For all the fun the Orioles have provided in this unprecedented 2020 season, John Means hadn’t been a part of it.
The 2019 second-place finisher in AL Rookie of the Year voting began the abbreviated 60-game campaign with a sore left shoulder and made just two starts before losing his father to pancreatic cancer in early August. Though carrying a couple extra ticks on his fastball from 2019, Means had lost the feel for his changeup, the game-changing pitch that transformed him from being a fringe member of the Opening Day bullpen to the All-Star Game last season. Through six starts in 2020, the 27-year-old had pitched to an ugly 8.10 ERA and allowed eight home runs in 20 innings of work.
That changed Tuesday as Baltimore won its fourth straight to improve to 20-21 and tie the struggling New York Yankees in the loss column for the final wild-card spot in the AL’s expanded eight-team field. After a “tough talk” with manager Brandon Hyde last week, Means looked more like the 2019 version of himself in what was easily his best outing of the season in the 11-2 victory over the New York Mets.
“I was trying to force a lot of things, trying to get strikeouts, trying to blow it by everybody,” said Means after allowing one run and three hits over six innings to collect his first win of 2020. “That’s just not how I pitch. That’s not me. Hyde called me into the office and … told me this isn’t me. This isn’t how I pitch. This isn’t who I should be. I was getting frustrated; I was getting upset and angry with myself. To be able to relax out there and just be myself, it really helped me.”
By not trying to miss bats, Means struck out five and registered 15 swinging strikes, season highs in those departments. He effectively located his fastball that still carried extra giddy-up while better commanding the changeup over the course of the night, retiring 14 of the final 15 Mets hitters he faced to take full advantage of the run support from the Baltimore lineup.
Yes, it’s only one start, but a Means resurgence on the heels of rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer shutting down the Yankees last weekend would give the Orioles the makings of their most interesting starting rotation in quite some time. Regardless of whether that helps propel them to an unlikely 2020 playoff berth, it’s the latest sign of the Orioles beginning to turn the corner in a rebuilding process that’s far from complete.
And it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Though the Orioles placing Chris Davis on the 10-day injured list to make room for Ryan Mountcastle felt poetic in some ways, assuming it was the end for the first baseman was premature.
Davis was activated on Tuesday, but Hyde made no firm commitment to play the 34-year-old first baseman, who had started just two of the club’s last eight games before being sent to the IL with “left knee patellar tendinitis” on Aug. 21.
“I’m going to find spots to possibly play him,” Hyde said. “I think that when I make the lineup out, I’m going to give our team the best chance to win. If [Davis] is part of the lineup that day, he is. And if not, he’s going to be ready to pinch hit or defend late.”
Whether clubbing home runs, drawing more walks that expected, playing a respectable left field, or beating out routine grounders for infield hits, Mountcastle is rapidly emerging as one of the Orioles’ best players, especially helpful after the oblique injury to Anthony Santander.
In his first 63 plate major league plate appearances, the 23-year-old is batting .339 with a 1.004 OPS, four home runs, three doubles, 13 runs batted in, six walks, and 12 strikeouts. Despite a fraction of the playing time as most Baltimore regulars, Mountcastle currently ranks fourth on the club with 0.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
Perhaps Mountcastle should have been promoted sooner, but it’s sure fun watching him now.
Odds & ends
Cedric Mullins was just a homer shy of the cycle in Tuesday’s win to raise his season average to .293 with a rock-solid .780 OPS. After a nightmare 2019 that saw him demoted to Double-A Bowie, Mullins taking full advantage of the opportunity created by the Austin Hays rib injury has been one of the better stories of the season. … The Orioles were seemingly waving the white flag on 2020 by trading veteran bullpen arms Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, and Richard Bleier, but a hard-throwing back end of Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey, and Dillon Tate could be fun to watch for the rest of 2020 and beyond. … I’m not sure DJ Stewart’s current hot streak means he’ll stick in the majors for good this time, but his .185/.421/.630 slash line entering Wednesday is about as crazy as it gets in terms of weird baseball stats.
If 10 losses in their last 12 games entering Sunday weren’t enough, the Orioles made clear the good vibes and postseason chatter spawned from a surprising 12-8 start were only a brief respite from reality.
Baltimore is still all about the future.
Prior to Sunday’s game against Toronto in Buffalo, general manager Mike Elias traded right-handed reliever Mychal Givens to Colorado and lefty starter Tommy Milone to Atlanta. In return, the Rockies sent minor league corner infielder Tyler Nevin, minor league middle infielder Terrin Vavra, and a player to be named later to the Orioles while the Braves will send two players to be named later.
Givens has been a mainstay in the Baltimore bullpen since 2015, posting a 3.32 ERA and averaging 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings over 336 innings spanning six seasons. After a mediocre 2019 campaign that included a 4.57 ERA, the 30-year-old was off to an excellent start with a 1.38 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 13 innings this season. Givens is scheduled to become a free agent after 2021.
Selected as a high school shortstop in the second round of the 2009 draft, Givens became a pitcher in 2013 and would reach the major leagues just over two years later. He had been a subject of trade speculation for the better part of two years before the Rockies tabbed him as a piece to augment their bullpen for a playoff run.
Upon completion of the trade, Milone was immediately scheduled to make his first start for the Braves in Philadelphia on Sunday night.
Signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training in mid-February, Milone has been Baltimore’s best starters in this abbreviated season, pitching to a 3.99 ERA in six starts covering 29 1/3 innings and recording the Orioles’ only two quality starts. The 33-year-old has struck out a career-high 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and has walked only four batters, a ratio making him attractive to a playoff contender like the Braves.
Milone becomes the second left-handed pitcher to be traded by Elias this month after reliever Richard Bleier was sent to Miami on Aug. 1. He’s also the second notable departure from the Orioles rotation over the last week after fellow veteran lefty Wade LeBlanc was placed on the 60-day injured list with a season-ending elbow injury on Tuesday.
To take the places of Givens and Milone on the active roster, the Orioles activated right-handed reliever Hunter Harvey from the 10-day injured list and recalled lefty Keegan Akin from the alternate training site.
Elias appeared to receive a good return for Givens on paper, acquiring the Rockies’ No. 7 (Vavra) and No. 14 (Nevin) prospects in the MLB Pipeline rankings. Vavra, 23, played shortstop and second base at Single-A Asheville last season, batting .318 with 43 extra-base hits, 52 runs batted in, 18 stolen bases, and an .899 on-base plus slugging percentage. The 23-year-old Nevin, son of former major leaguer and current New York Yankees third base coach Phil Nevin, batted .251 with 41 extra-base hits, 61 RBIs, and a .744 OPS while primarily playing first base for Double-A Hartford last season.
The question now becomes who might be the next Oriole to be traded with potential candidates including reliever Miguel Castro, infielders Jose Iglesias and Hanser Alberto, and starting pitcher Alex Cobb.
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One of my cathartic moments in the early months of this dystopian world in which we currently reside was dusting off my glove to play catch in the backyard for the first time in who knows how long. Such an experience was therapy at a time when the only live baseball being played was half a world away
Like so many, my feelings are mixed and my fingers crossed about navigating an unprecedented season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I respect those individuals who’ve elected not to participate and the many players, coaches, and team personnel trying to push through the bizarre circumstances and risks to complete a 2020 season and provide an outlet of temporary escape. I’m hoping for the best while recognizing the undesirable outcomes that could again bring baseball to an abrupt halt.
That paramount acknowledgement aside, finding value in this abbreviated season for the Orioles is challenging
A 60-game sprint of a schedule dares even the worst clubs to dream about a small-sample-size run to the postseason — especially with the playoff field expanding from 10 to 16 teams — but we’re talking about an outfit that hasn’t had as much as a winning month of baseball since August of 2017. Last year’s world champion Washington Nationals and their 19-31 start are the popular citation for the unpredictability of a short season, but 60 games is much more often than not an accurate barometer to distinguish legitimate contenders and teams with a fighting chance from the ones having no shot.
The Orioles lost 108 games last year and won’t have the services of team MVP Trey Mancini (recovering from colorectal cancer), positional player WAR leader Jonathan Villar (traded to Miami), and innings pitched leader Dylan Bundy (traded to the Los Angeles Angels). Making short-term feelings worse, the club placed starting ace John Means (left shoulder) and promising reliever Hunter Harvey (right forearm strain) on the 10-day injured list to begin the season even though manager Brandon Hyde says both should be back sooner than later. Frankly, none of these developments are encouraging beyond the Orioles’ chances of securing the top overall pick in the 2021 draft.
With Means temporarily sidelined, the Baltimore rotation currently consists of 30-somethings with little upside or trade value. Perhaps a healthy Alex Cobb will look more like the pitcher he was in Tampa Bay, but the four-year, $57 million deal a playoff-hopeful Orioles club invested in him 2 1/2 years ago simply isn’t going to bring real value for the future.
Of course, there’s Chris Davis, entering the fifth season of a seven-year, $161 million contract that’s been nothing short of disastrous. Even if his surprising Grapefruit League performance was the harbinger for a modest renaissance, it just won’t mean much beyond the short-term surprise.
Worst of all, the minor league season isn’t taking place with top organizational prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman and pitcher DL Hall restricted to working out at the secondary camp in Bowie. So many of the young players critical to Baltimore’s long-term success simply aren’t getting the desired seasoning to expedite a multiyear rebuilding effort, a cold reality from a baseball perspective.
But all isn’t lost.
Austin Hays will man center field and hit at the top of the order on Opening Day in Boston. It’s easy to forget after two injury-plagued years that the 25-year-old was the first player selected in the 2016 draft to make the majors, but Hays should have every opportunity to prove he belongs if he can stay healthy.
Outfielders still in their mid-20s such as Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, and Cedric Mullins present varying degrees of intrigue and can improve their standing for the future over these next two months.
Veteran reliever Mychal Givens could become general manager Mike Elias’ most appealing chip for the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but the 30-year-old will have just over five weeks to regain his pre-2019 form.
The most anticipated development of the summer will be the debut of Ryan Mountcastle, who is expected to arrive in Baltimore sooner than later. His latest defensive endeavor is learning left field and a problematic strikeout-to-walk ratio should temper expectations, but the 2019 International League MVP’s 61 extra-base hits last year provide more than enough reason for excitement.
There’s also the potential promotions of young starting pitchers such as Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who seem like decent bets to pitch for the Orioles by season’s end. Outfield prospect and Manny Machado trade centerpiece Yusniel Diaz appears less likely to be promoted after failing to progress to Triple-A Norfolk last year, but his progress in the Bowie camp will be monitored closely.
Yes, you’ll need to look closely for those signs of promise while hiding your eyes from what’s likely to be plenty of losing, but we’re all looking for signs of hope — in the Orioles, baseball, and beyond. A 60-game baseball “season” — perhaps it’s better described as an event — with empty ballparks, COVID-19 testing, fake crowd noise, and social distancing is so far from ideal, but so is the rest of life these days.
Weird baseball — even bad baseball — is better than none at all. It’s a difficult reminder of where we are as a country right now and the normalcy for which we long. If the game can safely — a colossal caveat — bring a few hours of smiles, laughs, or even some groans over something trivial, yet important every night, it’s worth it to try, even if that hot dog and cold beer at Camden Yards will have to wait.
In that regard, finding value in this season — even one likely to be forgettable for the Orioles — is easy.
With fingers crossed, let’s play ball.
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With the start of an unprecedented and abbreviated 2020 season now only a week away, the Orioles are in an undesirable place from a baseball perspective.
That a rebuilding club has no reasonable shot to contend in even a 60-game schedule conducive to statistical noise isn’t the problem as no one envisioned the AL East standings being of consequence for the Orioles after a combined 223 losses in the previous two seasons. But the cancellation of the entire minor league season leaves general manager Mike Elias and the goal of fostering “an elite talent pipeline” with limited avenues to develop the young prospects vital to Baltimore’s future.
Like last season, the number of veteran placeholders and overmatched players on the major league roster will greatly outweigh the interesting talents fighting to become long-term pieces for the Orioles’ next contending club, a contrast exacerbated by 2019 Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini’s season-long absence due to colon cancer and the offseason trade of productive infielder Jonathan Villar. But that doesn’t mean a pleasant surprise or two can’t emerge as baseball attempts to navigate a strange season through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are four story lines with long-term ramifications at the start of 2020:
1. The encore for John Means
There was no bigger surprise for the Orioles last year than the 27-year-old Means, who went from an organizational lefty on the Opening Day roster bubble to the 2019 All-Star Game and second place in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Means used a superb changeup and improved fastball velocity to pitch to a 3.60 ERA in 155 innings that included 27 starts, 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.21 walks per nine, a 1.135 WHIP, and 23 home runs allowed. However, he struggled to a 4.85 ERA and a 6.5 per nine strikeout rate after the All-Star break and doesn’t have the stuff to overwhelm hitters who will now be more familiar with his repertoire. Keys to Means not being a one-year wonder are the continued development of his slider and a growth mindset to stay ahead of the curve, something he attempted to do for a second straight offseason. He’ll have his first chance to show his progress when he starts the opener at Fenway Park, the place where he made his unceremonious major league debut at the end of 2018. With the rest of the projected rotation to begin the season — Alex Cobb, Asher Wojciechowski, Wade LeBlanc, and Tommy Milone — all over age 30, Means remains the most intriguing starter by a wide margin.
2. Austin Hays and a wide-open outfield
The outfield remains in flux with Mancini’s absence, Anthony Santander just returning this week from testing positive for the coronavirus, Dwight Smith Jr. still absent for undisclosed reasons, and DJ Stewart returning from offseason ankle surgery, leaving Hays — and his 75 plate appearances last September — as the ironic best bet to be in the Opening Day outfield. A consensus top 100 prospect in baseball entering 2018 after an outstanding first full season of professional ball, Hays struggled to stay healthy for the better part of two years until his late-season promotion resulted in some highlight defensive plays in center field and a .309/.373/.574 slash line that included 10 extra-base hits and 13 RBIs in 21 games. To say Hays can cement his place as the center fielder of the future in only a 60-game sample would be premature, but the 25-year-old has the opportunity to make a lasting impression. Meanwhile, Santander, 25, will try to show his 20-homer campaign last year was no fluke, and the 26-year-old Stewart could have his last best chance to live up to his former first-round billing.
3. Hunter Harvey’s place in the bullpen
After missing significant parts of the previous four seasons with various injuries, the 2013 first-round pick was one of the better stories in the organization last season as he remained healthy and settled into a new role pitching in relief. Harvey, 25, posted a 4.32 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 16 2/3 innings for Triple-A Norfolk before being promoted to the majors in mid-August. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out 11 batters, walked four, and allowed only one run in seven appearances before reaching his innings limit and being shut down with minor arm soreness in mid-September. Manager Brandon Hyde didn’t hesitate to throw Harvey into some high-leverage situations last year, so that should continue, regardless of whether he settles into a traditional closer role. As for the rest of the bullpen, the Orioles hope late-inning right-hander Mychal Givens rebounds from an underwhelming 2019 to reestablish some trade value before the Aug. 31 deadline and that 25-year-old right-hander Miguel Castro can build upon his second-half improvement from a year ago.
4. Graduations from the alternate camp in Bowie
If we’re being honest, the happenings at the Orioles’ secondary training site will be of far greater interest and consequence to the big picture with prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman, lefty pitcher DL Hall, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, and right-hander Michael Baumann taking part, but which talents there will have the best chance of playing in the majors in 2020? Plate discipline concerns (24 walks in 553 plate appearances) and the lack of a position should make one take pause about 23-year-old Ryan Mountcastle’s upside, but the 2019 International League MVP has little to prove down below after 61 extra-base hits and an .871 OPS at Norfolk last year. Especially with Mancini out of the 2020 picture, there’s no logical reason not to give Mountcastle major league at-bats and looks in left field and at first base sooner than later. On the pitching side, lefty Keegan Akin’s 4.73 ERA and 4.9 walks per nine innings in 112 1/3 innings at Norfolk last season didn’t scream promotion, but his 10.5 strikeouts per nine still make him a viable prospect if the 25-year-old can hone his control. Right-hander Dean Kremer, 24, is another promotion candidate, but his injury-delayed 2019 season consisted of only four starts at the Triple-A level, making it unlikely the Orioles will rush him to Baltimore. The 23-year-old Diaz shouldn’t be completely ruled out, but he’s yet to log a professional at-bat above the Double-A level and Elias has been pretty firm about prospects not skipping steps. Outfielder Cedric Mullins could also play his way back to the majors, but he has much to prove after a nightmare 2019.
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With players and coaches returning to Camden Yards this week to resume training for the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Mike Elias said the organization had been “remarkably lucky” not to have any positive COVID-19 tests (as of Monday) while acknowledging the Orioles are “going to have cases.” It’s a realistic assessment and a reminder of just how uncertain this all is from even the most optimistic viewpoints.
2. To this point, the Orioles aren’t expecting any players to opt out of the 2020 season, but you wonder if the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond choosing not to play coupled with additional positive tests this week could change minds. It’s a personal decision that should be respected.
3. The inevitable became official Tuesday with the minor leagues canceling their season. The minors are critical to the game’s long-term health in not only developing prospects but also cultivating young fans around the country. I’m concerned with MLB’s inability — or cold refusal — to recognize that.
4. The Heston Kjerstad signing is official with the second overall pick from Arkansas receiving a $5.2 million bonus, which was $2.59 million below slot. Of course, no one will remember that if Kjerstad becomes a mainstay in right field and shows the potent left-handed bat the Orioles like so much.
5. The organization is telling Kjerstad and other 2020 draft picks to stay ready in hopes of being able to gather for instructional work at some point. Everyone’s in the same boat, but Baltimore losing so much development time in a season so inconsequential at the major league level is tough.
6. The first 44 players announced for the Orioles’ 60-man pool list made clear we’ll wait at least a little longer to see Ryan Mountcastle as well as Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, and Dean Kremer. Especially with Trey Mancini out, there’s no excuse not to give Mountcastle extensive at-bats.
7. With the potential statistical noise of a 60-game sprint of a season, Elias was asked how he’d handle the Orioles being a surprise contender at the trade deadline and replied that he’d “look at that very seriously.” Yeah, I’m not buying it either.
8. If a roster without its two best position players from 2019 — Mancini and Jonathan Villar — weren’t enough, a daunting schedule now including the entire NL East in addition to the usual AL East nightmares should halt any talk of the Orioles being Cinderella. There are much better sleeper picks.
9. In addition to the aforementioned prospects we could see at some point, Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, John Means, and Anthony Santander provide incentives to watch a club still too short on talent expected to be in Baltimore for the long run. Another Means-like story or two would help.
10. Asked about his biggest prospect-related concerns, Elias noted the obvious long-term health of pitchers not accumulating innings and mentioned young hitters missing “key at-bats in their life cycle” as players. How many fringe talents who could have made it will never get a real chance now?
11. The labor war is exhausting and the pandemic concerns omnipresent, but I’m otherwise embracing the weirdness of a 60-game season as well as rule changes and quirks. Some of the best innovation comes through unusual circumstances. There’s been nothing traditional about 2020, so why start now?
12. Current frustrations with MLB aside, I appreciated the following video and wish the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues could have been celebrated in ballparks around the country. From Rube Foster’s vision to baseball royalty like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil, these men need to be remembered.
With full-squad spring workouts now underway in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. The patience required for a multiyear rebuild was already agonizing enough for the fan base, but the model being the 2017 Houston Astros now carries much different connotations. That’s a tough pill to swallow when there is no guarantee of success.
2. That’s not to convict Mike Elias andSig Mejdal of anything beyond association as neither has been named in any scandal reporting so far, but I can’t believe they weren’t aware of what was going on as longtime Jeff Luhnow lieutenants dating back to their St. Louis days. It’s uncomfortable.
3. Chris Davis adding 25 pounds to get stronger doesn’t carry much weight when he balked at overhauling his swing, citing age and past success that was an eternity ago. He still views himself as an everyday player “until it’s proven otherwise,” but shouldn’t that be the other way around?
4. Some are interpreting Davis’ admission of contemplating retirement as the end being near, but it could have the opposite effect. Ownership hasn’t been willing to walk away from this disastrous contract so far, so why wouldn’t they dig in their heels over the possibility of Davis forgoing millions?
5. On a more positive note, Adley Rutschman being in major league camp is the brightest sign of hope yet for the rebuild. You wouldn’t expect him to be there long, but the first overall pick seeing a little Grapefruit League action would be fun.
6. We’ll likely wait until summer for more prospects to debut in Baltimore, but Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey showed enough late last season to be excited for 2020. Health remains a sticking point, but both have a chance to be part of the next contender in Baltimore.
7. Ryan Mountcastle has worked in the outfield over the first couple days of camp as the organization’s search for his defensive position continues. I’m still a little more concerned about him walking only 24 times in 553 plate appearances at Norfolk last season. He just turned 23 Tuesday, however.
8. The minor-league signings of Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc aren’t moving the meter for a rotation projected to again be poor, but either veteran lefty eating innings and decreasing the need for position players to pitch as frequently would be welcome. Just be a little more functional.
9. At this time last year, no one was predicting John Means to make the club, let alone the All-Star team. It would be encouraging to see another Means-like story or two — David Hess took a cue from the lefty — on a roster still with more placeholders than players of interest.
10. The performances of Hays and Chance Sisco last spring serve as a reminder that Elias doesn’t put much stock in Grapefruit League numbers, but Mountcastle and pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer performing well would serve as promising harbingers for call-ups later this year.
11. I believe in Elias, but I hoped to see more imagination this offseason in terms of signing a value free agent to flip or taking on a contract in a trade to buy a prospect. Having baseball’s lowest payroll is great for ownership, but that alone doesn’t expedite this process.
12. Rob Manfred stating his belief of “a good future for baseball in Baltimore” is fine, but the MASN resolution and a new stadium lease beyond the 2021 season are the real keys. The attendance for a team currently not trying to win has nothing to do with it.
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The Orioles have protected 2019 International League MVP Ryan Mountcastle and three other prospects who were eligible for next month’s Rule 5 draft by placing them on their 40-man roster.
The others were Triple-A Norfolk starting pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer and Double-A outfielder Ryan McKenna. Those additions leave Baltimore with one open spot on the 40-man roster, which could be used to make a selection in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12.
The 2019 Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year winner, Mountcastle completed an impressive season with the Tides in which he batted .312 with 25 home runs, 35 doubles, 83 runs batted in, and an .871 on-base plus slugging percentage, making the decision to protect the 22-year-old a no-brainer. Some were surprised the first baseman and left fielder didn’t receive a September promotion, but general manager Mike Elias has remained steadfast in his desire to see Mountcastle improve his defense that’s prompted multiple position changes and refine his plate discipline after he walked just 24 times in 553 plate appearances last season.
Those developmental goals — as well as the manipulation of service time — will likely keep Mountcastle in Norfolk for the start of 2020.
Akin, 24, is coming off an uneven season in which he posted a 4.73 ERA and walked 4.9 batters per nine innings, but that came in a high run-scoring environment in the International League. The lefty struck out an impressive 10.5 batters per nine inning at Triple A and is likely to be promoted to the big leagues at some point in 2020.
A bright spot in the Manny Machado trade return, Kremer overcame an oblique injury in the spring to post a 2.98 ERA and strike out 9.2 batters per nine innings at Bowie. The 23-year-old right-hander struggled in four starts at Norfolk, but he cemented his status as a legitimate pitching prospect with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Kremer struck out an impressive 122 batters in 113 2/3 innings in the minors in 2019.
Unlike the aforementioned trio, McKenna wasn’t considered a sure thing to be protected after posting an underwhelming .232 average and .686 OPS with Bowie in 2019. However, his above-average defense in center field and the memory of his 2018 breakout first half with Single-A Frederick made the speedy 22-year-old a possibility to be selected by another major league club eyeing a defense-first reserve outfielder, especially with teams now allowed to carry a 26th player on the roster.
The biggest omission from the 40-man roster was 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock, who overcame consecutive injury-riddled seasons to post a 2.84 ERA and a 9.5 per nine strikeout rate split between Frederick and Bowie in 2019. Exposing the 24-year-old right-hander to the Rule 5 draft carries risk, but his bounce-back performance came at an advanced age for the Carolina League — where he spent most of the season — and his previous two years could prompt clubs to pass on him next month.
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BALTIMORE — DJ Stewart doesn’t headline the list of prospects needing to work out for the Orioles in the early stages of what’s expected to be an extensive rebuilding effort.
The 2015 first-round pick was cut from big-league camp nearly three weeks before the start of the season, leading one to believe the new regime wasn’t overly impressed with the 25-year-old outfielder who’d made his major league debut the previous September. Though some believe Stewart can become a solid everyday starter at a corner outfield spot or as a designated hitter, others project him to be more of a bench player or platoon contributor. In other words, he’s not a cornerstone talent like whichever player general manager Mike Elias selects with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft next week.
But Stewart’s Tuesday arrival is still meaningful for an organization whose minor-league call-ups so far this season have mostly been dictated by someone else performing poorly or the need for a fresh reliever on a pitching staff ranking last in the majors in ERA. We’ve seen center fielder Cedric Mullins and hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scott struggle and sent down despite spending extensive time in Baltimore last year. On the positive side, right-hander Branden Kline has emerged as one of the Orioles’ better relievers of late, but his arrival was facilitated by the bullpen being taxed in April.
After batting a whopping .456 with a 1.395 on-base plus slugging percentage for Triple-A Norfolk in May, Stewart is in the big leagues to hopefully signal the start of the eventual talent pipeline to which Elias has referred as the key to the Orioles’ future. Unlike the many players on the current roster viewed more as placeholders than prospects, Stewart forced his way to the Orioles with a .316 average, 23 extra-base hits, and a 1.010 OPS for the Tides.
“DJ’s definitely earned his way here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Like we told a lot of those guys in their exit meetings in spring training, go down to Triple A with a chip on your shoulder, prove to everybody that you should be in the big leagues, and do everything you can to get back here. And DJ did that.”
It’s no secret the Orioles want players to develop fully in the minor leagues in hopes of staying in the majors when finally promoted, which is why top-10 prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin aren’t being considered for a call-up after only two months at Triple A. That approach is a stark contrast to recent years in which prospects were frequently rushed to the majors and then shuttled back and forth to Norfolk due to poor performance or the roster needs of a contending club. Much like Trey Mancini a few years ago, Stewart has been challenged to master every minor-league level in a more traditional way.
Instead of sulking after his mid-spring demotion, Stewart seized the opportunity to grow as a player and improve upon a pedestrian 2018 season in which he batted .235 and posted a .716 OPS at Norfolk. The Florida State product increased his walk rate from 11 percent to 15 percent, decreased his strikeout rate from 21 percent to 14 percent, and added nearly 200 points to his slugging percentage from a year ago.
Simply put, there was nothing else for him to accomplish in the minors. And even though the recent acquisition of outfielder Keon Broxton made it look like Stewart might be forced to wait even longer, Chris Davis going to the 10-day injured list with a hip injury opened up first base for Trey Mancini and cleared a roster spot for another outfielder.
“You can only control what you can control,” said Stewart, who credits the loosening of his back elbow in his hitting approach for his Triple-A tear. “You’ve got continue to play wherever you’re at. I know that they were watching, and they were just trying to find a way to get me here. It’s nothing against them at all. It’s a business, and they had to find the right opportunity. I’m glad that it happened sooner than later.”
The wait for the next notable call-up after Stewart might be a while. Mullins is batting just .235 for the Tides since the Orioles sent him down in late April. Catcher Chance Sisco entered Tuesday with an .865 OPS for Norfolk, but lingering doubts about his defense and the surprising play of Pedro Severino in Baltimore have seemingly delayed his return to the majors. Outfielder Austin Hays has just gotten back to playing at Double-A Bowie after his late-spring thumb injury and has still never played at the Triple-A level, a reason why he was optioned to the minors despite his strong spring.
That means Stewart will serve as an object of curiosity for the foreseeable future on a club on pace to lose 111 games and needing as much young talent as it can find. The Orioles hope he’ll be the first of many call-ups over the next few years that will be based on merit more than attrition and will result in a permanent stay.
“I want him to play. I want him to not change a thing from what he’s doing at Norfolk,” said Hyde, who plans to rotate Stewart with Broxton, Dwight Smith Jr., and Stevie Wilkerson in the outfield alignment. “Not to put too much pressure on himself, not feel like he has to carry us in any way. I just want him to do what he was doing.
“I think a lot of times what happens is guys come up from Triple A and feel like they have something to prove and try a little too hard. I want to make him as relaxed as possible and make him really comfortable here, and I think we’re going to see good things.”
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With the rebuilding Orioles in last place one quarter of the way through the 2019 season, let’s take a look at what advanced-level prospects are doing at Triple-A Norfolk to try to earn a promotion to the majors:
CF Cedric Mullins Age: 24 2019 numbers: .247/.329/.397, 2 HR, 1 2B, 2 3B, 7 RBI, 5 SB, 13 SO, 9 BB, 84 PA Outlook: Mullins is no longer a prospect in the traditional sense with 265 major league plate appearances since last August, but the Orioles aren’t giving up on the switch-hitting outfielder despite an .094 average in April that prompted his demotion. He was initially swinging the bat well for the Tides, but a .222 May average has cooled momentum for a quick return. Questions have persisted about his ability to swing from the right side against lefty pitching, but Mullins is batting only .189 against right-handers at Triple A this season, further evidence that he has more work to do to straighten himself out. How the organization handles Mullins and the soon-to-be-returning Austin Hays at Norfolk will be interesting to monitor.
C Chance Sisco Age: 24 2019 numbers: .280/.379/.533, 7 HR, 6 2B, 0 3B, 25 RBI, 0 SB, 26 SO, 13 BB, 124 PA Outlook: The left-handed Sisco has hit markedly better than he did at the Triple-A level in 2017 or 2018, but the new regime has placed a premium on defense at the major-league level, an area where doubts persist about the 2013 second-round pick. He continues to catch exclusively for now, but you do wonder if exploring a position change is in order if the organization doesn’t believe his defense will be good enough for the next level. There doesn’t appear to be much more for Sisco to prove with his bat in the minors, but some fear his swing is too long to succeed in the majors after his immense struggles with the Orioles last year.
1B/3B Ryan Mountcastle Age: 22 2019 numbers: .324/.350/.507, 5 HR, 10 2B, 1 3B, 23 RBI, 1 SB, 36 SO, 6 BB, 157 PA Outlook: The 2015 first-round pick has raked at the plate since mid-April to solidify his standing as the best hitting prospect in the organization, especially with Double-A outfielder Yusniel Diaz off to a slow start and currently injured. The power production speaks for itself, but you’d like to see Mountcastle draw more walks, especially as his reputation with the bat grows around baseball. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound infielder is primarily playing first base this season and has good hands despite his poor defensive reputation, which should help in his transition from the left side of the infield. Some believe Mountcastle is ready to hit in the majors now, but the Orioles are in no rush with Chris Davis, Renato Nunez, and Trey Mancini consuming the at-bats at first base and designated hitter for now.
LHP Keegan Akin Age: 24 2019 numbers: 1-1, 4.24 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 2 HR, 34 innings Outlook: The Eastern League’s pitcher of the year and the organization’s minor-league co-pitcher of the year in 2018, Akin isn’t off to the best start at Triple A, but he’s maintained his strikeout rate at a higher level, a good sign for his chances of succeeding in the majors. The lefty throws a low-90s fastball capable of touching 95 or 96 miles per hour and an above-average slider with a solid changeup, a repertoire giving him a chance to be in the back half of the rotation one day. With top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall still pitching for Single-A affiliates and 2018 trade acquisition Dean Kremer just now returning from a spring oblique injury, Akin is Baltimore’s best minor-league pitcher who’s close to being ready for the majors.
LF/RF DJ Stewart Age: 25 2019 numbers: .281/.406/.561, 7 HR, 9 2B, 1 3B, 26 RBI, 4 SB, 21 SO, 24 BB, 144 PA Outlook: After posting an encouraging .890 on-base plus slugging percentage in 47 plate appearances for the Orioles last September, Stewart was optioned to the minors relatively early this spring, which wasn’t much of an endorsement from the new regime. However, he’s done everything you could ask for in his second season at Norfolk with an OPS more than 200 points higher than it was in 2018 and a .500 batting average in May. Stewart would probably be in Baltimore by now if not for the March acquisition of Dwight Smith, who’s been one of the biggest surprises of the young season. With Smith manning left and Mancini primarily playing right field, Stewart doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time in the outfield, but the Orioles are already using Stevie Wilkerson in center over Joey Rickard, who entered Wednesday hitting below the Mendoza line. If for no reason other than to send a positive message to minor-league players, general manager Mike Elias needs to reward Stewart’s play sooner than later.
RHP Luis Ortiz Age: 23 2019 numbers: 1-3, 6.31 ERA, 1.91 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, 3 HR, 25 2/3 innings Outlook: Ranked as the Orioles’ 18th-best prospect by MLB.com, Ortiz is already with his third organization as questions about his weight and conditioning have dogged the 2014 first-round pick since before he was drafted. The right-hander lost weight in the offseason, but his numbers so far this season are erasing any lingering excitement from when he was acquired in the Jonathan Schoop trade last summer. That said, Ortiz is still young enough to figure it out, and the Orioles don’t have many minor-league arms knocking at the door for a major-league call-up.
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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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