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

Posted on 23 July 2020 by Luke Jones

I love baseball.

I’ve really missed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all isn’t lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With fingers crossed, let’s play ball.

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Orioles' Joe Jordan introduces pitcher Bundy to the media before the Orioles' MLB American League baseball game against the Blue Jays in Baltimore

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Bundy trade serves as reminder of Orioles’ past — and unknown future

Posted on 04 December 2019 by Luke Jones

Dylan Bundy was once the consensus best pitching prospect in baseball and considered a centerpiece of the Orioles’ bright future.

Making his major league debut two months shy of his 20th birthday seven years ago, Bundy was thought to be the future ace of a Baltimore club that was about to make its first postseason appearance in 15 years and entering a competitive window that would bring two more trips to the playoffs in a five-year period. On Wednesday, the 27-year-old with a career 4.76 ERA, diminishing velocity, and a longer history of injuries than successes was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for four minor-league pitchers.

With general manager Mike Elias clearly in the midst of an offseason teardown after a mostly status quo 2019 used to evaluate every aspect of the organization, Bundy was always on borrowed time with the Orioles. The trade hardly falls into the same category of a full-blown salary dump like Monday’s Jonathan Villar deal — which was a tough pill to swallow for anyone searching for any redeeming entertainment value in the 2020 Orioles — but a league-average starter projected to fetch upwards of $5 million in arbitration and with two years of remaining club control was an asset that could be used to at least improve the baseline of pitching depth in the organization. Of course, we all knew Bundy and Villar weren’t going to be part of the Orioles’ next contending club — whenever that might be.

Right-handers Kyle Bradish, Isaac Mattson, Kyle Brnovich, and Zach Peek are unlikely to land on any top 100 prospect lists anytime soon, but the marked strides made in the minors under the guidance of director of pitching Chris Holt last year offer hope that Elias and the organization see potential and value in these four pitchers, especially with Peek and Brnovich having just been drafted in the sixth and eighth round respectively last June. The same logic can apply to left-hander Easton Lucas, who was viewed as little more than a token piece from Miami in the Villar deal.

But there are no sure things other than the organization now having cut roughly $15 million in projected payroll for 2020. Those savings will be championed by optimists as fruitful during a rebuild, but we have no way of knowing whether those resources will go back into baseball operations in some form or simply into ownership’s pockets, the latter possibility painting the more cynical picture of clubs “tanking” in today’s game while still charging major-league prices.

In Villar’s case, there appeared to be little downside to keeping a productive player on a club that had already lost 108 games last year and slashed its Opening Day payroll in half from 2017 to 2019. No viable infield prospect is knocking at the major-league door either, but he was deemed too expensive to play on a last-place club.

Bundy clearly brought a more valuable return, but a major league club that struggled mightily last year just to field a functional pitching staff — one that avoids the need for position players to pitch in the late innings if nothing else — will now be tasked with filling an additional 30 starts and 160 innings. Perhaps utility man Stevie Wilkerson should be on a throwing progression this spring.

Yes, the thought of the Orioles being even worse in 2020 after a combined 223 losses the last two seasons is difficult to stomach if you’re still trying to watch on a semi-nightly basis, but Elias has never shied away from the organization’s “strategic objectives” being solely about the future. That’s why you wonder if trades of Mychal Givens and, yes, possibly Trey Mancini could be right around the corner.

The short-term pain — alright, let’s call it medium-term if we’re being realistic — is intended to reap long-term success. As Elias said in a conference call Wednesday evening, the goal isn’t to field a more competitive team in 2020 but to field a sustainable playoff contender at Camden Yards in the future. None of this is surprising or even the wrong strategy, but that doesn’t make the current state easy or enjoyable in what’s ultimately an entertainment business.

And it isn’t necessarily destined to work in the same way it did for the Houston Astros or the Chicago Cubs.

In the same way Orioles supporters are now daydreaming about better days with Adley Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle, Grayson Rodriguez, and DL Hall, Bundy was once the future. But instead of being a difference-maker for a 2014 club that ended up falling four wins shy of an American League pennant or becoming a young ace for a contender, he never realized that once-great potential because of injuries and became only a serviceable major league starter once the Orioles’ competitive window was already closing.

Bundy’s departure is both a reminder of those better days for the Orioles and his own unfulfilled promise.

That same kind of hope is all Orioles fans have right now. With no guarantees of a reward down the line.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on Andrew Cashner trade

Posted on 14 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles trading veteran starting pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Boston Red Sox for 17-year-old Venezuelan position prospects Elio Prado and Noelberth Romero, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. No one knows whether these academy-level prospects will even sniff the majors one day, but it was refreshing seeing Mike Elias target long-term upside over moderate-floor, low-ceiling talent only guaranteed to clog up the 40-man roster. There was way too much of that in the past.

2. This trade was a reminder how difficult it is prying away prospects today, something we saw last year with even an elite rental piece like Manny Machado. You’re not getting much value above the lowest minor-league levels for 2 1/2 months of a career league-average starter making some real money.

3. Credit Cashner for reinventing himself by pitching up in the zone more and doubling his changeup usage from 2018. That’s become his best pitch, evident by FanGraphs’ pitch value metric ranking it the second-best changeup in the majors among qualified hurlers. The new regime’s fingerprints are all over those tweaks.

4. Elias cited the strong numbers from Prado in the Dominican Summer League, complimenting the center fielder’s pop and speed while adding Orioles scouts have liked what they’ve seen from him in his first professional season. He received an $85,000 signing bonus last July, per SoxProspects.com.

5. Romero has more modest numbers and has mostly played third base, but the Orioles like the contact he’s been making and believe he has a chance to develop as a shortstop. Boston gave him a $275,000 last July, per SoxProspects.com.

6. Elias said no other deals were imminent, but Mychal Givens will be an attractive chip if he strings together a few more outings like Saturday’s two-inning save. His 4.50 ERA is mediocre, but he’s striking out a career-high 12.8 batters per nine innings and is under club control through 2021.

7. The Orioles entered Sunday with a record just 2 1/2 games worse than Detroit, who sported a minus-163 run differential for the season and a 6-27 record since June 1. Thoughts of the 2020 first overall pick had to cross Elias’ mind when dealing Cashner.

8. Dylan Bundy isn’t expected to be out long with right knee tendinitis, but the current starting rotation behind surprising All-Star lefty John Means consists of three pitchers who weren’t even in the organization at the start of June. That’s astonishing.

9. Cashner’s Sunday replacement, the soft-tossing Tom Eshelman, didn’t have a good final line after giving up a two-run homer in the sixth, but he was competitive and struck out seven in 5 2/3 innings with five coming on his curveball. There’s plenty of opportunity for minor-league “misfits” in Baltimore now.

10. Cashner signed with Baltimore 17 months ago thinking he was joining a club with at least a chance of competing for a wild-card spot in 2018. The Orioles went 75-178 over his time here.

11. I’m not saying a division rival would be your top choice as a trade partner, but any “old-school” belief that the Orioles shouldn’t deal with AL East rivals is as foolish as marginalizing the international market for years. End of discussion.

12. Asked to comment on the Cashner trade after Saturday night’s 12-4 loss, Brandon Hyde said the Orioles are “a million miles away from being where we’re going to be here sometime soon.” I couldn’t help but think the Baltimore manager needed a hug after the veteran starter was dealt.

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Baltimore Orioles' David Hess, right, reacts as New York Yankees' Gleyber Torres, left, runs the bases after hitting a home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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All bets off on Orioles’ potential path toward infamy

Posted on 24 June 2019 by Luke Jones

We knew this season would be bad for the Orioles.

When the most optimistic of forecasts suggest a club might find a way to avoid 100 losses, you know you’re nowhere close to being in a good place. But general manager Mike Elias and the new Orioles regime made no false promises after a 115-loss season, easily the worst campaign in club history.

There were never going to be shortsighted moves made in the name of a quick fix, nor should there have been. The goal is to build a championship-caliber organization in the years to come — not to exhaust enough resources to lose 92 games instead of the number with which the Orioles will ultimately finish. Signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper wouldn’t have transformed this year’s team into anything close to being a contender, let alone spending money on lesser players to try to grab a few extra wins that no one would have cared about in the big picture.

In other words, no one should be surprised Baltimore owns the worst record in baseball as the season nears its midpoint. But that hasn’t made it any easier to watch on a nightly basis — if you still have the stomach for it in late June. Those suggesting it couldn’t get worse or citing historical examples as a reason to anticipate some slight improvement in the win-loss department were clearly wrong.

After a 1-6 road trip that included three losses to a Seattle team that had gone 19-44 since a 13-2 start to begin the season, the Orioles are now on pace to lose more games than they did last year. Brandon Hyde’s club has gone 9-34 since last winning back-to-back games to improve to 13-22 on May 6. Over that seven-week stretch without consecutive victories, the Orioles went a combined 4-9 against the Mariners, Detroit, San Francisco, and Toronto, four of the seven worst teams in the majors right now.

Baltimore hasn’t won a series since April 24, the day before the start of the NFL draft. A month from Tuesday, the Ravens will hold their first full-squad training camp practice, and there’s little confidence the Orioles will have won a series by then either.

The other phases of the game have been bad, of course, but the pitching has been the biggest culprit as the Orioles entered Monday with the worst ERA (5.85) in the majors, a half-run worse than the 29th-place Mariners. They’re on pace to obliterate the 2016 Reds’ major league record for home runs allowed by 66, but it’s at least fair to note three other clubs are on pace to break Cincinnati’s mark in this homer-crazy 2019. The Orioles rank last in starter ERA (5.59) and next to last in bullpen ERA (6.16) with only Washington to thank for being slightly worse in relief.

The hope was the Orioles would find another pitcher or two in a mold somewhat similar to John Means, who’s been the most pleasant surprise of the season with his 2.67 ERA. You’d like to see more young hurlers take advantage of these generous opportunities to at least perform at a semi-respectable level, but that hasn’t happened beyond a fleeting week or two for any given name, a frustrating reality becoming more audible in Hyde’s post-game comments. He knew what he was getting into taking this job last December, but it can’t be easy managing this on a nightly basis.

Evident by the “Norfolk Shuttle” working overtime in recent weeks, this club just doesn’t have the pitching to even approach being competitive on too many nights. In games in which Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, or Means have started, the Orioles are 17-25, which is still bad but far from historically poor. But they’re an unthinkable 5-31 when anyone else starts, which is 1899 Cleveland Spiders kind of terrible. Alex Cobb making only three starts before undergoing season-ending hip surgery doomed a rotation that was already far too thin.

What happens if Cashner, Bundy, or both are traded by next month’s deadline? What if Means’ shoulder issue becomes a bigger problem than anticipated? Other than prospect Keegan Akin, we’ve already seen most of what Triple-A Norfolk has to offer in the pitching department, and the answer isn’t pretty.

Nearly halfway through a season from which many fans have already tuned out, it’s time to ask if the 2019 Orioles could be the worst team we’ve seen in the major leagues since at least World War II. Yes, that includes the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120 in their inaugural season and are viewed as the Unholy Grail of modern baseball ineptitude.

Currently on pace to finish 45-117, the Orioles own a minus-181 run differential through 78 games. Only six teams over the last decade have finished an entire season with a run differential of minus-200 or worse. The last major league team to finish with a minus-300 run differential was the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who went 43-119 and scored 337 fewer runs than they allowed.

The Orioles’ current run differential translates to just short of minus-376 for an entire season, which is dramatically worse than last year’s club (minus-270) and the 1988 team (minus-239). The 1962 Mets finished at minus-331, so that tells you what kind of pace the Orioles are keeping as they sport just four June wins entering the final week of the month.

If you buy into the value of run differential to predict future wins and losses, you might want to take a trip or two to Camden Yards to witness history before the season’s over. The Orioles have played like a 128-loss team over their last 43 games, more than a quarter of the season. And the numbers say they haven’t been particularly unlucky either.

This could be the worst major league team of the modern era. All bets are off trying to argue otherwise at this point.

It’s worse than most of us even thought it would be.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts entering late June

Posted on 18 June 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles falling 30 games below .500 with 90 games remaining in the 2019 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It’s been 37 games since Baltimore achieved even the pedestrian feat of winning back-to-back contests, a stretch easily exceeding last year’s longest drought (28). I believed it unlikely the Orioles would be mathematically worse than the 2018 team, but they’ve played like a 127-loss club since May 7. Just brutal.

2. Brandon Hyde recently expressed frustration that young players weren’t taking advantage of opportunities as lackadaisical and sloppy play has become more prevalent. No manager would win with this club, but the regression from even an eyeball-test standpoint has to frustrate the coaching staff.

3. Remember that renaissance for Chris Davis after his record hitless streak? He has eight hits and 36 strikeouts in his last 72 plate appearances while his peripherals have crashed. He’s batting eighth and teetering as a full-time starter. Drastic action taken beyond that is likely up to the Angelos family.

4. The demotion of David Hess was overdue after a 7.36 ERA in 66 innings, but he’ll remain in the bullpen with Triple-A Norfolk, a move that makes sense if he’s going to continue to be a two-pitch hurler throwing his fastball and slider a combined 84 percent of the time.

5. Former Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard was designated for assignment Monday, a move that felt inevitable after he batted .203 in 135 plate appearances. The 28-year-old was the Opening Day right fielder and had another chance to establish himself as a legitimate major league player and didn’t do it.

6. Speaking of outfielders not taking advantage of opportunities, Keon Broxton has struck out 29 times in 64 plate appearances as an Oriole and had an inexcusable concentration lapse minutes into Saturday’s game. That position is sitting there for Cedric Mullins if he didn’t have an ugly .624 OPS at Norfolk.

7. On the bright side, Yusniel Diaz was named Eastern League Player of the Week with three home runs, two doubles, 12 RBIs, and four walks in six games. It’s been a rough start to 2019 for the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade, so seeing him heat up is encouraging.

8. Understanding options are limited whenever you need someone for a spot start, the Orioles turning to Luis Ortiz and his 7.01 ERA last Friday was a reminder of both the shortage of even mediocre pitching at Norfolk and the number of 2018 deadline acquisitions not exactly thriving this season.

9. Dylan Bundy has posted a 3.09 ERA, struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings, and allowed six homers in his last 46 2/3 innings. He’s throwing fastballs a career-low 49 percent of the time and using changeups more frequently than he has since 2016. His secondary pitches have been key.

10. Hanser Alberto has a .432 batting average in 89 plate appearances against lefties, the best mark in the majors. He has only five walks in 214 plate appearances, but he puts the ball in play and has brought some positive energy to a club needing as much as possible.

11. Mike Elias said he’s “not looking to part” with Trey Mancini in the midst of a career year before acknowledging the Orioles are “open to anything.” There’s little urgency with the 27-year-old not becoming a free agent until after 2022, but Elias won’t be sentimental if a trade offer overwhelms.

12. A month ago, Mychal Givens looked like the most likely Oriole to be traded, but he’s blown four saves, allowed six homers, walked seven, and posted a 10.61 ERA in his last 9 1/3 innings dating back to May 20. His ERA is 5.28 only six weeks before the deadline.

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Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mychal Givens and catcher Austin Wynns celebrate their 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in a baseball game, Saturday, May 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Twelve Orioles thoughts approaching mid-May

Posted on 10 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles rapidly approaching the quarter mark of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Dan Straily failed to complete five innings for the third consecutive start, elevating his ERA to 8.23. Some patience was warranted after his spring was disrupted, but the Orioles hoped he’d at least eat innings and just maybe pitch well enough to become a small trade chip. He’s done neither.

2. The pitching staff has only two 100-pitch outings and seven starts of six innings or more almost 40 games in. I do believe the Orioles are trying to be proactive with health and effectiveness the third time through the order, but starters simply haven’t pitched well enough to go deeper.

3. Baltimore entered Friday — which wasn’t pretty — still ranking last in the majors with a 5.52 ERA, but starters held a 3.65 mark and relievers a 3.14 ERA through the first seven games of May. Baby steps, especially after giving up an obscene 73 homers in the opening 30 games.

4. I was surprised to realize Trey Mancini ended a month-long home run drought Friday, but 11 doubles gave him a solid .437 slugging percentage over those 22 games. Not only has his bat been outstanding, but his right-field defense passes the eyeball test more than how he looked in left.

5. The Orioles are throwing the most changeups in the majors after ranking seventh last year, but they’re ninth in FanGraph’s changeup value after finishing 28th in 2018. It isn’t only John Means as Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy are throwing them more frequently and effectively. Other pitches are another story.

6. Since improving his batting average to .301 on April 24, Renato Nunez has only four hits in his last 48 at-bats. He’s still among the club leaders in average exit velocity, but he’s really been struggling after a good start.

7. Mychal Givens has recorded more than three outs in eight of his first 13 appearances of 2019. That should look much more appealing to potential trade partners than if he were being used as a conventional ninth-inning closer on a club with few save chances.

8. With recent first-round Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall striking out a combined 16 over 9 2/3 innings for their affiliates Thursday and 2018 third-round pick Blaine Knight being promoted to Single-A Frederick Friday, there’s some pitching light at the end of the tunnel if you peer patiently.

9. If you believe the many draft pundits, I’ve yet to hear an overly compelling argument for general manager Mike Elias taking someone other than Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman first overall next month. If he’s indeed the best prospect, don’t overthink it.

10. The extended absence of Nate Karns (forearm tightness) was the reason why the Orioles gave the talented, but oft-injured pitcher only an $800,000 contract. Alex Cobb (lower back) making just three starts while earning $14 million this season is a different story.

11. I admire Brandon Hyde’s positivity managing a club constructed with no designs of winning, but the Orioles striking out a club-record 22 times Wednesday probably warranted a little more criticism from him in his post-game press conference, no matter how good Chris Sale is.

12. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s game-saving catch on Trey Mancini’s 11th-inning drive Wednesday goes down as one of the best catches in Camden Yards history when you consider the game situation, but I’ve yet to see one better than Mike Devereaux robbing Joe Carter in the inaugural 1992 season.

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Nine notable Orioles numbers at end of April

Posted on 01 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the 2019 Orioles now entering May, below is a look at nine notable numbers from the opening month of the season:

1.023 — Trey Mancini’s on-base plus slugging percentage

Let’s start with the big positive as Mancini entered Wednesday ranked eighth among qualified major league hitters in OPS and batted .355 with 17 extra-base hits in March and April. His .413 batting average on balls in play isn’t sustainable, but Mancini is striking out less (20.7 percent compared to 24.1 percent of plate appearances in 2018) and hitting fewer grounders (37.2 percent of balls in play compared to 54.6 percent last year). Those numbers lead you to believe marked improvement is real even if some regression toward the mean is inevitable. In a rebuilding year in which you wondered which player might represent the Orioles at the All-Star Game and if anyone would be remotely deserving of the honor, Mancini would be a legitimate choice from any team so far.

.333 — winning percentage

The 4-2 road trip to begin the season was a pleasant surprise, but a 10-20 start — two games better than last year — couldn’t have surprised anyone with realistic expectations at the start of a lengthy rebuild for general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. To the latter’s credit, a team clearly lacking the major league talent to compete on a nightly basis has played hard with few moments in which you’d question the effort, something you couldn’t say about last year’s 115-loss outfit. Dwight Smith Jr., Renato Nunez, and John Means have been early surprises in addition to Mancini’s blistering start, but the struggles and subsequent demotions of prospects Cedric Mullins and Tanner Scott are reminders that not everything will go to plan on the road back to respectability.

73 — home runs allowed

You may have heard by now the Orioles have a slight propensity for giving up the long ball as the pitching staff has allowed 20 more than any other team in baseball and more than twice as many as 14 others clubs. Baltimore is on pace to surrender 394 homers this season, which would obliterate the 2016 Cincinnati Reds’ major league record by 136 trips around the bases. The Orioles won’t like hearing it, but this probably hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves, especially considering the weather hasn’t even warmed up. Yes, homers are up around baseball with many convinced the ball is juiced, but what the Orioles have allowed goes so far beyond that or the cozy confines of Camden Yards. Those many gopher balls have left the Orioles with the worst ERA in the majors (6.05) by more than a half-run.

7.56 — strikeouts per nine innings

We’ve seen bits and pieces of Elias’ Houston effect with pitchers throwing more sliders and elevated fastballs, but the Orioles rank last in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, which is quite a contrast from the Astros ranking in the top five in that department over the last three years. It’s hardly a novel concept around the game, of course, but Elias values pitchers who will miss bats with the major league average hovering around 9.0 strikeouts per nine frames so far this season. Baltimore has only three pitchers on the current 25-man roster (minimum five innings) hitting that threshold. Prospects such as Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and Blaine Knight are piling up strikeouts in the low minors, but such gifted arms are still at least a couple years away and many more are needed in this system.

6.67 — Dylan Bundy’s ERA

Bundy isn’t the only Baltimore pitcher struggling, but the 26-year-old is supposed to be one of the most valuable commodities on the current club, either as a trade chip or someone around which to build in the next few years. Bundy’s strikeout rate (10.8 per nine) is up, but his average fastball velocity has dipped once again to 91.0 miles per hour and he’s allowing homers even more frequently than last year when he led the majors with 41. Given his strikeout rate and how opponents have batted just .167 against Bundy his first time through the order, you wonder if a move to a relief role would be best and might improve his velocity. That doesn’t figure to happen anytime soon with Alex Cobb on the injured list and few apparent alternatives, but the current version of Bundy is neither fetching anything in a trade nor providing the Orioles with a building block.

.343 — Chris Davis’ average since his record-breaking hitless streak

Yes, Davis is batting only .176 for the season, but that sounds more palatable after his record-breaking hitless streak to begin the season. Since going 0-for-33 — and 0-for-54 dating back to last September — Davis has a 1.064 OPS with three home runs, three doubles, and 11 runs batted in over 37 plate appearances. Of course, that’s a small sample mostly avoiding left-handed starters and should not be interpreted as him being “back” after his historically poor 2018, but his average exit velocity of 90.7 miles per hour is his best since 2016 and is second on the club behind Nunez. According to Statcast, Davis is in the 92nd percentile in hard-hit percentage this season. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t improved from last season, but the 33-year-old has calmed some of the discussion about his immediate future — for now.

Minus-15 — defensive runs saved

It would be way too kind to suggest the Orioles have played good defense so far in 2019, but they have improved from 29th to 25th in DRS and own only one more error than the league average. The outfield defense has had some issues that have been more pronounced since Mullins’ demotion, but the Orioles have typically made the plays they’re supposed to make and the “Bad News Bears” moments have been less frequent than we saw last year. Third baseman Rio Ruiz and catcher Pedro Severino have stood out defensively, but even Mancini has looked more comfortable in right field than he did in left. The defense definitely hurt the pitching last year, but this year’s group would probably help more if the pitching staff could keep the opposition from hitting the ball over the fence.

14 — stolen bases

There was much discussion this spring about Baltimore stealing more bases and putting pressure on the opposition — something we saw last year from deadline acquisition Jonathan Villar — but their 14 swipes are tied for ninth in the American League. In other words, the improved speed hasn’t exactly moved the meter. Then again, the 2016 Orioles stole just 19 bases for the entire season, so we’re talking about a very low bar set during the plodder years under Buck Showalter.

1 — intentional walks issued 

A hat tip to Jayson Stark of The Athletic for pointing this out, but the Orioles are one of several teams — including the Astros — to all but abandon the intentional walk, which analytics have exposed as an overrated strategy. Baltimore issued 29 free passes last season, so just one over 30 games is a striking contrast. In addition to that, the Orioles have only three sacrifice bunts and have usually stacked their best hitters at the top of the order rather than too often trying to shoehorn a Craig Gentry type at the top or putting Davis in the heart of the order because of the hitter he used to be. The strategy has been sound, even if the execution and talent are lacking.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts after first 20 games of 2019 season

Posted on 19 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles off to an 8-12 start after their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles entered Friday with the majors’ third-worst run differential — defending World Series champion Boston was shockingly second worst — but a 3-4 trip left them a respectable 7-6 road record. The 2018 club had 19 away wins all season. A roster overmatched on paper nightly has played with good energy.

2. Credit Baltimore for getting off the mat to win in extra innings Thursday, but that doesn’t wipe away the bullpen squandering a 5-2 lead with five outs to go. Orioles relievers have allowed seven more homers than any other team in baseball. Who can you really trust out there?

3. The top answer could be John Means if he doesn’t settle into the rotation. The lefty will fill a hybrid role for the time being with Alex Cobb returning, but a 1.72 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings have made him fun to watch in whatever capacity he’s pitched.

4. I’m glad to no longer be tracking a historic hitless streak for Chris Davis, but we’re a long way from suggesting he’s made meaningful improvement. I will note his average exit velocity (91.1 mph) is the best it’s been since 2015, but we’re talking about a very small sample size.

5. An 0-for-5 Thursday dropped Cedric Mullins to an .089 batting average. Patience is warranted and he’s defended well in center, but you wonder how hard a healthy Austin Hays — who’s just beginning a hitting progression after recovering from the thumb injury — might have been knocking at the door.

6. The Orioles own only two starts of six innings or more so far this season. It’s fair mentioning the handful of times they’ve used someone who wasn’t fully stretched out as a starter, but that still doesn’t say much for veterans like Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy.

7. Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino have combined to hit barely above the Mendoza line, but the catchers have thrown out eight of 13 runners attempting to steal this season. I would like to see Severino receive a few more opportunities since he’s five years younger.

8. Trey Mancini has been far and away Baltimore’s best hitter, but Dwight Smith Jr. has been the biggest surprise so far as he’s shown some power with a .474 slugging percentage and gone 9-for-24 with four extra-base hits against lefties. He has a nice swing.

9. After a slow start at Triple-A Norfolk, Ryan Mountcastle has homered in three of his last four games and has received all but two of his starts in the field at first base. His development is the most relevant baseball-related factor in the Davis saga at this point.

10. In his first three starts for Single-A Delmarva, 19-year-old Grayson Rodriguez has pitched to a 0.54 ERA and struck out 28 batters in 16 2/3 innings. I suppose that’s not too shabby for the 2018 first-round pick.

11. Brian Roberts has been impressive as a color analyst on MASN, especially considering his limited experience in the role. He clearly does his homework and presents those insights in an entertaining way. I’d like to hear more of him on broadcasts.

12. This FanGraphs article offered a look at Brandon Hyde, his daily routine, and how he interacts with Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal. It’s also a reminder the infrastructure of baseball operations is far from complete as the manager notes the current size of the front office and analytics department.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on struggling pitching staff

Posted on 12 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles having lost seven of eight before embarking on their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:

1. Chris Davis’ record hitless streak is national news, but allowing 37 home runs in 13 games borders on the unthinkable. No other team entered Friday surrendering more than 26. The major league record for a season is 258 allowed by Cincinnati in 2016; Baltimore’s current pace is 461.

2. Watching Dylan Bundy strike out five — four on sliders — and not allow a hit the first time through the order before giving up four home runs Thursday makes you wonder if he’s better suited to relieve. It could help an average fastball velocity that’s down to 90.8 miles per hour.

3. Miguel Castro has never missed as many bats as you’d expect despite a mid-90s fastball and a slider that’s often shown good movement, but he’s been a mess so far. After posting a solid 3.77 ERA the previous two years, Castro should have been ready to graduate rather than regress.

4. There was never a guarantee Richard Bleier would be ready for the start of 2019 following last June’s lat surgery, so sending him to the injured list with shoulder tendinitis is the responsible move. He and that sinker that sparked a 1.97 ERA the last three seasons clearly weren’t right.

5. Brandon Hyde expressed optimism about Alex Cobb’s back issue not lingering beyond the 10-day minimum, but even a rebuilding club still needs starters to eat innings and provide stability. Especially with a contract that will be difficult to move, Cobb needs to be a big part of that.

6. Many expected Mychal Givens to be the closer, but Hyde said he “wants to use Mike when the game’s on the line,” whether that’s the ninth inning or sooner. It’s a refreshing stance, especially for a club without the options to have a paint-by-numbers bullpen like Buck Showalter enjoyed.

7. Even having pitched his first two games as an “opener” and being on a schedule, Nate Karns showed diminished velocity in each of his outings before going to the IL with forearm tightness. You hope for the best, but his injury history is why he was available for $800,000.

8. Paul Fry has been the Orioles’ best reliever so far with a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings and the highest game-entering leverage index on the team, an indication of the kind of game situations in which Hyde has used the lefty. He was a nice find by Dan Duquette.

9. Despite the apparent Houston influence from Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal that has Andrew Cashner throwing more sliders and fewer fastballs, his swinging-strike percentage has decreased from last year. The veteran just isn’t missing bats, which makes it much more challenging to succeed.

10. John Means pitched into some bad luck in his first start, but he’s been a pleasant surprise early, especially with a changeup that’s fetched 18 swinging strikes out of the 73 times he’s thrown it. Hyde wants to give him more starting opportunities.

11. The Dan Straily signing made sense for a club eyeing rotation stability and a possible trade chip, but he’s allowed 10 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. His spring was disrupted by Miami releasing him, but he probably needs to lean more on his changeup to be successful.

12. If the intention behind optioning Tanner Scott to Triple-A Norfolk after a poor spring was to make him succeed at that level after he originally went from Double A to the majors, recalling him after just two appearances for the Tides didn’t seem to make much sense.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following series win over Yankees

Posted on 31 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles recording back-to-back wins over the New York Yankees to register their first series victory of the season and move over .500 for the first time since Opening Day last year, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Expectations should never change one series into a new season for any club, but the young Orioles responded admirably after Opening Day when so many were piling on over a pretty run-of-the-mill 7-2 loss. The overreaction certainly shifted to the Bronx by Sunday night.

2. After throwing 182 pitches and walking six in Saturday’s 5-3 win, Baltimore walked eight and hurled a whopping 226 pitches on Sunday. The Orioles threw more in a game only once all last season, which was a 15-inning win at Atlanta (248). Win or lose, that’s just crazy.

3. The surprise of Sunday’s win was John Means, who picked up Dylan Bundy by allowing only one run over 3 1/3 innings to earn his first major league win. Twelve of an impressive 17 swinging strikes came on his changeup, which Jim Palmer labeled “exceptional” during the MASN broadcast.

4. Four of his first five hits were of the infield variety before Trey Mancini clobbered one 419 feet with an exit velocity of 110.8 miles per hour for a homer on Sunday. For someone who experienced some tough luck last year, a fast start was good to see.

5. Brandon Hyde was very liberal with his use of Mychal Givens, who threw a career-high 49 pitches in the finale after 16 on Saturday. The new manager did express some regret in his post-game remarks, which was good to hear. That was still a major stretch, especially in late March.

6. Dwight Smith Jr. took advantage of his three early starts by going 5-for-11 just three weeks after being acquired from Toronto for international bonus slots. The 26-year-old is an example of someone with a golden opportunity to stick in the majors on a rebuilding club right now.

7. Nate Karns being deployed as an opener turned out to be more of a straight bullpen game with him going through the entire order once, but I like the break from convention. No one could have predicted Mike Wright nailing down the first save of the season, right?

8. A career .572 on-base plus slugging percentage isn’t the reason why the 30-year-old Jesus Sucre has played seven major league seasons, but his three RBIs were the difference on Saturday. Go figure.

9. Richard Bleier struggled in his first action since his season-ending lat injury sustained last June, allowing two earned runs and retiring only one batter on Saturday. He didn’t allow his second run last season until May 11. Patience is in order for the crafty lefty.

10. His command definitely needs to improve, but Jimmy Yacabonis has stuff that should play well in a relief role with a mid-90s fastball and a slider with great bite. I could see him in an opener role at some point this season.

11. Cedric Mullins not playing against the first two left-handed starters certainly reflects his pronounced struggles from the right side going back multiple levels in the minors. I’d still like to see him receive more chances before declaring him a platoon outfielder, however.

12. Many will mock the Orioles’ clubhouse celebrations at Yankee Stadium, but these players heard all winter and spring how bad they’re going to be this season and beyond. Let them enjoy the highs when they come. The weekend was fun without having to read more into it.

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