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Orioles hope Stewart’s arrival kick-starts consistent talent pipeline

Posted on 28 May 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — DJ Stewart doesn’t headline the list of prospects needing to work out for the Orioles in the early stages of what’s expected to be an extensive rebuilding effort.

The 2015 first-round pick was cut from big-league camp nearly three weeks before the start of the season, leading one to believe the new regime wasn’t overly impressed with the 25-year-old outfielder who’d made his major league debut the previous September. Though some believe Stewart can become a solid everyday starter at a corner outfield spot or as a designated hitter, others project him to be more of a bench player or platoon contributor. In other words, he’s not a cornerstone talent like whichever player general manager Mike Elias selects with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft next week.

But Stewart’s Tuesday arrival is still meaningful for an organization whose minor-league call-ups so far this season have mostly been dictated by someone else performing poorly or the need for a fresh reliever on a pitching staff ranking last in the majors in ERA. We’ve seen center fielder Cedric Mullins and hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scott struggle and sent down despite spending extensive time in Baltimore last year. On the positive side, right-hander Branden Kline has emerged as one of the Orioles’ better relievers of late, but his arrival was facilitated by the bullpen being taxed in April.

After batting a whopping .456 with a 1.395 on-base plus slugging percentage for Triple-A Norfolk in May, Stewart is in the big leagues to hopefully signal the start of the eventual talent pipeline to which Elias has referred as the key to the Orioles’ future. Unlike the many players on the current roster viewed more as placeholders than prospects, Stewart forced his way to the Orioles with a .316 average, 23 extra-base hits, and a 1.010 OPS for the Tides.

“DJ’s definitely earned his way here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Like we told a lot of those guys in their exit meetings in spring training, go down to Triple A with a chip on your shoulder, prove to everybody that you should be in the big leagues, and do everything you can to get back here. And DJ did that.”

It’s no secret the Orioles want players to develop fully in the minor leagues in hopes of staying in the majors when finally promoted, which is why top-10 prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin aren’t being considered for a call-up after only two months at Triple A. That approach is a stark contrast to recent years in which prospects were frequently rushed to the majors and then shuttled back and forth to Norfolk due to poor performance or the roster needs of a contending club. Much like Trey Mancini a few years ago, Stewart has been challenged to master every minor-league level in a more traditional way.

Instead of sulking after his mid-spring demotion, Stewart seized the opportunity to grow as a player and improve upon a pedestrian 2018 season in which he batted .235 and posted a .716 OPS at Norfolk. The Florida State product increased his walk rate from 11 percent to 15 percent, decreased his strikeout rate from 21 percent to 14 percent, and added nearly 200 points to his slugging percentage from a year ago.

Simply put, there was nothing else for him to accomplish in the minors. And even though the recent acquisition of outfielder Keon Broxton made it look like Stewart might be forced to wait even longer, Chris Davis going to the 10-day injured list with a hip injury opened up first base for Trey Mancini and cleared a roster spot for another outfielder.

“You can only control what you can control,” said Stewart, who credits the loosening of his back elbow in his hitting approach for his Triple-A tear. “You’ve got continue to play wherever you’re at. I know that they were watching, and they were just trying to find a way to get me here. It’s nothing against them at all. It’s a business, and they had to find the right opportunity. I’m glad that it happened sooner than later.”

The wait for the next notable call-up after Stewart might be a while. Mullins is batting just .235 for the Tides since the Orioles sent him down in late April. Catcher Chance Sisco entered Tuesday with an .865 OPS for Norfolk, but lingering doubts about his defense and the surprising play of Pedro Severino in Baltimore have seemingly delayed his return to the majors. Outfielder Austin Hays has just gotten back to playing at Double-A Bowie after his late-spring thumb injury and has still never played at the Triple-A level, a reason why he was optioned to the minors despite his strong spring.

That means Stewart will serve as an object of curiosity for the foreseeable future on a club on pace to lose 111 games and needing as much young talent as it can find. The Orioles hope he’ll be the first of many call-ups over the next few years that will be based on merit more than attrition and will result in a permanent stay.

“I want him to play. I want him to not change a thing from what he’s doing at Norfolk,” said Hyde, who plans to rotate Stewart with Broxton, Dwight Smith Jr., and Stevie Wilkerson in the outfield alignment. “Not to put too much pressure on himself, not feel like he has to carry us in any way. I just want him to do what he was doing.

“I think a lot of times what happens is guys come up from Triple A and feel like they have something to prove and try a little too hard. I want to make him as relaxed as possible and make him really comfortable here, and I think we’re going to see good things.”

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Checking in on Orioles prospects at Triple-A Norfolk

Posted on 15 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the rebuilding Orioles in last place one quarter of the way through the 2019 season, let’s take a look at what advanced-level prospects are doing at Triple-A Norfolk to try to earn a promotion to the majors:

CF Cedric Mullins
Age: 24
2019 numbers: .247/.329/.397, 2 HR, 1 2B, 2 3B, 7 RBI, 5 SB, 13 SO, 9 BB, 84 PA
Outlook: Mullins is no longer a prospect in the traditional sense with 265 major league plate appearances since last August, but the Orioles aren’t giving up on the switch-hitting outfielder despite an .094 average in April that prompted his demotion. He was initially swinging the bat well for the Tides, but a .222 May average has cooled momentum for a quick return. Questions have persisted about his ability to swing from the right side against lefty pitching, but Mullins is batting only .189 against right-handers at Triple A this season, further evidence that he has more work to do to straighten himself out. How the organization handles Mullins and the soon-to-be-returning Austin Hays at Norfolk will be interesting to monitor.

C Chance Sisco
Age: 24
2019 numbers: .280/.379/.533, 7 HR, 6 2B, 0 3B, 25 RBI, 0 SB, 26 SO, 13 BB, 124 PA
Outlook: The left-handed Sisco has hit markedly better than he did at the Triple-A level in 2017 or 2018, but the new regime has placed a premium on defense at the major-league level, an area where doubts persist about the 2013 second-round pick. He continues to catch exclusively for now, but you do wonder if exploring a position change is in order if the organization doesn’t believe his defense will be good enough for the next level. There doesn’t appear to be much more for Sisco to prove with his bat in the minors, but some fear his swing is too long to succeed in the majors after his immense struggles with the Orioles last year.

1B/3B Ryan Mountcastle
Age: 22
2019 numbers: .324/.350/.507, 5 HR, 10 2B, 1 3B, 23 RBI, 1 SB, 36 SO, 6 BB, 157 PA
Outlook: The 2015 first-round pick has raked at the plate since mid-April to solidify his standing as the best hitting prospect in the organization, especially with Double-A outfielder Yusniel Diaz off to a slow start and currently injured. The power production speaks for itself, but you’d like to see Mountcastle draw more walks, especially as his reputation with the bat grows around baseball. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound infielder is primarily playing first base this season and has good hands despite his poor defensive reputation, which should help in his transition from the left side of the infield. Some believe Mountcastle is ready to hit in the majors now, but the Orioles are in no rush with Chris Davis, Renato Nunez, and Trey Mancini consuming the at-bats at first base and designated hitter for now.

LHP Keegan Akin
Age: 24
2019 numbers: 1-1, 4.24 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 2 HR, 34 innings
Outlook: The Eastern League’s pitcher of the year and the organization’s minor-league co-pitcher of the year in 2018, Akin isn’t off to the best start at Triple A, but he’s maintained his strikeout rate at a higher level, a good sign for his chances of succeeding in the majors. The lefty throws a low-90s fastball capable of touching 95 or 96 miles per hour and an above-average slider with a solid changeup, a repertoire giving him a chance to be in the back half of the rotation one day. With top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall still pitching for Single-A affiliates and 2018 trade acquisition Dean Kremer just now returning from a spring oblique injury, Akin is Baltimore’s best minor-league pitcher who’s close to being ready for the majors.

LF/RF DJ Stewart
Age: 25
2019 numbers: .281/.406/.561, 7 HR, 9 2B, 1 3B, 26 RBI, 4 SB, 21 SO, 24 BB, 144 PA
Outlook: After posting an encouraging .890 on-base plus slugging percentage in 47 plate appearances for the Orioles last September, Stewart was optioned to the minors relatively early this spring, which wasn’t much of an endorsement from the new regime. However, he’s done everything you could ask for in his second season at Norfolk with an OPS more than 200 points higher than it was in 2018 and a .500 batting average in May. Stewart would probably be in Baltimore by now if not for the March acquisition of Dwight Smith, who’s been one of the biggest surprises of the young season. With Smith manning left and Mancini primarily playing right field, Stewart doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time in the outfield, but the Orioles are already using Stevie Wilkerson in center over Joey Rickard, who entered Wednesday hitting below the Mendoza line. If for no reason other than to send a positive message to minor-league players, general manager Mike Elias needs to reward Stewart’s play sooner than later.

RHP Luis Ortiz
Age: 23
2019 numbers: 1-3, 6.31 ERA, 1.91 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, 3 HR, 25 2/3 innings
Outlook: Ranked as the Orioles’ 18th-best prospect by MLB.com, Ortiz is already with his third organization as questions about his weight and conditioning have dogged the 2014 first-round pick since before he was drafted. The right-hander lost weight in the offseason, but his numbers so far this season are erasing any lingering excitement from when he was acquired in the Jonathan Schoop trade last summer. That said, Ortiz is still young enough to figure it out, and the Orioles don’t have many minor-league arms knocking at the door for a major-league call-up.

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Nine questions on the 2019 Orioles entering the season

Posted on 27 March 2019 by Luke Jones

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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