence due to colon cancer and the offseason trade of productive infielder Jonathan Villar. But that doesn’t mean a pleasant surprise or two can’t emerge as baseball attempts to navigate a strange season through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are four story lines with long-term ramifications at the start of 2020:

1. The encore for John Means

There was no bigger surprise for the Orioles last year than the 27-year-old Means, who went from an organizational lefty on the Opening Day roster bubble to the 2019 All-Star Game and second place in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Means used a superb changeup and improved fastball velocity to pitch to a 3.60 ERA in 155 innings that included 27 starts, 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.21 walks per nine, a 1.135 WHIP, and 23 home runs allowed. However, he struggled to a 4.85 ERA and a 6.5 per nine strikeout rate after the All-Star break and doesn’t have the stuff to overwhelm hitters who will now be more familiar with his repertoire. Keys to Means not being a one-year wonder are the continued development of his slider and a growth mindset to stay ahead of the curve, something he attempted to do for a second straight offseason. He’ll have his first chance to show his progress when he starts the opener at Fenway Park, the place where he made his unceremonious major league debut at the end of 2018. With the rest of the projected rotation to begin the season — Alex Cobb, Asher Wojciechowski, Wade LeBlanc, and Tommy Milone — all over age 30, Means remains the most intriguing starter by a wide margin.

2. Austin Hays and a wide-open outfield

The outfield remains in flux with Mancini’s absence, Anthony Santander just returning this week from testing positive for the coronavirus, Dwight Smith Jr. still absent for undisclosed reasons, and DJ Stewart returning from offseason ankle surgery, leaving Hays — and his 75 plate appearances last September — as the ironic best bet to be in the Opening Day outfield. A consensus top 100 prospect in baseball entering 2018 after an outstanding first full season of professional ball, Hays struggled to stay healthy for the better part of two years until his late-season promotion resulted in some highlight defensive plays in center field and a .309/.373/.574 slash line that included 10 extra-base hits and 13 RBIs in 21 games. To say Hays can cement his place as the center fielder of the future in only a 60-game sample would be premature, but the 25-year-old has the opportunity to make a lasting impression. Meanwhile, Santander, 25, will try to show his 20-homer campaign last year was no fluke, and the 26-year-old Stewart could have his last best chance to live up to his former first-round billing.

3. Hunter Harvey’s place in the bullpen

After missing significant parts of the previous four seasons with various injuries, the 2013 first-round pick was one of the better stories in the organization last season as he remained healthy and settled into a new role pitching in relief. Harvey, 25, posted a 4.32 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 16 2/3 innings for Triple-A Norfolk before being promoted to the majors in mid-August. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out 11 batters, walked four, and allowed only one run in seven appearances before reaching his innings limit and being shut down with minor arm soreness in mid-September. Manager Brandon Hyde didn’t hesitate to throw Harvey into some high-leverage situations last year, so that should continue, regardless of whether he settles into a traditional closer role. As for the rest of the bullpen, the Orioles hope late-inning right-hander Mychal Givens rebounds from an underwhelming 2019 to reestablish some trade value before the Aug. 31 deadline and that 25-year-old right-hander Miguel Castro can build upon his second-half improvement from a year ago.

4. Graduations from the alternate camp in Bowie

If we’re being honest, the happenings at the Orioles’ secondary training site will be of far greater interest and consequence to the big picture with prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman, lefty pitcher DL Hall, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, and right-hander Michael Baumann taking part, but which talents there will have the best chance of playing in the majors in 2020? Plate discipline concerns (24 walks in 553 plate appearances) and the lack of a position should make one take pause about 23-year-old Ryan Mountcastle’s upside, but the 2019 International League MVP has little to prove down below after 61 extra-base hits and an .871 OPS at Norfolk last year. Especially with Mancini out of the 2020 picture, there’s no logical reason not to give Mountcastle major league at-bats and looks in left field and at first base sooner than later. On the pitching side, lefty Keegan Akin’s 4.73 ERA and 4.9 walks per nine innings in 112 1/3 innings at Norfolk last season didn’t scream promotion, but his 10.5 strikeouts per nine still make him a viable prospect if the 25-year-old can hone his control. Right-hander Dean Kremer, 24, is another promotion candidate, but his injury-delayed 2019 season consisted of only four starts at the Triple-A level, making it unlikely the Orioles will rush him to Baltimore. The 23-year-old Diaz shouldn’t be completely ruled out, but he’s yet to log a professional at-bat above the Double-A level and Elias has been pretty firm about prospects not skipping steps. Outfielder Cedric Mullins could also play his way back to the majors, but he has much to prove after a nightmare 2019.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts with 2020 season training resuming

Posted on 01 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With players and coaches returning to Camden Yards this week to resume training for the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Mike Elias said the organization had been “remarkably lucky” not to have any positive COVID-19 tests (as of Monday) while acknowledging the Orioles are “going to have cases.” It’s a realistic assessment and a reminder of just how uncertain this all is from even the most optimistic viewpoints.

2. To this point, the Orioles aren’t expecting any players to opt out of the 2020 season, but you wonder if the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond choosing not to play coupled with additional positive tests this week could change minds. It’s a personal decision that should be respected.

3. The inevitable became official Tuesday with the minor leagues canceling their season. The minors are critical to the game’s long-term health in not only developing prospects but also cultivating young fans around the country. I’m concerned with MLB’s inability — or cold refusal — to recognize that.

4. The Heston Kjerstad signing is official with the second overall pick from Arkansas receiving a $5.2 million bonus, which was $2.59 million below slot. Of course, no one will remember that if Kjerstad becomes a mainstay in right field and shows the potent left-handed bat the Orioles like so much.

5. The organization is telling Kjerstad and other 2020 draft picks to stay ready in hopes of being able to gather for instructional work at some point. Everyone’s in the same boat, but Baltimore losing so much development time in a season so inconsequential at the major league level is tough.

6. The first 44 players announced for the Orioles’ 60-man pool list made clear we’ll wait at least a little longer to see Ryan Mountcastle as well as Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, and Dean Kremer. Especially with Trey Mancini out, there’s no excuse not to give Mountcastle extensive at-bats.

7. With the potential statistical noise of a 60-game sprint of a season, Elias was asked how he’d handle the Orioles being a surprise contender at the trade deadline and replied that he’d “look at that very seriously.” Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

8. If a roster without its two best position players from 2019 — Mancini and Jonathan Villar — weren’t enough, a daunting schedule now including the entire NL East in addition to the usual AL East nightmares should halt any talk of the Orioles being Cinderella. There are much better sleeper picks.

9. In addition to the aforementioned prospects we could see at some point, Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, John Means, and Anthony Santander provide incentives to watch a club still too short on talent expected to be in Baltimore for the long run. Another Means-like story or two would help.

10. Asked about his biggest prospect-related concerns, Elias noted the obvious long-term health of pitchers not accumulating innings and mentioned young hitters missing “key at-bats in their life cycle” as players. How many fringe talents who could have made it will never get a real chance now?

11. The labor war is exhausting and the pandemic concerns omnipresent, but I’m otherwise embracing the weirdness of a 60-game season as well as rule changes and quirks. Some of the best innovation comes through unusual circumstances. There’s been nothing traditional about 2020, so why start now?

12. Current frustrations with MLB aside, I appreciated the following video and wish the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues could have been celebrated in ballparks around the country. From Rube Foster’s vision to baseball royalty like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil, these men need to be remembered.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts as baseball’s shutdown continues

Posted on 13 April 2020 by Luke Jones

With baseball’s shutdown continuing indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The family of Al Kaline took out a regular obituary in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press, reflecting how unassuming the Hall of Famer nicknamed “Mr. Tiger” was. The Southern High product never forgot his Baltimore roots and collected his 3,000th hit at Memorial Stadium in 1974. What a story and life.

2. If you’re yearning for some optimism regarding a 2020 season, watch this Newsday interview with Daniel Kim, who provided insight on what’s happening in South Korea with the KBO and its goal to open the season in early May. A former Mets interpreter, Kim is a good follow on Twitter.

3. ESPN has reportedly explored the possibility of securing KBO broadcasting rights. If you’re looking for a potential rooting interest, former Orioles Hyun Soo Kim and Tyler Wilson play for the LG Twins and had strong 2019 seasons.

4. So much needs to happen before even considering MLB’s return in any capacity, but the Grapefruit-Cactus league realignment idea sounds more plausible than the Arizona-only “quarantine” concept floated early last week. Going from the AL East to the Grapefruit South division sure wouldn’t offer the rebuilding Orioles any break.

5. As a pro wrestling fan who’s watched televised shows without fans in attendance for weeks, I’d say the experience is weird and far from ideal, but I’ve been entertained. If it can work for a product so dependent on crowd interaction, that particular condition for a return plan seems tolerable.

6. The retiring Mark Reynolds could be frustrating to watch, but his 2011 blast into the club level (3:35 mark) was one of the more impressive homers at Camden Yards. How frequently he’d leave his feet playing first base was amusing, but he was much better there than at third base.

7. Wednesday will mark the 73rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, but this year also brings the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, which is scheduled to be celebrated this summer. I highly recommend a visit to Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to any fan.

8. Speaking of anniversaries, Cal Ripken registered his 3,000th career hit 20 years ago this Wednesday. Good for him to launch the Strike Out Hunger campaign in conjunction with his new Twitter account. His message to Whit Merrifield — the active streak leader at 247 consecutive games — was fun.

9. We’re all coping without baseball in different ways, but I just can’t get into the simulated 2020 seasons some websites are using to provide content. I did notice Austin Hays already having six home runs in Baseball-Reference.com’s simulation. That’d be fun.

10. Along those lines, it’s strange to think that the Orioles would have already been a tenth of the way through the scheduled 2020 season. They would have been starting their third interleague series of the season on Tuesday, which also would have been weird this early.

11. Having watched plenty of old baseball recently, I was reminded Rick Sutcliffe pitched his five-hit shutout in 2 hours, 2 minutes to open Camden Yards 28 years ago. That was quite the Orioles debut, but the 2-0 final didn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of the ballpark’s eventual reputation.

12. I’d be embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve watched the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary in my life, but its original release coincided with the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series. My latest viewing of it has helped amidst uncertainty of when we’ll have live baseball again.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts at start of 2020 spring training

Posted on 18 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With full-squad spring workouts now underway in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The patience required for a multiyear rebuild was already agonizing enough for the fan base, but the model being the 2017 Houston Astros now carries much different connotations. That’s a tough pill to swallow when there is no guarantee of success.

2. That’s not to convict Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal of anything beyond association as neither has been named in any scandal reporting so far, but I can’t believe they weren’t aware of what was going on as longtime Jeff Luhnow lieutenants dating back to their St. Louis days. It’s uncomfortable.

3. Chris Davis adding 25 pounds to get stronger doesn’t carry much weight when he balked at overhauling his swing, citing age and past success that was an eternity ago. He still views himself as an everyday player “until it’s proven otherwise,” but shouldn’t that be the other way around?

4. Some are interpreting Davis’ admission of contemplating retirement as the end being near, but it could have the opposite effect. Ownership hasn’t been willing to walk away from this disastrous contract so far, so why wouldn’t they dig in their heels over the possibility of Davis forgoing millions?

5. On a more positive note, Adley Rutschman being in major league camp is the brightest sign of hope yet for the rebuild. You wouldn’t expect him to be there long, but the first overall pick seeing a little Grapefruit League action would be fun.

6. We’ll likely wait until summer for more prospects to debut in Baltimore, but Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey showed enough late last season to be excited for 2020. Health remains a sticking point, but both have a chance to be part of the next contender in Baltimore.

7. Ryan Mountcastle has worked in the outfield over the first couple days of camp as the organization’s search for his defensive position continues. I’m still a little more concerned about him walking only 24 times in 553 plate appearances at Norfolk last season. He just turned 23 Tuesday, however.

8. The minor-league signings of Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc aren’t moving the meter for a rotation projected to again be poor, but either veteran lefty eating innings and decreasing the need for position players to pitch as frequently would be welcome. Just be a little more functional.

9. At this time last year, no one was predicting John Means to make the club, let alone the All-Star team. It would be encouraging to see another Means-like story or two — David Hess took a cue from the lefty — on a roster still with more placeholders than players of interest.

10. The performances of Hays and Chance Sisco last spring serve as a reminder that Elias doesn’t put much stock in Grapefruit League numbers, but Mountcastle and pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer performing well would serve as promising harbingers for call-ups later this year.

11. I believe in Elias, but I hoped to see more imagination this offseason in terms of signing a value free agent to flip or taking on a contract in a trade to buy a prospect. Having baseball’s lowest payroll is great for ownership, but that alone doesn’t expedite this process.

12. Rob Manfred stating his belief of “a good future for baseball in Baltimore” is fine, but the MASN resolution and a new stadium lease beyond the 2021 season are the real keys. The attendance for a team currently not trying to win has nothing to do with it.

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Rutschman, two Orioles pitching prospects on Baseball America’s top 100 list

Posted on 22 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Anticipation for the 2020 season isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with the Orioles still in the early innings of a massive rebuild, but there’s hope for the future if Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list is any indication.

Each of Baltimore’s last three first-round picks landed among the publication’s latest top 100 released Wednesday with 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman ranking as the fifth-best prospect in baseball. Regarded by many as the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010, the 21-year-old catcher won countless collegiate awards as a junior at Oregon State before being selected with the first pick of the Mike Elias era in Baltimore last June.

Set to be among the Orioles’ non-roster invitees to major league spring training next month, Rutschman appeared in 37 games across three levels last summer, batting a combined .254 with four home runs, 26 runs batted in, and a .774 on-base plus slugging percentage. The switch-hitting catcher played for the Gulf Coast League Orioles, short-season Single-A Aberdeen, and Single-A Delmarva and appeared in the South Atlantic League playoffs with the Shorebirds last September.

Baltimore’s 2018 first-round round pick, right-handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez ranks 35th overall on Baseball America’s list after sharing the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award with Double-A Bowie right-hander Michael Baumann last season. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Rodriguez, 20, went 10-4 with a tidy 2.68 ERA in 94 innings with Delmarva, averaging 12.4 strikeouts compared to 3.4 walks per nine innings.

Left-hander DL Hall was Baseball America’s No. 47 prospect after going 4-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 80 2/3 innings at Single-A Frederick. The 21-year-old averaged an impressive 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings, but he’s still honing his control after averaging 6.0 walks per nine frames. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Hall was the No. 54 prospect on Baseball America’s top 100 list last January.

Both Rodriguez and Hall were selected to play in last year’s All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland.

Other notable Orioles prospects listed as missing the cut included infielder Ryan Mountcastle and outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Austin Hays. All three had appeared on past Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists.

Despite being named the organization’s Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year and winning the International League MVP award in 2019, Mountcastle didn’t make the list after batting .312 with 25 homers, 35 doubles, 83 RBIs, and an .871 OPS for Triple-A Norfolk. Mountcastle’s future remains promising since he’ll turn only 23 next month, but his lack of a defined defensive position and underwhelming plate discipline — 24 walks in 553 plate appearances — probably didn’t help his case with the publication.

The centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade in 2018, Diaz was one of the bigger disappointments in an otherwise fruitful year for Baltimore’s farm system as nagging leg injuries limited the 23-year-old to 85 games. The Cuban outfielder batted .262 with 34 extra-base hits, 53 RBIs, and an .807 OPS in 322 plate appearances for Bowie last season.

Hays was hampered by injuries for a second straight season, but a September promotion to the Orioles allowed the 24-year-old to showcase his upside as he shined in center field and batted .309 with four homers, six doubles, 13 RBIs, and a .947 OPS in 75 plate appearances. He’ll be vying to break camp as Baltimore’s Opening Day center fielder this spring.

This marks the first time since 2009 that the Orioles have three prospects in Baseball American’s top 50 after Matt Wieters ranked first overall, Chris Tillman 22nd, and Brian Matusz 25th that year.

Below are the Orioles who have appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list since 2008:

2020: C Adley Rutschman (5th), RHP Grayson Rodriguez (35th), LHP DL Hall (47th)
2019: OF Yusniel Diaz (37th), LHP DL Hall (54th), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (90th)
2018: OF Austin Hays (21st), C Chance Sisco (68th), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (71st)
2017: C Chance Sisco (57th)
2016: none
2015: RHP Dylan Bundy (48th), RHP Hunter Harvey (68th)
2014: RHP Dylan Bundy (15th), RHP Kevin Gausman (20th), LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (65th)
2013: RHP Dylan Bundy (2nd), RHP Kevin Gausman (26th)
2012: RHP Dylan Bundy (10th), SS Manny Machado (11th), 2B Jonathan Schoop (82nd)
2011: SS Manny Machado (14th), LHP Zach Britton (28th)
2010: LHP Brian Matusz (5th), 3B Josh Bell (37th), LHP Zach Britton (63rd), RHP Jake Arrieta (99th)
2009: C Matt Wieters (1st), RHP Chris Tillman (22nd), LHP Brian Matusz (25th), RHP Jake Arrieta (67th)
2008: C Matt Wieters (12th), RHP Chris Tillman (67th), RHP Radhames Liz (69th), LHP Troy Patton (78th), OF Nolan Reimold (91st)

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Mullins trying to “get some positive mojo working” at Double-A Bowie

Posted on 12 July 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Eleven months after making his major league debut as the potential heir apparent to former Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, Cedric Mullins is back in Double-A baseball.

The Opening Day center fielder was assigned to the Bowie Baysox Thursday after a nightmare first half in which he was demoted from the majors in late April and batted just .205 with a .578 on-base plus slugging percentage in 306 plate appearances at Triple-A Norfolk. Mullins, 24, went 6-for-64 to begin the season with the Orioles, which followed a poor spring training in which he collected only eight hits in 53 at-bats in the Grapefruit League.

The switch-hitting Mullins batted .187 with a .512 OPS in 119 plate appearances last September, meaning he hasn’t enjoyed much prosperity in a long time.

“I just think he needs to get on track somehow,” said manager Brandon Hyde as the Orioles resumed the second half of the season Friday. “I think guys sometimes have tough years, and obviously we still feel really highly about Cedric and his ability. Now, it’s trying to put him in position to [succeed]. I know he struggled in Triple-A, and you want to see him have success.”

As Jones moved to right field for the first time in his Orioles career last August, Mullins was called up and batted .317 with nine extra-base hits, six runs batted in, and a stout .941 on-base plus slugging percentage in his first 72 plate appearances, looking the part of the center fielder of the future. Questions had persisted about his ability to hit from the right side long before he reached the majors, but Mullins batted just .186 with a .528 OPS against right-handed pitching in the International League in the first half of 2019 while batting a more respectable .257 with a .709 OPS against lefties, making it more difficult to know what to make of his statistical collapse.

Mullins batted .269 with 26 extra-base hits and a .771 OPS in 269 plate appearances for the Tides last season, which makes his 2019 Triple-A struggles that much more alarming.

“There have been a lot of instances where guys go down — and go down multiple levels — and in a year or two, they’re much, much better players,” Hyde said. “That’s just part of the development process a little bit at times. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to do, but Roy Halladay went down to high A at one point in his career.

“I think sometimes you have to reset. What’s the best place for him to reset right now we feel like is going back down to Double-A and trying to get some positive mojo working and have some success.”

Entering 2019, the future in center field appeared bright between Mullins and prospect Austin Hays, but injuries limited the latter to 39 games in the first half of the season after an injury-plagued 2018. Hays, 24, is healthy now and serving as the everyday center field for the Tides with Mullins playing at Bowie.

Despite playing only the corner outfield spots in the minors, Anthony Santander was starting his second career game in center for the Orioles Friday night. He became the sixth Orioles player to start a game in center this season last Friday, joining Mullins, Stevie Wilkerson, Keon Broxton, and former Orioles Drew Jackson and Joey Rickard.

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