After bidding farewell to two of their more productive players of 2019 via trades last month, the Orioles have finally made their first notable signing of the offseason.
According to MLB.com, Baltimore has agreed to a one-year, $3 million contract with veteran shortstop Jose Iglesias. The deal reportedly includes a 2021 club option that would pay Iglesias $6 million over two years.
The 30-year-old spent last season with Cincinnati, batting .288 with 11 home runs, 59 runs batted in, and a .724 on-base plus slugging percentage in 530 plate appearances. Known for his above-average defense, Iglesias was worth eight defensive runs saved last year and has registered at least 1.4 wins above replacement in each of the last five seasons.
General manager Mike Elias had been eyeing a veteran shortstop with last month’s Jonathan Villar trade and the likelihood that former Rule 5 pick Richie Martin will begin 2020 in the minors. Orioles pitching ranked 28th in the majors in strikeouts last season, creating a desire for stronger team defense in the midst of an extensive rebuild.
A Cuban native, Iglesias finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2013 and was an All-Star selection with Detroit in 2015. He is a career .273 hitter with 32 homers, 247 RBIs, and a .687 OPS in eight seasons with Boston, Detroit, and the Reds.
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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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With the Orioles making only a minor-league trade before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. I had no problem with Mike Elias standing pat after the Andrew Cashner deal. He had little urgency to force any trades with a roster lacking any pending free agents aside from Mark Trumbo. These guys can be dealt this winter with minimal consequence to their value in a vacuum.
2. Teams are valuing young prospects more and more and simply aren’t giving up anything real for middle-of-the-road talent, even those with years of control remaining. The truth is the Orioles just didn’t have much to give up that really moves the meter for a contender.
3. Last year’s return of mostly minor-league filler reminded that making trades for the sake of doing it — the Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop deals come to mind — isn’t wise. As Elias said, a trade offers “a quick high,” but it’s wrong if you don’t believe in the names you’re getting.
4. Trey Mancini is a good player with three more years of control, but think back to the many productive first base or designated hitter types the Orioles have acquired cheaply over the last eight or nine years. Right now, I believe he has more value in Baltimore than anywhere else.
5. However, I don’t understand the persistent chatter about a Mancini extension considering he’ll hit free agency before his age 31 season. I literally typed this thought as Chris Davis struck out to lower his average to .187. Let’s see where Mancini and the club are in another year or two.
6. Some pointed to the many available relievers to explain Mychal Givens remaining, but teams looking for help are focused on the present before the future. Two more years of control is nice, but Givens owns a 4.54 ERA and has allowed 10 homers. Not attractive for a pennant race.
7. Jonathan Villar not being traded was mildly surprising since he has only one more year of control, but he’s the kind of player likely lost in the wash with the elimination of the August waiver deadline. A good finish probably keeps his offseason value similar to where it was Wednesday.
8. Hanser Alberto has been one of the better stories of 2019 and is fun to watch, but did anyone really expect a team to trade anything of interest for a guy who’s had a few nice months on the heels of being waived four times this past winter? Come on.
9. Even if only giving up cash, Philadelphia must have really liked Dan Straily’s 2.38 ERA in six Norfolk starts to even consider acquiring him. He’s still tied for 12th in the AL in homers allowed despite last pitching for the Orioles on June 18.
10. In dealing All-Star closer Shane Greene and outfielder Nick Castellanos, Detroit probably became the favorite to secure the 2020 first overall pick. If you want to be upset about the Orioles not making any trades, that’s probably the appropriate lens through which to look.
11. The lack of trades didn’t fuel any outrage about the Orioles “tanking.” They’re clearly not doing everything possible to win at the major league level after a 115-loss season in which they were actually trying, but Elias could have made trades solely to dump salary and make the club worse.
12. Elias just watched his old boss, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow, complete a deadline trade for a former Cy Young Award winner and legitimate ace for the second time in three years. It sure will be fun if he’s in that position with the Orioles in four or five years.
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The trade deadline passed Wednesday with Orioles general manager Mike Elias standing pat with his major league roster.
Despite plenty of speculation since veteran starting pitcher Andrew Cashner was traded to Boston for two 17-year-old prospects on July 13, Elias elected not to deal the likes of second baseman Jonathan Villar, relief pitcher Mychal Givens, starting pitcher Dylan Bundy, and slugger Trey Mancini, who all remain under club control beyond the 2019 season. With Cashner being Baltimore’s only real trade chip hitting free agency this fall, Elias felt little urgency to make a deal if he didn’t believe the return was improving the overall talent level in the organization.
Villar is under club control through next season while Givens and Bundy aren’t scheduled to become free agents until after 2020, but none are having standout seasons, meaning Elias wasn’t negotiating from a position of great leverage and can always revisit trade talks this offseason.
There was reported interest in Mancini, but the right fielder and first baseman doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season and is the rebuilding Orioles’ most recognizable player, which likely made the asking price too steep for possible suitors. Mancini’s defensive limitations also dent his overall value as he’s been worth just 2.1 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. In other words, the 27-year-old is probably more valuable to the Orioles at this point than to a contending club that’s likely reluctant to part with top prospects for a player ideally suited for first base or the designated hitter spot.
The Orioles did complete a minor-league trade before the 4 p.m. deadline, sending right-handed pitcher Dan Straily to Philadelphia for cash considerations. Straily, 30, was designated for assignment on June 20 after pitching to an awful 9.82 ERA with 22 home runs allowed in 47 2/3 innings and had accepted a minor-league assignment to Triple-A Norfolk where he’d posted a 2.38 ERA in six starts.
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As if the mounting losses weren’t enough, the injuries are now piling up for the last-place Orioles as left fielder Dwight Smith Jr. was placed on the seven-day concussion injured list Friday afternoon.
Smith injured his head and shoulder crashing into the left-field wall in Thursday’s loss at Texas. The roster move comes just a day after recently-promoted outfielder DJ Stewart was sent to the 10-day injured list with a sprained right ankle sustained in a collision with infielder Hanser Alberto in Wednesday’s defeat, the same night in which infielder Jonathan Villar and catcher Pedro Severino also left with minor injuries. Manager Brandon Hyde was so shorthanded for the final game of the Rangers series that Chris Davis made his first start in right field in three years — and made a key error in the 4-3 defeat.
Former Rule 5 outfielder Anthony Santander was recalled Friday to take Smith’s place on the 25-man roster.
Acquired from Toronto for international signing bonus slots in early March, Smith has been one of the few bright spots for a club currently on pace for its second straight sub-50 win season. The 26-year-old leads the Orioles with 41 runs batted in and ranks third in home runs (11) behind only Renato Nunez (15) and Trey Mancini (13). In 243 plate appearances, Smith is batting .249 with a .759 on-base plus slugging percentage.
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BALTIMORE — There was no “aha” moment for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde watching John Means pitch during spring training.
Hyde liked the 26-year-old lefty’s changeup and how his four-seam fastball played up in the strike zone, but an underwhelming 5.40 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League wasn’t a harbinger of Means leading Baltimore in both ERA (2.48) and wins above replacement (1.1) through the first six weeks of the 2019 season. In fact, he was the next-to-last relief pitcher on the Opening Day roster to appear in a game with the only one waiting longer being former Rule 5 pick Pedro Araujo, who would be designated for assignment a few days later.
Entering 2019, there was little reason to view Means as more than left-handed organizational depth with an ordinary fastball-slider combination and a respectable but ordinary 3.83 ERA over five minor-league seasons. His season debut against the New York Yankees in the Bronx changed that perception, however, as Means allowed only one run and struck out five over 3 1/3 innings to earn his first major league win.
The outing included an eye-opening 17 swinging strikes, 14 coming on the changeup Orioles infielder and teammate Jonathan Villar has since labeled “unbelievable” to watch. You don’t get that many swings and misses with pure luck as Means entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the majors in FanGraphs’ pitch value metric for changeups, further reinforcing it being no fluke.
“I don’t know. I just feel comfortable up here,” said Means, who abruptly made his major league debut at Fenway Park last September in the midst of the Orioles’ embarrassing pitching shortage. “I feel like these games really matter. I was never a prospect, so I feel like my back’s against the wall every time I go out there and I feel like I pitch better that way.”
An 11th-round pick out of West Virginia in the 2014 draft, Means is hardly the first relative unknown to find success in a small sample of innings as critics wait for a return to reality when opponents face him multiple times, but Monday’s career-best outing brought evidence of adjustments in his second start against the Red Sox. After relying almost exclusively on his fastball-changeup combination and throwing only two sliders out of 82 total pitches at Fenway on April 14, Means threw his slider 21 times to keep Red Sox hitters off balance this time around.
The breaking pitch resulted in two swinging strikes, four called strikes, and a sixth-inning strikeout of Boston center fielder Jackie Bradley. Means said the increase in slider usage was out of necessity, perhaps in response to his lower strikeout rate since becoming a starter. The next possible step could be mixing in a few more curveballs after he threw only four out of his 96 total pitches in the 4-1 victory.
“I’m going to need that as I go forward,” Means said. “The first month, the changeup kind of surprised everybody. As I move forward [and] as I establish myself, I’m going to need the breaker and the slider more.”
Of course, time will tell whether this version of Means is for real as opponents and scouts become more familiar with his repertoire and tendencies. After striking out an impressive 13 batters in 7 2/3 innings in relief, the southpaw has struck out only 5.8 batters per nine innings in five starts covering 25 frames, a rate suggesting his ultimate place may still be in the bullpen. His opponents’ .244 batting average on balls in play also indicates Means has benefited from some good fortune with the league average right around .295.
But good fastball and changeup command, only 1.93 walks per nine innings, and a willingness to evolve make Means more intriguing to watch as the sample size grows with each start. It’s a pleasant surprise for an organization lacking enticing prospects at the major-league level.
“He’s still developing, which is cool and impressive,” Hyde said. “What we’re looking for from our younger players is to not only have results, but to improve over the course of the year. Those two breaking balls are just getting better and better, and he’s getting some confidence with it.”
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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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With the Orioles falling 8-4 to the New York Yankees for their first loss in a home opener since 2015, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. A rebuilding club deserves credit for a winning week, but the Orioles bullpen entered Thursday ranked 13th in the AL in ERA before allowing six runs in 3 1/3 innings to squander a sixth-inning lead. The bullpen ERA currently sits at 6.32. It hasn’t been pretty even in the wins.
2. I’ll have more on Chris Davis this weekend, but a smattering of boos during introductions steadily grew with three strikeouts before he was replaced by Hanser Alberto, who was put on waivers four times this offseason and received a loud ovation before singling. This situation is uncomfortable on multiple levels.
3. Watching Mike Wright give up the go-ahead three-run homer in the sixth, I couldn’t help but think of Earl Weaver famously saying he gave Mike Cuellar more chances than he gave his first wife. Wright flashes occasionally, but the 29-year-old now has 95 career appearances in the majors.
Mike Wright: “It seems like the same song and dance even though it’s a different year, a different vibe. Obviously, I feel way better. Just one pitch makes it seem like it’s the same old Mike Wright, but I still feel confident. I still feel good.” #Orioles
4. Coming off the injured list, Alex Cobb certainly had a more successful season debut than he did last year after signing with the Orioles so late in the spring. He deserved a better outcome despite giving up a Gary Sanchez solo homer on his final pitch of the day.
5. The effectiveness of his split-changeup was evident as Cobb induced 10 swinging strikes out of the 32 times he threw it. His 12 swinging strikes tied his third-highest total in a start all last year. He needs that pitch to be able to miss enough bats to be successful.
6. With the Yankees currently missing Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, and Troy Tulowitzki, it must be nice to be able to lean more heavily on a young talent like middle infielder Gleyber Torres to collect four hits and two home runs, including the go-ahead shot.
7. Dwight Smith Jr. has collected at least one hit in each of the first seven games as he continues to take advantage of playing time. You expect offense from Trey Mancini and Jonathan Villar — who led off the first with a home run — but Smith has contributed nicely.
8. Renato Nunez entered Thursday just 2-for-15 before collecting two hits and a run batted in. He sports an average exit velocity of 95.5 miles per hour so far this season, so it’s not as though he hasn’t been making good contact.
9. Yankees starter James Paxton regrouped enough to receive the win, but I don’t recall too many times seeing a pitcher give up two runs on a balk and a wild pitch in a matter of seconds.
10. Much was made about the empty seats, but the lower deck was mostly full except for the right-center bleachers and the overall crowd looked more respectable by the fourth inning. The many complaints about entry lines and ballpark amenities on Twitter were a different story, however.
11. Brandon Hyde managed to run down the orange carpet without incident and received a loud ovation from the home crowd during introductions. Despite the tough loss, a post-game question about that response brought a warm smile to the manager’s face.
12. With the Orioles remembering the late Frank Robinson with a video tribute and a moment of silence, seeing Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, and Boog Powell at the ballpark was comforting. Those men and the memories attached mean even more when you lose one.
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With the Orioles suffering a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees to begin the 2019 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Last year brought the joy of a walk-off win on Opening Day and hope before the soon-to-follow revelation of the Orioles being the worst team in baseball. There would be no falsehood of optimism this time with Luke Voit’s blast giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the opening inning.
2. File “an Oriole runner being struck by a batted ball to end the first half-inning of 2019” into the category of stuff you just couldn’t make up when pondering what this season was going to look like.
3. It was a disappointing day for Andrew Cashner in his second career Opening Day start — the other with San Diego — as he lasted only four innings. Brandon Hyde needs his veterans to at least eat innings if this pitching staff is going to survive on even a functional level.
4. If you’re looking for a sign of the Houston analytics influence, Cashner threw fastballs 45.3 percent of the time, a lower percentage than in any 2018 start, and used sliders 32 percent of the time, a higher mark than in any 2018 outing. You still have to execute, of course.
5. Fourteen of the first 17 pitches thrown by the Orioles in the fifth inning were balls, leading to two more runs. They issued eight walks and hit a batter in the season opener. Then again, I’d probably walk everyone too if I had to face that Yankees lineup.
6. Trey Mancini was a rare bright spot with two infield hits and a run-scoring double that chased New York starter Masahiro Tanaka with two outs in the sixth. Mancini accounted for half of Baltimore’s six hits off Tanaka.
7. Striking out three times was the last way Chris Davis wanted to start 2019, but Hyde batting him seventh and removing him for a pinch hitter couldn’t signal any louder a new brain trust being in town. He batted seventh — and never lower — only 18 times last year.
8. The off-day helps, but Hyde using David Hess — Monday’s expected starter in Toronto — behind Cashner and Mike Wright seems less than ideal with Alex Cobb already on the injured list until next Thursday. I suspect the Norfolk shuttle will be as busy as ever sooner than later.
9. Richie Martin looked smooth defensively at shortstop, but late-spring struggles resulted in him finishing with a .582 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League. Some patience is definitely warranted for someone who had never played above the Double-A level until now.
10. Mike Elias joining the MASN telecast for a lengthy conversation was a good decision and one the Orioles should repeat as often as possible with the current state of the major league club. Without compromising ideas, he offered insight on the big picture and what’s going on behind the scenes.
11. If Elias is able to eventually build a championship club, will we look back on the 2019 opener and see a keeper or two in such an anonymous group or merely look at these names in the way we remember the likes of Pete Stanicek, Jay Tibbs, and Rick Schu?
12. The Orioles lost their first opener since 2010, the last time they were managed by someone other than Buck Showalter. That’s no knock on Hyde, but it’s a nod to the man who was at the helm for an enjoyable run that’s not erased solely because of last year.
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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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