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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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.
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 rebuilding Orioles in last place one quarter of the way through the 2019 season, let’s take a look at what advanced-level prospects are doing at Triple-A Norfolk to try to earn a promotion to the majors:
CF Cedric Mullins Age: 24 2019 numbers: .247/.329/.397, 2 HR, 1 2B, 2 3B, 7 RBI, 5 SB, 13 SO, 9 BB, 84 PA Outlook: Mullins is no longer a prospect in the traditional sense with 265 major league plate appearances since last August, but the Orioles aren’t giving up on the switch-hitting outfielder despite an .094 average in April that prompted his demotion. He was initially swinging the bat well for the Tides, but a .222 May average has cooled momentum for a quick return. Questions have persisted about his ability to swing from the right side against lefty pitching, but Mullins is batting only .189 against right-handers at Triple A this season, further evidence that he has more work to do to straighten himself out. How the organization handles Mullins and the soon-to-be-returning Austin Hays at Norfolk will be interesting to monitor.
C Chance Sisco Age: 24 2019 numbers: .280/.379/.533, 7 HR, 6 2B, 0 3B, 25 RBI, 0 SB, 26 SO, 13 BB, 124 PA Outlook: The left-handed Sisco has hit markedly better than he did at the Triple-A level in 2017 or 2018, but the new regime has placed a premium on defense at the major-league level, an area where doubts persist about the 2013 second-round pick. He continues to catch exclusively for now, but you do wonder if exploring a position change is in order if the organization doesn’t believe his defense will be good enough for the next level. There doesn’t appear to be much more for Sisco to prove with his bat in the minors, but some fear his swing is too long to succeed in the majors after his immense struggles with the Orioles last year.
1B/3B Ryan Mountcastle Age: 22 2019 numbers: .324/.350/.507, 5 HR, 10 2B, 1 3B, 23 RBI, 1 SB, 36 SO, 6 BB, 157 PA Outlook: The 2015 first-round pick has raked at the plate since mid-April to solidify his standing as the best hitting prospect in the organization, especially with Double-A outfielder Yusniel Diaz off to a slow start and currently injured. The power production speaks for itself, but you’d like to see Mountcastle draw more walks, especially as his reputation with the bat grows around baseball. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound infielder is primarily playing first base this season and has good hands despite his poor defensive reputation, which should help in his transition from the left side of the infield. Some believe Mountcastle is ready to hit in the majors now, but the Orioles are in no rush with Chris Davis, Renato Nunez, and Trey Mancini consuming the at-bats at first base and designated hitter for now.
LHP Keegan Akin Age: 24 2019 numbers: 1-1, 4.24 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 2 HR, 34 innings Outlook: The Eastern League’s pitcher of the year and the organization’s minor-league co-pitcher of the year in 2018, Akin isn’t off to the best start at Triple A, but he’s maintained his strikeout rate at a higher level, a good sign for his chances of succeeding in the majors. The lefty throws a low-90s fastball capable of touching 95 or 96 miles per hour and an above-average slider with a solid changeup, a repertoire giving him a chance to be in the back half of the rotation one day. With top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall still pitching for Single-A affiliates and 2018 trade acquisition Dean Kremer just now returning from a spring oblique injury, Akin is Baltimore’s best minor-league pitcher who’s close to being ready for the majors.
LF/RF DJ Stewart Age: 25 2019 numbers: .281/.406/.561, 7 HR, 9 2B, 1 3B, 26 RBI, 4 SB, 21 SO, 24 BB, 144 PA Outlook: After posting an encouraging .890 on-base plus slugging percentage in 47 plate appearances for the Orioles last September, Stewart was optioned to the minors relatively early this spring, which wasn’t much of an endorsement from the new regime. However, he’s done everything you could ask for in his second season at Norfolk with an OPS more than 200 points higher than it was in 2018 and a .500 batting average in May. Stewart would probably be in Baltimore by now if not for the March acquisition of Dwight Smith, who’s been one of the biggest surprises of the young season. With Smith manning left and Mancini primarily playing right field, Stewart doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time in the outfield, but the Orioles are already using Stevie Wilkerson in center over Joey Rickard, who entered Wednesday hitting below the Mendoza line. If for no reason other than to send a positive message to minor-league players, general manager Mike Elias needs to reward Stewart’s play sooner than later.
RHP Luis Ortiz Age: 23 2019 numbers: 1-3, 6.31 ERA, 1.91 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, 3 HR, 25 2/3 innings Outlook: Ranked as the Orioles’ 18th-best prospect by MLB.com, Ortiz is already with his third organization as questions about his weight and conditioning have dogged the 2014 first-round pick since before he was drafted. The right-hander lost weight in the offseason, but his numbers so far this season are erasing any lingering excitement from when he was acquired in the Jonathan Schoop trade last summer. That said, Ortiz is still young enough to figure it out, and the Orioles don’t have many minor-league arms knocking at the door for a major-league call-up.
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BALTIMORE — Viewed as the hopeful heir apparent to former Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, the struggling Cedric Mullins was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk prior to Monday’s series opener against the Chicago White Sox.
The 24-year-old Mullins was hitting just .094 with four runs batted in, a stolen base, and two triples in 74 plate appearances this season and owned just two hits — both singles — in his last 40 at-bats since his two-triple game against Oakland on April 8. Mullins batted an impressive .317 over his first 72 plate appearances upon making his major league debut last August, but he holds a .152 batting average over his last 193 major league plate appearances dating back to last Sept. 1, which was concerning enough to warrant a demotion. The switch-hitting center fielder also struggled at the plate this spring, hitting just .160 in 59 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League.
Mullins didn’t start Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Minnesota and rolled out weakly to first base in his only at-bat in the eighth inning, showing some frustration as he crossed the bag and jogged back to the dugout. Backup catcher Pedro Severino batted for him an inning later with the bases loaded and the Orioles trailing by one run with two outs.
“Cedric’s off to kind of a tough start offensively,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We love the way he was playing defense; he’s really contributed defensively. We just felt like, from a confidence standpoint, we’d like to see him go down there, work on some things, get some more at-bats. Mainly, he’s been scuffling, and he’s a big part of our club going forward and the future. We want to see him have success. We thought the best thing for him was to go down there, kind of ‘clean-slate’ the season, work on a few things offensively, and hopefully come back up here soon.”
Mullins entered the season facing questions about his ability to hit from the right side of the plate after struggling against southpaw pitching throughout his minor-league career, but Hyde wants to see him get more at-bats from both sides of the plate with the Tides as he started only four games against left-handed pitchers this season and went 1-for-15 against lefties. A 13th-round pick in the 2015 draft, Mullins was batting .102 in 56 plate appearances against right-handers this season, making the previous doubts about his right-handed swing seem trivial in comparison.
There have also been some long-term questions about the strength of Mullins’ throwing arm, leaving many to wonder if he’ll eventually slide to left field or settle into a role as a fourth outfielder. In the spring, both Hyde and general manager Mike Elias commented on the possibility of outfield prospect Austin Hays eventually playing center field in Baltimore before he was optioned to Norfolk, which wasn’t exactly interpreted by some as a ringing endorsement for Mullins. Of course, Hays is still recovering from a thumb injury suffered late in minor-league spring training.
Mullins’ demotion is a frustrating reminder that prospects often don’t develop on a linear path after he entered the season as one of only a few on the current roster seemingly having a good chance to last through a lengthy rebuilding process in Baltimore. That’s not to say Mullins won’t still develop into an effective everyday player, but his struggles are only one example of what’s sure to be at least a few speed bumps along the Orioles’ road back to respectability and contention.
“This is a tough game, and this game can beat you up,” Hyde said. “When you don’t have maybe the major league experience and the confidence or something to go to where you can look back and say, ‘This is how I dealt with it at this time in my career,’ I think there’s a lot of pressure that you put on yourself that you want to succeed.
“There are a lot of great players that have been sent back to Triple A — a lot of great players. That’s part of the game, and that’s just part of your development and learning to deal with adversity and fighting through tough times and maybe going down there to recharge and restart something, figure something out, go back to something that worked, and then come back up here and hopefully have a long career.”
It’s worth noting Mullins had only 269 plate appearances for Norfolk before making his major league debut, which would have likely clashed with the deliberate focus Elias has placed on player development so far with both Hays and catcher Chance Sisco being sent to Norfolk despite strong spring performances and previous major league experience. Mullins batted .269 with six home runs, 17 doubles, three triples, 19 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, and a .771 OPS for the Tides last season before being called up to the majors, numbers not so great to suggest he couldn’t benefit from some more seasoning.
The Orioles selected the contract of utility player Stevie Wilkerson from Norfolk to take Mullins’ place on the 25-man roster. Hyde said he could see some playing time in center field along with veteran Joey Rickard, who started at that position Monday night.
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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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Orioles catching prospect Chance Sisco had a heck of a spring.
But despite leading the club with a stout 1.298 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, the 24-year-old was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday. General manager Mike Elias and the Orioles now appear set to head north with the duo of Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino, two defensive-minded catchers who’ve shown little offensive ability in their major league experiences.
The decision was met with scrutiny from those citing the organization’s declaration of open competition this spring or fans merely wanting what’s shaping up to be another difficult season to be more compelling. The latter sentiment is perfectly understandable with the Orioles still charging major-league prices for a club that doesn’t look dramatically different than it did at the conclusion of a franchise-worst 115-loss campaign last fall. The idea of a full-scale rebuild clashes with the reality of the Orioles ultimately being an entertainment business still trying to sell tickets to 81 home games this year.
Finding compelling reasons to go to the ballpark beyond an unconditional love for the Orioles, an attractive giveaway night, or wanting to cheer on the few interesting players who might still be around a few years from now isn’t easy.
That said, we shouldn’t forget Sisco also posted a 1.274 OPS last spring to win a spot on the Opening Day roster to split time with veteran Caleb Joseph. In 184 plate appearances in the regular season, he batted .181 with a strikeout rate only a hair better than Chris Davis’ and ranking among the worst 10 in baseball among those with at least 150 plate appearances. That’s not even considering the questions about his defense that have surrounded Sisco since being selected in the second round of the 2013 amateur draft.
You always prefer good numbers over poor statistics in the spring, but how much do small sample sizes — which are problematic enough in the regular season — really mean when spring box scores are littered with competitors having no chance of playing in the majors this season? As Elias has noted more than once, there is more predictive power from minor-league regular-season numbers than with performance in spring training.
Despite formerly being ranked a top-100 prospect in baseball, Sisco owns a career .260 average with a .733 OPS in 557 plate appearances at Norfolk. Those sound like solid numbers for a catcher, but they’re not impressive enough to confidently predict major league success or to overlook the concerns about his ability behind the plate, a factor to consider even more with such a young pitching staff in Baltimore. It’s clear Elias and the organization believe there’s unfinished business for Sisco to complete in the minors, and that’s all that should matter for the Orioles now.
The sense of “competition” isn’t as much about Sisco being a better present-day option than Sucre or Severino in the majors — which is still debatable when you factor in defense — than it is about him meeting benchmarks that will improve his chances of being a successful major leaguer, something he wasn’t last year. It’s where the intersection of player development and analytics come into the picture to use coaching methods as well as technology and data to chart out a path to success. As their track record in player development reflects in Houston, Elias and assistant general manager and analytics guru Sig Mejdal deserve trust in assessing someone who’s hardly considered to be a slam-dunk prospect anyway.
To be clear, none of this is a knock on Sisco as the same principles hold true for the likes of hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott and outfielder Austin Hays, who have also spent time in the majors. These are individuals who were rushed to the major leagues by the previous regime before completing their development as Scott and Hays have combined to appear in a total of 10 games at Norfolk.
For every rare talent such as Manny Machado capable of skipping minor-league levels, there are many more who benefit from more experience before graduating to the majors. Such a mindset sure beats the perceived philosophy of “you can’t mess up the good ones” that was practiced frequently in the past, whether it was the Orioles shuffling Kevin Gausman between the bullpen and the rotation — and the majors and the minors — for years or even briefly calling up oft-injured pitching prospect Hunter Harvey last season despite the former first-round pick having pitched very little the previous three years. These were examples of questionable tactics for even a winning club, but such a mindset would be wildly inappropriate for one with no hope of contending this year.
As we’ve said all offseason, patience is the most difficult part at the start of a rebuild. It’s easy to romanticize the process with this year marking the 30th anniversary of the “Why Not?” Orioles, but that was a rare exception to the rule and that club wasn’t exactly an example of sustaining long-term success. Rushing prospects like Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle isn’t turning Baltimore into a wild-card contender overnight and could compromise their long-term chances for success.
Simply put, this season isn’t likely to be fun and isn’t designed to be despite what will be manager Brandon Hyde’s best efforts to get the major league club to play hard and compete every night. Elias isn’t forming an Opening Day roster to try to squeak out a couple more wins in 2019; he’s trying to cultivate assets in the best way he sees fit to eventually be part of the Orioles’ next contending club.
When those young players accomplish what they need to down below, we’ll see them in Baltimore as part of the next phase of the process. In the meantime, the Orioles will look a lot like they did last year.
That’s just the hard truth with the big picture being paramount.
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No player in Orioles major league camp was having a better spring than Austin Hays, but that didn’t stop the 23-year-old outfielder from being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday.
The decision was met with some surprise after Hays batted .351 with five home runs and a 1.277 on-base plus slugging percentage in 40 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League, but the 2016 third-round pick’s only professional experience above the Double-A level to this point in his career is 63 plate appearance with Baltimore in the final month of 2017. Entering spring training, most didn’t consider Hays a strong bet to make the major league club after his injury-riddled 2018 season that ended with him undergoing ankle surgery in September, but he used the spring to reestablish himself as one of Baltimore’s best prospects and eased concerns about his ankle by showing off good speed and strong defense. His nine extra-base hits led the club.
Baseball America named Hays its No. 21 overall prospect entering 2018, but the first 2016 draftee to make the major leagues struggled at Double-A Bowie, batting just .242 with 12 homers and a .703 OPS in 288 plate appearances while missing significant time with his ankle injury. With Hays struggling, the Orioles promoted the likes of Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart after the trade deadline last year.
Mullins is expected to be the Opening Day center fielder for Baltimore, but Hays has impressed with his defense in center and appears likely to play that position for the Tides. Questions about Mullins’ throwing arm could eventually push him to a corner outfield spot, especially if Hays plays the position effectively at Norfolk.
Hays wasn’t the only young outfielder to be optioned to Norfolk on Sunday as former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander was cut from major league camp. The 24-year-old also made a favorable impression this spring with the new Orioles regime by batting .333 with eight extra-base hits and a 1.086 OPS in 36 plate appearances.
With Hays and Santander demoted, Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini, Joey Rickard, Dwight Smith Jr., Eric Young Jr., and Drew Jackson remain in the outfield picture to varying degrees.
General manager Mike Elias also optioned infielder Stevie Wilkerson and right-handed pitchers Cody Carroll, Branden Kline, and Yefry Ramirez to the Tides. Ramirez was vying for a spot in the Orioles’ starting rotation after making 12 starts in the majors last year, but he posted a 5.11 ERA in 12 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League.
Right-hander Gabriel Ynoa and infielder Christopher Bostick were also reassigned to minor-league camp, leaving 39 players in major league camp with the start of the season less than two weeks away.
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With the start of the 2019 regular season just over three weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. We all know not to draw conclusions from a handful of spring games, but it’s impossible to ignore Chris Davis striking out seven times and registering only one hit — a homer — in his first 14 plate appearances. If he’s not going to show improvement in the Grapefruit League, then what?
2. Hopes of the new regime fixing Davis have been discussed plenty, but Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde have no prior ties to feel obligated to be patient. If he’s simply “finished” as a player, how long do you keep him in the lineup or even in the organization?
3. Trey Mancini playing left field a little longer probably isn’t hindering anyone’s development drastically, but Ryan Mountcastle taking to first base and tearing up Triple A would put Baltimore in position to improve by cutting Davis later this year if he shows no improvement. The money’s already been spent, folks.
4. Chance Sisco already has four home runs and four walks in 14 plate appearances. If nothing else, that should really help his confidence level, something that took a major hit in the midst of his difficult 2018 campaign.
5. Nate Karns being set to return to game action after experiencing arm soreness is good news, but it’s a reminder why he received only an $800,000 contract. Pitchers have returned from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, but it’s not a high-percentage outcome for someone with his injury history.
6. Kudos to the new regime for not wasting time in reassigning Hunter Harvey to minor-league camp. He’s pitched just 63 2/3 professional innings since being shut down the first time in July 2014. Leave the 24-year-old alone this year to — hopefully — stay healthy and log innings in the minors.
7. Reviews for Richie Martin at shortstop have been positive, and he’s gone 7-for-17 with two doubles and two walks. He isn’t the first Rule 5 pick with spring success, of course, but Alcides Escobar registered a combined 0.4 wins above replacement from 2015-18. The bar needn’t be very high
8. The acquisition of right-hander Xavier Moore from Minnesota marked the Orioles’ second spring trade of international signing bonus slots. I’ve said it before, but Kevin Gausman would have been a great piece for Mike Elias to trade instead of being included in a salary dump for unused slots.
9. Austin Hays is off to a strong start with two homers and a triple in his first 15 plate appearances, but it’s been interesting to note that four of his five starts have come in center field. He’s much healthier and moving better now after last fall’s ankle surgery.
10. Joey Rickard is easily forgotten with the collection of outfield prospects moving up the ladder, but he’s started spring games at all three outfield spots. He’ll be 28 in May, so this is probably his last chance to establish himself as more than a fringe reserve in Baltimore.
11. Jimmy Yacabonis has five strikeouts in four innings of one-hit ball so far. He remains one of my interesting names to watch knowing what Houston has done for pitchers possessing plus sliders.
12. Preston Palmeiro and Ryan Ripken each received a look as minor-league replacements in games this past week, which had to be pretty cool for their families. The 24-year-old Palmeiro remains a sleeper type to monitor.
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With Orioles pitchers and catchers officially reporting to Sarasota for the start of spring training on Tuesday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. What would mark an acceptable — relatively and realistically speaking — major league season? I think Mike Elias would gladly take Cedric Mullins and a couple others looking like legitimate pieces for the future and a few veterans performing well enough to be traded. Avoiding 100 losses wouldn’t hurt.
2. Describing an $800,000 contract as even a “low-risk” signing sounds silly, but I liked the addition of Nate Karns to see if his arm injuries are finally behind him. His 9.3 career strikeouts per nine innings and above-average curveball fit nicely with what Elias and Sig Mejdal valued in Houston.
3. I’ll be curious to see which Baltimore pitchers start throwing their breaking pitches more frequently. The talent level is different, but veterans like Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole featured their breaking stuff more prominently upon joining the Astros. Spin rate is huge in Houston.
4. We’ve now heard Chris Davis talk about making adjustments to bounce back in three consecutive winters. Perhaps the new brain trust will find some magic fix to salvage some value from the remaining four years of his contract, but it’s all eyewash until April.
5. It could be now or never for Chance Sisco to show whether he’s a starting-caliber catcher or just a fringe backup type. The starting job is sitting there for the former second-round pick who will turn 24 later this month. Austin Wynns, 28, substantially outplaying him last year wasn’t encouraging.
6. After hitting well in limited duty last September, DJ Stewart will have his best chance this spring to prove he’s deserving of a starting corner outfield job, especially as Austin Hays needs to reestablish himself after an injury-plagued 2018 season.
7. If I had to predict the starting shortstop and third baseman, I’d pick Rule 5 pick Richie Martin and Renato Nunez. The latter played well late last year, but that’s easily the most depressing left side of the infield on paper since Cesar Izturis and a washed-up Miguel Tejada.
8. Martin and fellow Rule 5 pick Drew Jackson may not be up to the task at shortstop, but I’d prefer keeping Jonathan Villar at second base where he’s at his best defensively. Villar was worth seven defensive runs saved at second and minus-three in 18 starts at shortstop last season.
9. Coming off a 5.55 ERA last season, Mike Wright is now 29 and unlikely to stick on the roster simply because he’s out of options again, especially with the new regime. The same likely goes for the 28-year-old Donnie Hart, who posted a 5.59 ERA while struggling with control.
10. Dean Kremer is the non-roster invitee I’m most looking forward to monitoring. The 23-year-old led the minors in strikeouts last year and possesses a good curve that will appeal to the new front office. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pitching for the Orioles at some point this season.
11. This can be said about a number of unsigned veterans, but it’s difficult to believe Adam Jones hasn’t found a job as camps open this week. He may not be the player he was a few years ago, but he can still fill a meaningful role for a contender.
12. As much as I loved the Elias hire and have liked what I’ve seen from Brandon Hyde so far, where are the marketing efforts and ticket promotions for a team that has very little to sell from a competitive standpoint? There needs to be much greater urgency in this area.
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