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 andSig 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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On the same day the Orioles took Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman as their catcher of the future with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft, Chance Sisco will have his latest chance to stake his claim to that job in the present.
After optioning catcher Austin Wynns to Triple-A Norfolk after Sunday’s 8-1 loss to San Francisco, Baltimore has recalled Sisco for the start of a road trip to Texas and Houston. The 24-year-old was batting .289 with 20 extra-base hits and a .914 on-base plus slugging percentage in 193 plate appearances with the Tides this season. He joins corner outfielder DJ Stewart as the second Norfolk player to be promoted to the big leagues for strong performance in the last week.
Regarded as a top-100 prospect in baseball as recently as 2018, Sisco struggled mightily in 63 games with the Orioles last season, batting .181 with 66 strikeouts in 184 plate appearances. Those difficulties followed him back to Norfolk where he hit only .242 with a .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances. Most expected the lefty-hitting catcher to make this year’s rebuilding club out of spring training, but Sisco was demoted in late March despite posting a stout 1.298 OPS in the Grapefruit League, his second straight strong spring.
While some concerns remain about a perceived long swing that was seemingly exposed in the majors last season, Sisco’s defense remains his biggest question mark as many have speculated whether he’ll need to shift to another position. He has thrown out just six of 33 runners attempting to steal in the International League this season.
It remains to be seen how manager Brandon Hyde will distribute playing time as the 25-year-old Pedro Severino has been one of the bigger surprises on the team after being claimed off waivers from Washington at the end of spring training. Previously regarded as a defense-first catcher, Severino is batting .273 with 10 extra-base hits and an .834 OPS in 115 plate appearances and has thrown out nine of 15 runners attempting to steal.
In case it weren’t clear, there was no relationship between Sisco’s promotion and the Orioles’ decision to draft Rutschman, the consensus top player in this year’s draft.
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BALTIMORE — DJ Stewart doesn’t headline the list of prospects needing to work out for the Orioles in the early stages of what’s expected to be an extensive rebuilding effort.
The 2015 first-round pick was cut from big-league camp nearly three weeks before the start of the season, leading one to believe the new regime wasn’t overly impressed with the 25-year-old outfielder who’d made his major league debut the previous September. Though some believe Stewart can become a solid everyday starter at a corner outfield spot or as a designated hitter, others project him to be more of a bench player or platoon contributor. In other words, he’s not a cornerstone talent like whichever player general manager Mike Elias selects with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft next week.
But Stewart’s Tuesday arrival is still meaningful for an organization whose minor-league call-ups so far this season have mostly been dictated by someone else performing poorly or the need for a fresh reliever on a pitching staff ranking last in the majors in ERA. We’ve seen center fielder Cedric Mullins and hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scott struggle and sent down despite spending extensive time in Baltimore last year. On the positive side, right-hander Branden Kline has emerged as one of the Orioles’ better relievers of late, but his arrival was facilitated by the bullpen being taxed in April.
After batting a whopping .456 with a 1.395 on-base plus slugging percentage for Triple-A Norfolk in May, Stewart is in the big leagues to hopefully signal the start of the eventual talent pipeline to which Elias has referred as the key to the Orioles’ future. Unlike the many players on the current roster viewed more as placeholders than prospects, Stewart forced his way to the Orioles with a .316 average, 23 extra-base hits, and a 1.010 OPS for the Tides.
“DJ’s definitely earned his way here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Like we told a lot of those guys in their exit meetings in spring training, go down to Triple A with a chip on your shoulder, prove to everybody that you should be in the big leagues, and do everything you can to get back here. And DJ did that.”
It’s no secret the Orioles want players to develop fully in the minor leagues in hopes of staying in the majors when finally promoted, which is why top-10 prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin aren’t being considered for a call-up after only two months at Triple A. That approach is a stark contrast to recent years in which prospects were frequently rushed to the majors and then shuttled back and forth to Norfolk due to poor performance or the roster needs of a contending club. Much like Trey Mancini a few years ago, Stewart has been challenged to master every minor-league level in a more traditional way.
Instead of sulking after his mid-spring demotion, Stewart seized the opportunity to grow as a player and improve upon a pedestrian 2018 season in which he batted .235 and posted a .716 OPS at Norfolk. The Florida State product increased his walk rate from 11 percent to 15 percent, decreased his strikeout rate from 21 percent to 14 percent, and added nearly 200 points to his slugging percentage from a year ago.
Simply put, there was nothing else for him to accomplish in the minors. And even though the recent acquisition of outfielder Keon Broxton made it look like Stewart might be forced to wait even longer, Chris Davis going to the 10-day injured list with a hip injury opened up first base for Trey Mancini and cleared a roster spot for another outfielder.
“You can only control what you can control,” said Stewart, who credits the loosening of his back elbow in his hitting approach for his Triple-A tear. “You’ve got continue to play wherever you’re at. I know that they were watching, and they were just trying to find a way to get me here. It’s nothing against them at all. It’s a business, and they had to find the right opportunity. I’m glad that it happened sooner than later.”
The wait for the next notable call-up after Stewart might be a while. Mullins is batting just .235 for the Tides since the Orioles sent him down in late April. Catcher Chance Sisco entered Tuesday with an .865 OPS for Norfolk, but lingering doubts about his defense and the surprising play of Pedro Severino in Baltimore have seemingly delayed his return to the majors. Outfielder Austin Hays has just gotten back to playing at Double-A Bowie after his late-spring thumb injury and has still never played at the Triple-A level, a reason why he was optioned to the minors despite his strong spring.
That means Stewart will serve as an object of curiosity for the foreseeable future on a club on pace to lose 111 games and needing as much young talent as it can find. The Orioles hope he’ll be the first of many call-ups over the next few years that will be based on merit more than attrition and will result in a permanent stay.
“I want him to play. I want him to not change a thing from what he’s doing at Norfolk,” said Hyde, who plans to rotate Stewart with Broxton, Dwight Smith Jr., and Stevie Wilkerson in the outfield alignment. “Not to put too much pressure on himself, not feel like he has to carry us in any way. I just want him to do what he was doing.
“I think a lot of times what happens is guys come up from Triple A and feel like they have something to prove and try a little too hard. I want to make him as relaxed as possible and make him really comfortable here, and I think we’re going to see good things.”
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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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Catcher Chance Sisco and relief pitcher Tanner Scott were thought to be among the few intriguing young players who would begin the season with the rebuilding Orioles while most others go the minors.
General manager Mike Elias had other ideas, however, as the two were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday despite seeing extensive playing time with the Orioles last season. The moves were just the latest reminder of there being a new regime in Baltimore with a different vision prioritizing player development for the future over the short-term results at the major-league level.
Sisco and defensive-minded veteran Jesus Sucre had appeared to be the favorites to head north on the 25-man roster, but the waiver acquisition of former Washington catcher Pedro Severino over the weekend led to the former’s demotion, a clear sign of the organization valuing defense behind the plate to help a young pitching staff. Sisco, 24, had a strong spring in which he posted a 1.298 on-base plus slugging percentage in 45 plate appearances — his second straight impressive Grapefruit League — but his defense remains a major question mark in his long-term development.
In 184 plate appearances with the Orioles last season, Sisco batted just .181 with 66 strikeouts and a .557 OPS. He also struggled in his 2018 stints with the Tides, batting just .242 with a .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances.
Once thought to be the Nationals’ catcher of the future, the 25-year-old Severino is out of minor-league options and owns a career .560 OPS in 282 major league plate appearances. His defense is his strength as he’s thrown out 36 percent of runners attempting to steal in his brief major league career.
Also vying for a major league job, 28-year-old catcher Austin Wynns has missed extensive spring action while recovering from an oblique strain and is likely to begin the season on the injured list.
Scott was demoted to Norfolk after a rough spring in which he posted an 8.00 ERA with six walks and six strikeouts in nine innings. The hard-throwing lefty posted a 5.40 ERA in 53 1/3 innings with the Orioles last season, but his 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings were encouraging, especially if he can further improve his control.
It’s worth noting Scott has pitched just 12 innings at the Triple-A level, which may have factored into Elias’ decision to send him to the minors after an up-and-down rookie season. The Orioles are also trying to fulfill the remainder of right-hander Pedro Araujo’s Rule 5 requirement, which will require the 25-year-old to stay in the majors until mid-April.
The Orioles also optioned left-hander Josh Rogers to Norfolk and reassigned catchers Carlos Perez and Andrew Susac and infielder Jace Peterson to minor-league camp on Sunday.
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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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The Orioles remain in the early stages of what’s expected to be a long rebuild, but the farm system isn’t completely bare for new general manager Mike Elias.
Outfielder Yusniel Diaz, left-handed pitcher DL Hall, and third baseman Ryan Mountcastle were named to Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list released Wednesday. It was the second straight year in which three Baltimore prospects were included in the publication’s preseason list.
Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers as the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade last July, Diaz ranked 37th on the list after batting .285 with 11 home runs, 15 doubles, 45 runs batted in, and 12 stolen bases in 416 plate appearances at the Double-A level last season. The 22-year-old Cuban outfielder also posted a .392 on-base percentage and .449 slugging percentage.
Diaz homered twice in the MLB All-Star Futures Game just days before being traded to the Orioles, but he struggled with his new organization, hitting just .239 with a .732 on-base plus slugging percentage in 152 plate appearances for Bowie. His speed and arm give him the ability to play all three outfield spots, and the organization hopes his uptick in power during his age-21 season will continue into 2019.
Ranked 54th in Baseball America’s top 100, the 20-year-old Hall was Baltimore’s first-round pick in the 2017 draft and thrived in his first full professional season, posting a 2.10 ERA in 94 1/3 innings at low Single-A Delmarva. The lefty averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and allowed only 1.17 walks and hits per nine innings. His mid-to-low 90s fastball and curveball are considered plus pitches while Hall continues to refine his changeup, giving him a high ceiling in an organization long criticized for its inability to produce quality starting pitching.
Mountcastle is on the preseason list for the second straight year, dropping from No. 71 in 2018 to 90th this year. That drop is no reflection of what the 21-year-old did at the plate for Double-A Bowie, batting .297 with 13 homers, 19 doubles, 59 RBIs, and an .806 OPS in 428 plate appearances. Few doubt the 2015 first-round pick’s ability to hit at any level, but questions remains about where he’ll fit defensively after he was already moved from shortstop to third base in 2017. An organization source predicted last fall that Mountcastle would end up at first base, but Elias and the new regime will have the chance to make their own assessments.
The trio also appeared on the Baseball Prospectus top 101 prospect list released earlier this week with Diaz at No. 44, Mountcastle ranking 51st, and Hall coming in at No. 92
Despite ranking 21st on last January’s Baseball America top 100 list, outfielder Austin Hays was left off after an injury-plagued season that limited him to just 327 plate appearances. The 23-year-old batted only .242 with 12 home runs and a .703 OPS in 288 plate appearances at Bowie before undergoing ankle surgery in September.
Catcher Chance Sisco was on Baseball America’s list in each of the previous two years before a frustrating 2018 campaign in which he bounced between the Orioles and Triple-A Norfolk. Questions have persisted about his defense behind the plate, but Sisco, 23, also struggled mightily at the plate in 2018, batting just .181 with 66 strikeouts in 184 plate appearances for Baltimore and even posting an unimpressive .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances with Norfolk.
Below are the Orioles who have appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list since 2008:
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)
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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