For all the fun the Orioles have provided in this unprecedented 2020 season, John Means hadn’t been a part of it.
The 2019 second-place finisher in AL Rookie of the Year voting began the abbreviated 60-game campaign with a sore left shoulder and made just two starts before losing his father to pancreatic cancer in early August. Though carrying a couple extra ticks on his fastball from 2019, Means had lost the feel for his changeup, the game-changing pitch that transformed him from being a fringe member of the Opening Day bullpen to the All-Star Game last season. Through six starts in 2020, the 27-year-old had pitched to an ugly 8.10 ERA and allowed eight home runs in 20 innings of work.
That changed Tuesday as Baltimore won its fourth straight to improve to 20-21 and tie the struggling New York Yankees in the loss column for the final wild-card spot in the AL’s expanded eight-team field. After a “tough talk” with manager Brandon Hyde last week, Means looked more like the 2019 version of himself in what was easily his best outing of the season in the 11-2 victory over the New York Mets.
“I was trying to force a lot of things, trying to get strikeouts, trying to blow it by everybody,” said Means after allowing one run and three hits over six innings to collect his first win of 2020. “That’s just not how I pitch. That’s not me. Hyde called me into the office and … told me this isn’t me. This isn’t how I pitch. This isn’t who I should be. I was getting frustrated; I was getting upset and angry with myself. To be able to relax out there and just be myself, it really helped me.”
By not trying to miss bats, Means struck out five and registered 15 swinging strikes, season highs in those departments. He effectively located his fastball that still carried extra giddy-up while better commanding the changeup over the course of the night, retiring 14 of the final 15 Mets hitters he faced to take full advantage of the run support from the Baltimore lineup.
Yes, it’s only one start, but a Means resurgence on the heels of rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer shutting down the Yankees last weekend would give the Orioles the makings of their most interesting starting rotation in quite some time. Regardless of whether that helps propel them to an unlikely 2020 playoff berth, it’s the latest sign of the Orioles beginning to turn the corner in a rebuilding process that’s far from complete.
And it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Though the Orioles placing Chris Davis on the 10-day injured list to make room for Ryan Mountcastle felt poetic in some ways, assuming it was the end for the first baseman was premature.
Davis was activated on Tuesday, but Hyde made no firm commitment to play the 34-year-old first baseman, who had started just two of the club’s last eight games before being sent to the IL with “left knee patellar tendinitis” on Aug. 21.
“I’m going to find spots to possibly play him,” Hyde said. “I think that when I make the lineup out, I’m going to give our team the best chance to win. If [Davis] is part of the lineup that day, he is. And if not, he’s going to be ready to pinch hit or defend late.”
Whether clubbing home runs, drawing more walks that expected, playing a respectable left field, or beating out routine grounders for infield hits, Mountcastle is rapidly emerging as one of the Orioles’ best players, especially helpful after the oblique injury to Anthony Santander.
In his first 63 plate major league plate appearances, the 23-year-old is batting .339 with a 1.004 OPS, four home runs, three doubles, 13 runs batted in, six walks, and 12 strikeouts. Despite a fraction of the playing time as most Baltimore regulars, Mountcastle currently ranks fourth on the club with 0.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
Perhaps Mountcastle should have been promoted sooner, but it’s sure fun watching him now.
Odds & ends
Cedric Mullins was just a homer shy of the cycle in Tuesday’s win to raise his season average to .293 with a rock-solid .780 OPS. After a nightmare 2019 that saw him demoted to Double-A Bowie, Mullins taking full advantage of the opportunity created by the Austin Hays rib injury has been one of the better stories of the season. … The Orioles were seemingly waving the white flag on 2020 by trading veteran bullpen arms Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, and Richard Bleier, but a hard-throwing back end of Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey, and Dillon Tate could be fun to watch for the rest of 2020 and beyond. … I’m not sure DJ Stewart’s current hot streak means he’ll stick in the majors for good this time, but his .185/.421/.630 slash line entering Wednesday is about as crazy as it gets in terms of weird baseball stats.
One of my cathartic moments in the early months of this dystopian world in which we currently reside was dusting off my glove to play catch in the backyard for the first time in who knows how long. Such an experience was therapy at a time when the only live baseball being played was half a world away
Like so many, my feelings are mixed and my fingers crossed about navigating an unprecedented season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I respect those individuals who’ve elected not to participate and the many players, coaches, and team personnel trying to push through the bizarre circumstances and risks to complete a 2020 season and provide an outlet of temporary escape. I’m hoping for the best while recognizing the undesirable outcomes that could again bring baseball to an abrupt halt.
That paramount acknowledgement aside, finding value in this abbreviated season for the Orioles is challenging
A 60-game sprint of a schedule dares even the worst clubs to dream about a small-sample-size run to the postseason — especially with the playoff field expanding from 10 to 16 teams — but we’re talking about an outfit that hasn’t had as much as a winning month of baseball since August of 2017. Last year’s world champion Washington Nationals and their 19-31 start are the popular citation for the unpredictability of a short season, but 60 games is much more often than not an accurate barometer to distinguish legitimate contenders and teams with a fighting chance from the ones having no shot.
The Orioles lost 108 games last year and won’t have the services of team MVP Trey Mancini (recovering from colorectal cancer), positional player WAR leader Jonathan Villar (traded to Miami), and innings pitched leader Dylan Bundy (traded to the Los Angeles Angels). Making short-term feelings worse, the club placed starting ace John Means (left shoulder) and promising reliever Hunter Harvey (right forearm strain) on the 10-day injured list to begin the season even though manager Brandon Hyde says both should be back sooner than later. Frankly, none of these developments are encouraging beyond the Orioles’ chances of securing the top overall pick in the 2021 draft.
With Means temporarily sidelined, the Baltimore rotation currently consists of 30-somethings with little upside or trade value. Perhaps a healthy Alex Cobb will look more like the pitcher he was in Tampa Bay, but the four-year, $57 million deal a playoff-hopeful Orioles club invested in him 2 1/2 years ago simply isn’t going to bring real value for the future.
Of course, there’s Chris Davis, entering the fifth season of a seven-year, $161 million contract that’s been nothing short of disastrous. Even if his surprising Grapefruit League performance was the harbinger for a modest renaissance, it just won’t mean much beyond the short-term surprise.
Worst of all, the minor league season isn’t taking place with top organizational prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman and pitcher DL Hall restricted to working out at the secondary camp in Bowie. So many of the young players critical to Baltimore’s long-term success simply aren’t getting the desired seasoning to expedite a multiyear rebuilding effort, a cold reality from a baseball perspective.
But all isn’t lost.
Austin Hays will man center field and hit at the top of the order on Opening Day in Boston. It’s easy to forget after two injury-plagued years that the 25-year-old was the first player selected in the 2016 draft to make the majors, but Hays should have every opportunity to prove he belongs if he can stay healthy.
Outfielders still in their mid-20s such as Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, and Cedric Mullins present varying degrees of intrigue and can improve their standing for the future over these next two months.
Veteran reliever Mychal Givens could become general manager Mike Elias’ most appealing chip for the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but the 30-year-old will have just over five weeks to regain his pre-2019 form.
The most anticipated development of the summer will be the debut of Ryan Mountcastle, who is expected to arrive in Baltimore sooner than later. His latest defensive endeavor is learning left field and a problematic strikeout-to-walk ratio should temper expectations, but the 2019 International League MVP’s 61 extra-base hits last year provide more than enough reason for excitement.
There’s also the potential promotions of young starting pitchers such as Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who seem like decent bets to pitch for the Orioles by season’s end. Outfield prospect and Manny Machado trade centerpiece Yusniel Diaz appears less likely to be promoted after failing to progress to Triple-A Norfolk last year, but his progress in the Bowie camp will be monitored closely.
Yes, you’ll need to look closely for those signs of promise while hiding your eyes from what’s likely to be plenty of losing, but we’re all looking for signs of hope — in the Orioles, baseball, and beyond. A 60-game baseball “season” — perhaps it’s better described as an event — with empty ballparks, COVID-19 testing, fake crowd noise, and social distancing is so far from ideal, but so is the rest of life these days.
Weird baseball — even bad baseball — is better than none at all. It’s a difficult reminder of where we are as a country right now and the normalcy for which we long. If the game can safely — a colossal caveat — bring a few hours of smiles, laughs, or even some groans over something trivial, yet important every night, it’s worth it to try, even if that hot dog and cold beer at Camden Yards will have to wait.
In that regard, finding value in this season — even one likely to be forgettable for the Orioles — is easy.
With fingers crossed, let’s play ball.
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With the start of an unprecedented and abbreviated 2020 season now only a week away, the Orioles are in an undesirable place from a baseball perspective.
That a rebuilding club has no reasonable shot to contend in even a 60-game schedule conducive to statistical noise isn’t the problem as no one envisioned the AL East standings being of consequence for the Orioles after a combined 223 losses in the previous two seasons. But the cancellation of the entire minor league season leaves general manager Mike Elias and the goal of fostering “an elite talent pipeline” with limited avenues to develop the young prospects vital to Baltimore’s future.
Like last season, the number of veteran placeholders and overmatched players on the major league roster will greatly outweigh the interesting talents fighting to become long-term pieces for the Orioles’ next contending club, a contrast exacerbated by 2019 Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini’s season-long absence due to colon cancer and the offseason trade of productive infielder Jonathan Villar. But that doesn’t mean a pleasant surprise or two can’t emerge as baseball attempts to navigate a strange season through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are four story lines with long-term ramifications at the start of 2020:
1. The encore for John Means
There was no bigger surprise for the Orioles last year than the 27-year-old Means, who went from an organizational lefty on the Opening Day roster bubble to the 2019 All-Star Game and second place in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Means used a superb changeup and improved fastball velocity to pitch to a 3.60 ERA in 155 innings that included 27 starts, 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.21 walks per nine, a 1.135 WHIP, and 23 home runs allowed. However, he struggled to a 4.85 ERA and a 6.5 per nine strikeout rate after the All-Star break and doesn’t have the stuff to overwhelm hitters who will now be more familiar with his repertoire. Keys to Means not being a one-year wonder are the continued development of his slider and a growth mindset to stay ahead of the curve, something he attempted to do for a second straight offseason. He’ll have his first chance to show his progress when he starts the opener at Fenway Park, the place where he made his unceremonious major league debut at the end of 2018. With the rest of the projected rotation to begin the season — Alex Cobb, Asher Wojciechowski, Wade LeBlanc, and Tommy Milone — all over age 30, Means remains the most intriguing starter by a wide margin.
2. Austin Hays and a wide-open outfield
The outfield remains in flux with Mancini’s absence, Anthony Santander just returning this week from testing positive for the coronavirus, Dwight Smith Jr. still absent for undisclosed reasons, and DJ Stewart returning from offseason ankle surgery, leaving Hays — and his 75 plate appearances last September — as the ironic best bet to be in the Opening Day outfield. A consensus top 100 prospect in baseball entering 2018 after an outstanding first full season of professional ball, Hays struggled to stay healthy for the better part of two years until his late-season promotion resulted in some highlight defensive plays in center field and a .309/.373/.574 slash line that included 10 extra-base hits and 13 RBIs in 21 games. To say Hays can cement his place as the center fielder of the future in only a 60-game sample would be premature, but the 25-year-old has the opportunity to make a lasting impression. Meanwhile, Santander, 25, will try to show his 20-homer campaign last year was no fluke, and the 26-year-old Stewart could have his last best chance to live up to his former first-round billing.
3. Hunter Harvey’s place in the bullpen
After missing significant parts of the previous four seasons with various injuries, the 2013 first-round pick was one of the better stories in the organization last season as he remained healthy and settled into a new role pitching in relief. Harvey, 25, posted a 4.32 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 16 2/3 innings for Triple-A Norfolk before being promoted to the majors in mid-August. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out 11 batters, walked four, and allowed only one run in seven appearances before reaching his innings limit and being shut down with minor arm soreness in mid-September. Manager Brandon Hyde didn’t hesitate to throw Harvey into some high-leverage situations last year, so that should continue, regardless of whether he settles into a traditional closer role. As for the rest of the bullpen, the Orioles hope late-inning right-hander Mychal Givens rebounds from an underwhelming 2019 to reestablish some trade value before the Aug. 31 deadline and that 25-year-old right-hander Miguel Castro can build upon his second-half improvement from a year ago.
4. Graduations from the alternate camp in Bowie
If we’re being honest, the happenings at the Orioles’ secondary training site will be of far greater interest and consequence to the big picture with prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman, lefty pitcher DL Hall, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, and right-hander Michael Baumann taking part, but which talents there will have the best chance of playing in the majors in 2020? Plate discipline concerns (24 walks in 553 plate appearances) and the lack of a position should make one take pause about 23-year-old Ryan Mountcastle’s upside, but the 2019 International League MVP has little to prove down below after 61 extra-base hits and an .871 OPS at Norfolk last year. Especially with Mancini out of the 2020 picture, there’s no logical reason not to give Mountcastle major league at-bats and looks in left field and at first base sooner than later. On the pitching side, lefty Keegan Akin’s 4.73 ERA and 4.9 walks per nine innings in 112 1/3 innings at Norfolk last season didn’t scream promotion, but his 10.5 strikeouts per nine still make him a viable prospect if the 25-year-old can hone his control. Right-hander Dean Kremer, 24, is another promotion candidate, but his injury-delayed 2019 season consisted of only four starts at the Triple-A level, making it unlikely the Orioles will rush him to Baltimore. The 23-year-old Diaz shouldn’t be completely ruled out, but he’s yet to log a professional at-bat above the Double-A level and Elias has been pretty firm about prospects not skipping steps. Outfielder Cedric Mullins could also play his way back to the majors, but he has much to prove after a nightmare 2019.
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With players and coaches returning to Camden Yards this week to resume training for the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Mike Elias said the organization had been “remarkably lucky” not to have any positive COVID-19 tests (as of Monday) while acknowledging the Orioles are “going to have cases.” It’s a realistic assessment and a reminder of just how uncertain this all is from even the most optimistic viewpoints.
2. To this point, the Orioles aren’t expecting any players to opt out of the 2020 season, but you wonder if the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond choosing not to play coupled with additional positive tests this week could change minds. It’s a personal decision that should be respected.
3. The inevitable became official Tuesday with the minor leagues canceling their season. The minors are critical to the game’s long-term health in not only developing prospects but also cultivating young fans around the country. I’m concerned with MLB’s inability — or cold refusal — to recognize that.
4. The Heston Kjerstad signing is official with the second overall pick from Arkansas receiving a $5.2 million bonus, which was $2.59 million below slot. Of course, no one will remember that if Kjerstad becomes a mainstay in right field and shows the potent left-handed bat the Orioles like so much.
5. The organization is telling Kjerstad and other 2020 draft picks to stay ready in hopes of being able to gather for instructional work at some point. Everyone’s in the same boat, but Baltimore losing so much development time in a season so inconsequential at the major league level is tough.
6. The first 44 players announced for the Orioles’ 60-man pool list made clear we’ll wait at least a little longer to see Ryan Mountcastle as well as Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, and Dean Kremer. Especially with Trey Mancini out, there’s no excuse not to give Mountcastle extensive at-bats.
7. With the potential statistical noise of a 60-game sprint of a season, Elias was asked how he’d handle the Orioles being a surprise contender at the trade deadline and replied that he’d “look at that very seriously.” Yeah, I’m not buying it either.
8. If a roster without its two best position players from 2019 — Mancini and Jonathan Villar — weren’t enough, a daunting schedule now including the entire NL East in addition to the usual AL East nightmares should halt any talk of the Orioles being Cinderella. There are much better sleeper picks.
9. In addition to the aforementioned prospects we could see at some point, Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, John Means, and Anthony Santander provide incentives to watch a club still too short on talent expected to be in Baltimore for the long run. Another Means-like story or two would help.
10. Asked about his biggest prospect-related concerns, Elias noted the obvious long-term health of pitchers not accumulating innings and mentioned young hitters missing “key at-bats in their life cycle” as players. How many fringe talents who could have made it will never get a real chance now?
11. The labor war is exhausting and the pandemic concerns omnipresent, but I’m otherwise embracing the weirdness of a 60-game season as well as rule changes and quirks. Some of the best innovation comes through unusual circumstances. There’s been nothing traditional about 2020, so why start now?
12. Current frustrations with MLB aside, I appreciated the following video and wish the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues could have been celebrated in ballparks around the country. From Rube Foster’s vision to baseball royalty like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil, these men need to be remembered.
On the same day the Orioles reassigned 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman to minor-league camp, general manager Mike Elias announced two Rule 5 pitchers would be returned to their former clubs.
Despite faring well in limited Grapefruit League action, right-handers Michael Rucker and Brandon Bailey were waived with Opening Day still nearly three weeks away. Elias cited the challenge of keeping Rule 5 pitchers with 2020’s new roster rules as the reason Rucker and Bailey wouldn’t be retained. With the 25-year-old pitchers clearing waivers, Rucker has been returned to the Chicago Cubs organization while Bailey goes back to Houston.
After posting a 4.28 ERA in 75 2/3 innings at Double-A Tennessee last season, Rucker pitched five scoreless innings this spring, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out three. Bailey pitched to a 3.30 ERA in 92 2/3 innings for Double-A Corpus Christi last season and allowed one run and three hits in four innings of Grapefruit League action.
Last year, the Orioles retained Rule 5 shortstop Richie Martin for the entire season and kept him in the organization, but Elias returned Rule 5 utility player Drew Jackson to the Los Angeles Dodgers in early April.
The decision to part with Rucker and Bailey so early in the spring is quite the contrast from Dan Duquette’s contending Orioles clubs of several years ago that frequently played shorthanded just to keep marginal Rule 5 talent in the organization. In the midst of a multiyear rebuilding effort, Elias apparently didn’t see the long-term value to justify carrying overmatched pitchers in the majors, especially as part of a bullpen likely to be very busy once again in 2020.
Reassigning Rutschman was hardly a surprise as the Orioles merely wanted to give the 22-year-old catcher a taste of major league camp before his first full professional season. The organization’s No. 1 prospect collected a single and a walk while striking out five times in 10 plate appearances. Rutschman is likely to begin 2020 at Single-A Frederick after finishing last season with Single-A Delmarva.
The Orioles also optioned right-handed pitcher Dean Kremer and outfielder Ryan McKenna to Triple-A Norfolk. Part of the Manny Machado trade and a candidate to be promoted to the majors later this year, the 24-year-old Kremer tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings and struck out five in three appearances this spring. McKenna, 23, went 2-for-14 with two runs batted in, a walk, and two stolen bases in the Grapefruit League. Both Kremer and McKenna were moved to the 40-man roster last November to be protected from the Rule 5 draft.
Baltimore also reassigned catcher Martin Cervenka and pitchers Cristian Alvarado, Marcos Diplán, Hunter Cervenka, and Brady Rogers to minor-league camp on Friday. The Orioles now have 54 players remaining in major league camp.
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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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The Orioles have protected 2019 International League MVP Ryan Mountcastle and three other prospects who were eligible for next month’s Rule 5 draft by placing them on their 40-man roster.
The others were Triple-A Norfolk starting pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer and Double-A outfielder Ryan McKenna. Those additions leave Baltimore with one open spot on the 40-man roster, which could be used to make a selection in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12.
The 2019 Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year winner, Mountcastle completed an impressive season with the Tides in which he batted .312 with 25 home runs, 35 doubles, 83 runs batted in, and an .871 on-base plus slugging percentage, making the decision to protect the 22-year-old a no-brainer. Some were surprised the first baseman and left fielder didn’t receive a September promotion, but general manager Mike Elias has remained steadfast in his desire to see Mountcastle improve his defense that’s prompted multiple position changes and refine his plate discipline after he walked just 24 times in 553 plate appearances last season.
Those developmental goals — as well as the manipulation of service time — will likely keep Mountcastle in Norfolk for the start of 2020.
Akin, 24, is coming off an uneven season in which he posted a 4.73 ERA and walked 4.9 batters per nine innings, but that came in a high run-scoring environment in the International League. The lefty struck out an impressive 10.5 batters per nine inning at Triple A and is likely to be promoted to the big leagues at some point in 2020.
A bright spot in the Manny Machado trade return, Kremer overcame an oblique injury in the spring to post a 2.98 ERA and strike out 9.2 batters per nine innings at Bowie. The 23-year-old right-hander struggled in four starts at Norfolk, but he cemented his status as a legitimate pitching prospect with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Kremer struck out an impressive 122 batters in 113 2/3 innings in the minors in 2019.
Unlike the aforementioned trio, McKenna wasn’t considered a sure thing to be protected after posting an underwhelming .232 average and .686 OPS with Bowie in 2019. However, his above-average defense in center field and the memory of his 2018 breakout first half with Single-A Frederick made the speedy 22-year-old a possibility to be selected by another major league club eyeing a defense-first reserve outfielder, especially with teams now allowed to carry a 26th player on the roster.
The biggest omission from the 40-man roster was 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock, who overcame consecutive injury-riddled seasons to post a 2.84 ERA and a 9.5 per nine strikeout rate split between Frederick and Bowie in 2019. Exposing the 24-year-old right-hander to the Rule 5 draft carries risk, but his bounce-back performance came at an advanced age for the Carolina League — where he spent most of the season — and his previous two years could prompt clubs to pass on him next month.
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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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With Grapefruit League action beginning over the weekend, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. The early reviews of the culture being created by Brandon Hyde have been very positive. That probably won’t mean much in the standings this season, but it will matter for players continuing to buy into the process and to play hard as losses likely mount.
2. Top outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz is unlikely to break camp with the Orioles, but his two-run home run in the first spring game was a glimpse of the power the organization believes is still ascending. General manager Mike Elias offered a glowing review on Saturday.
3. It’s no secret the Houston Astros emphasized slider usage with much success, a philosophy that figures to be applied in Baltimore. Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Tanner Scott, and Jimmy Yacabonis are a few pitchers to watch in this regard.
4. Alcides Escobar has been Baltimore’s most notable signing — even on a minor-league deal — despite registering a .593 on-base plus slugging percentage and minus-0.7 wins above replacement last season. Rule 5 pick Richie Martin is still preferable if he at least proves he can play quality major league defense.
5. I’m excited to watch Cedric Mullins in his first full major league season, but he’s produced no better than a .662 OPS against left-handed pitching at any level of his professional career. That did come at Triple-A Norfolk last year, so you hope the development of his right-handed swing continues.
6. Branden Kline struck out the side to earn Sunday’s save. The Frederick native missed two full seasons due to elbow surgeries, but he posted a 1.80 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings for Bowie last year and features a mid-90s fastball and plus slider. Keep an eye on him.
7. Aside from Diaz, it’s been a rough start to the spring for two others acquired in the Manny Machado trade as starting pitching prospect Dean Kremer recovers from an oblique injury and hard-throwing reliever Zach Popshowed substantially diminished velocity on Saturday, which is always concerning.
8. Chris Davis striking out in his first two spring at-bats wouldn’t be noteworthy if he weren’t coming off one of the worst seasons in major league history from an everyday player. As it stands, every trip to the plate will be under a microscope. I’m curious to see his adjustments.
9. I’ll miss the retiring Joe Angel, but more Ben McDonald on Orioles broadcasts would be a great development. He has an engaging personality and was very enlightening discussing spin rate and other pitching-related topics during Saturday’s broadcast.
11. Machado going to the National League West was probably the best-case scenario for the Orioles, but anyone mocking him for signing with San Diego — I would too for $300 million — is overlooking a loaded farm system. The Padres could be very interesting in the not-too-distant future.
12. One of the more vivid memories of my early childhood was chanting “Edd-ie! Edd-ie!” at Memorial Stadium. Orioles legend and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray turned 63 on Sunday. Where have the years gone?
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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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