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.
Whatever works. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/VesAvNkf4X
— MLB (@MLB) August 13, 2020
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.
No matter how long this lasts, let’s enjoy it.