Tag Archive | "Mike Elias"

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Orioles’ first 10 rounds reflect new regime, reputation of 2019 draft

Posted on 05 June 2019 by Luke Jones

The first 10 rounds of the 2019 amateur draft have said plenty about the new Orioles regime and reinforced the prevailing reputation of this year’s class.

The selection of Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman first overall was an easy choice needing no interpretation, but general manager Mike Elias taking up-the-middle position players with his next seven picks is quite a shift from the pitching-heavy drafts of recent years under former executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and former director of amateur scouting Gary Rajsich. After drafting pitchers with 22 of their 32 total picks in the first 10 rounds of the previous three drafts, the Orioles didn’t take a pitcher until the eighth round Tuesday and took only two arms — both from college — with their first 11 picks.

Such a ratio would be more unusual if not for the overwhelming perception of this being one of the worst pitching drafts in recent memory as no pitcher was taken in the first six spots for the first time ever. Just 10 of the first 30 picks Monday were pitchers, a sharp departure from the last decade in which 14.5 pitchers were taken with the first 30 choices on average.

No one would describe this farm system as being anywhere close to deep in the pitching department — especially at the advanced levels — but the previous regime’s last few drafts deserve some credit for adding enough talented pitchers to at least make Elias feel better about not reaching for inferior arms over the first two days of the draft. DL Hall, Grayson Rodriguez, Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Blaine Knight, Brenan Hanifee, Michael Baumann, and Drew Rom all currently appear on Baltimore’s MLB.com top 30 prospects list after being drafted from 2016-18 and virtually all are having good 2019 campaigns. Perhaps College of Charleston right-hander Griffin McLarty and VCU righty Connor Gillispie will join that collection of promising talents in the not-too-distant future after being drafted Tuesday.

The lack of pitcher selections doesn’t tell the whole story about the Orioles’ first 11 picks, however.

It’s no coincidence that Elias drafted three shortstops and three center fielders as he’s clearly trying to upgrade the organization’s athleticism. Too often in the past, Baltimore would select corner players lacking positional flexibility, which can lead to questionable team defense and logjams like the one we’ve witnessed at first base for years. You draft an abundance of shortstops having the ability to play other infield spots or even the outfield if necessary. Similarly, a surplus of center-field prospects should provide plenty of plus-defense corner outfielders along the way.

In other words, if you’re going to draft a player already at a corner spot in high school or college, you better believe his bat has a good chance of being special.

Elias also followed the selection of Rutschman by drafting catchers in the sixth and 10th rounds after the Orioles had taken only one backstop in the previous five drafts combined. That’s probably a reflection of the organization’s current minor-league catchers as much as anything else, but you can never have too much depth at such a physically demanding position.

To be clear, none of these ideas are revolutionary concepts among well-run organizations that excel in adding and developing young talent, but it’s refreshing seeing the Orioles value up-the-middle position talent. Of course, we won’t know how well these picks will fare for at least a few years.

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rutschman

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Orioles don’t overthink tabbing Rutschman as new face of their rebuild

Posted on 04 June 2019 by Luke Jones

A switch-hitting catcher with a tricky last name to spell and already used to wearing orange and black.

The Matt Wieters comparisons were made long before the Orioles officially made Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft and the first selection of the Mike Elias era Monday. Wieters didn’t live up to the immense expectations — remember MattWietersFacts.com? — as the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft despite still being a four-time All-Star selection and a two-time Gold Glove winner, but Rutschman being the consensus top pick throughout the pre-draft process and only the sixth catcher ever to be taken first overall speaks to how special the baseball world believes him to be with some going as far as calling him the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper nine years ago.

Not even Wieters’ legend at Georgia Tech included being walked with the bases loaded in an NCAA tournament game like Rutschman was last week. He was also the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s College World Series, giving him an advanced winning pedigree with a national championship under his belt.

Just days after acknowledging the risks of overthinking the No. 1 pick, Elias came to the same conclusion as the many pundits that Rutschman projects as a franchise catcher, an entity so rare in today’s game that it’s become devalued by some. And considering Houston selected a catcher no earlier than the third round in Elias’ tenure helping run its drafts from 2012-18, you can’t accuse the Baltimore executive of overvaluing the position. It’s worth noting, however, that Elias began his scouting career in St. Louis where Yadier Molina has anchored the Cardinals for 15 years and been a major part of two World Series titles and an additional National League championship.

In other words, he’s seen how special a catcher able to impact both sides of the ball can be and believes the 21-year-old Rutschman will be that caliber of player.

“He’s a team leader on and off the field,” said Elias in a statement. “He’s everything you want and he plays a premium defensive position with athleticism that gives him versatility to play elsewhere, as needed. Adley is a future fixture for this organization.

“The amount of work that goes into what he’s done and becoming the No. 1 pick is not something that’s ordinary. I met Adley this winter and was immediately struck by him and impressed by his maturity and leadership.”

Of course, there are no guarantees, especially at a position where careers are historically shorter than at other defensive spots. Perhaps time will prove Bobby Witt Jr. as the better long-term investment, but you must mention misses like Tim Beckham and Matt Bush if you’re going to cite Carlos Correa, Alex Rodriguez, and Chipper Jones as lucrative successes in support of drafting a high school shortstop first overall.

Some have argued Rutschman will develop too rapidly for the rebuilding Orioles to take full advantage of his prime catching years, but the value of having an already-established above-average defensive catcher nurturing young pitchers in the coming years shouldn’t be diminished. A rebuilding team doesn’t just go from really bad to really good overnight, so an asset like Rutschman could aid in the acclimation of young arms to the majors.

“They always talk about how he’s so good at hitting, but I don’t think they understand how good he is behind the plate dealing with pitchers, blocking balls, and throwing guys out,” Orioles infield prospect and former Oregon State teammate Cadyn Grenier said. “Just about everything you could want from a catcher, he does it phenomenally. He’s an amazing teammate. He’s a really hard worker, he’s a lot of fun to be around, he’s really easy to like.”

If Rutschman approaches the territory of Joe Mauer, the last catcher drafted first overall in 2001, Elias and the Orioles will obviously be thrilled, even if he too moves to first base eventually. If the first decade of Rutschman’s career resembles former NL Most Valuable Player and three-time World Series champion Buster Posey, the pick will be a wild success no matter what happens after that.

Even if Rutschman doesn’t reach his ceiling and has a career more comparable to that of Wieters, Elias probably won’t be as devastated as you’d think considering the former Orioles catcher’s 18.3 career wins above replacement rank seventh in the 2007 draft, just two spots lower than where he was originally drafted. We so often evaluate players based only on our initial expectations without considering what the alternatives were at the time. There is no definitive crystal ball, no matter how refined predictive analytics are becoming.

Supporters of any pick will always imagine the best possible outcome while critics of a choice envision the worst-case scenario, but no one can know for sure — including Elias. The truth is even the first overall pick of a draft won’t make or break an entire rebuild, but the Orioles need Rutschman to help speed up the process at the very least.

A catcher going first overall is rare and comes with some risk, but Rutschman may prove special enough to carry the great responsibility of being the new face of the Orioles’ rebuild and a franchise player.

In the end, Elias didn’t overthink that consensus belief.

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sisco

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Sisco recalled by Orioles to begin road trip in Texas

Posted on 03 June 2019 by Luke Jones

On the same day the Orioles took Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman as their catcher of the future with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft, Chance Sisco will have his latest chance to stake his claim to that job in the present.

After optioning catcher Austin Wynns to Triple-A Norfolk after Sunday’s 8-1 loss to San Francisco, Baltimore has recalled Sisco for the start of a road trip to Texas and Houston. The 24-year-old was batting .289 with 20 extra-base hits and a .914 on-base plus slugging percentage in 193 plate appearances with the Tides this season. He joins corner outfielder DJ Stewart as the second Norfolk player to be promoted to the big leagues for strong performance in the last week.

Regarded as a top-100 prospect in baseball as recently as 2018, Sisco struggled mightily in 63 games with the Orioles last season, batting .181 with 66 strikeouts in 184 plate appearances. Those difficulties followed him back to Norfolk where he hit only .242 with a .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances. Most expected the lefty-hitting catcher to make this year’s rebuilding club out of spring training, but Sisco was demoted in late March despite posting a stout 1.298 OPS in the Grapefruit League, his second straight strong spring.

While some concerns remain about a perceived long swing that was seemingly exposed in the majors last season, Sisco’s defense remains his biggest question mark as many have speculated whether he’ll need to shift to another position. He has thrown out just six of 33 runners attempting to steal in the International League this season.

It remains to be seen how manager Brandon Hyde will distribute playing time as the 25-year-old Pedro Severino has been one of the bigger surprises on the team after being claimed off waivers from Washington at the end of spring training. Previously regarded as a defense-first catcher, Severino is batting .273 with 10 extra-base hits and an .834 OPS in 115 plate appearances and has thrown out nine of 15 runners attempting to steal.

In case it weren’t clear, there was no relationship between Sisco’s promotion and the Orioles’ decision to draft Rutschman, the consensus top player in this year’s draft.

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eliaspresser

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First overall pick begins real judgment of Orioles general manager Elias

Posted on 02 June 2019 by Luke Jones

The first six months of Mike Elias’ tenure as Orioles general manager represented the soft opening.

That’s not to say Elias hasn’t been hard at work building the infrastructure of a 21st-century baseball operations department, but the advances in technology and analytics as well as the foundation being laid internationally were prerequisites for his mid-November hiring. Brandon Hyde was a perfectly reasonable choice as manager, but the greatest skippers in baseball history wouldn’t win with this current group, making that decision difficult to evaluate and not all that critical in the present if we’re being honest. Elias’ earliest player acquisitions have brought a predictable mix of modest intrigue (Pedro Severino and Dwight Smith Jr.) and inconsequential failure (Nate Karns and Dan Straily).

The 18-41 start to 2019 has been miserable to watch on a nightly basis, but it was expected for an organization that was reduced to rubble last season. In the long run, the Orioles being on track to secure the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft — they own the majors’ worst record and worst run differential — is a better outcome than a big-league roster lacking meaningful future pieces playing above its capabilities and still being no more than a below-average team while worsening draft position.

The first meaningful judgment of the Elias era begins Monday when the Orioles will make the first overall selection in the amateur draft for just the second time in club history. The top pick is as much symbolic as it is critical for a fan base in need of some light at the end of a dark, cold tunnel of losing. Baltimore will have the first opportunity of the 30 major league clubs to secure a cornerstone player, but we know the volatility of the baseball draft doesn’t discriminate as even model organizations — like Elias’ former team in Houston, for example — are prone to significant misses.

Still, this top pick will undoubtedly begin shaping the 36-year-old executive’s resume away from Jeff Luhnow, whom he worked for in St. Louis and with the Astros.

“I don’t look at it that way at all. It’s a draft. There’s a menu of players at the top of the draft,” said Elias when asked if this first selection would define him. “It’s kind of different every year, so there’s only so much control that I have over who’s available and the type of player it is. But in terms of defining the player having gone first, I do think it’s a really dramatic thing for a player to be the first pick.”

In reality, the potential selection of Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., or even an under-slot curveball like Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday won’t be the be-all and end-all for the rebuilding process or even for the 2019 draft. The Orioles were 28-69 last season before dealing Manny Machado at the All-Star break, which is the only reminder you need that one player — even a great one — means only so much to a team’s fate. It would be more fruitful for Elias to come away with a collection of legitimate prospects over the next few days rather than putting all hope in the chances of the first pick being a generational talent and coming away with nothing else of significance.

For perspective, the 1973 amateur draft brought Hall of Famer Eddie Murray (third round) and 1979 Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan (seventh round) despite first-round pick Mike Parrott appearing in only three games for the Orioles. In 1978, Baltimore drafted Hall of Famer Cal Ripken (second round) and future 20-game winner Mike Boddicker (sixth round) despite first-round pick Robert Boyce never advancing beyond Single A. In other words, as much as Elias and the Orioles want to nail the first pick, there are multiple paths to a fruitful draft with thorough scouting, savvy use of data, and some luck along the way.

It remains to be seen whether the top pick will indeed be Rutschman, the overwhelming consensus choice among draft pundits. Some pointing to the expected lengthy timeline of the Orioles’ rebuild have argued Witt as the better choice when factoring his age and the projected longevity of a shortstop compared to a catcher. Others wonder if Elias might try to duplicate the strategy of the 2012 draft in which the Astros surprisingly drafted future All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, signed him well below slot, and used the savings in their bonus pool to sign a few more high-school talents who were otherwise prepared to go to college.

Viewed as one of the better young minds in the game long before coming to Baltimore, Elias was hired for this very moment, which is why his decision should be trusted. Naturally, it won’t take long for the second-guessing to begin if the player he selects struggles and the talent on which he passes pops quickly for other clubs, but that’s just the nature of the business.

Fans suffering through another miserable season will dream of the Orioles selecting their next Hall of Famer Monday night, but there are no guarantees. Plenty of “can’t miss” prospects turned out to be busts while some of the game’s greatest players were passed up multiple times by every team, making the rest of the draft that much more important.

But this first pick will be the first decision on which Elias is really judged, even if he doesn’t want to overstate its significance to the big picture.

“There’s different ways of looking at it, and you would be surprised when you get into a draft room and you have 30 people weighing in, the lack of consensus that can occur,” Elias said. “We hear all about how we think about things. We probably overthink about things too much, but it’s a big decision, so we’ll do the best we can.”

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stewart

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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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New York Mets' Keon Broxton takes a lead during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Orioles acquire veteran outfielder Keon Broxton from Mets

Posted on 22 May 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Having already given three different players 14 or more starts in center field this season, the Orioles added another option to the organizational mix Wednesday.

Baltimore acquired Keon Broxton from the New York Mets in exchange for international signing bonus slots after the 29-year-old was designated for assignment last week. He was batting just .143 with 22 strikeouts in 53 plate appearances for the Mets and had expressed disenchantment over his lack of playing time.

In parts of five major league seasons and 851 plate appearances, Broxton owns a career .216 average, but his best production came with Milwaukee when he batted .220 with 20 home runs and 21 stolen bases two years ago and posted a career-best .784 on-base plus slugging percentage in 244 plate appearances in 2016. He’s also registered 13 defensive runs saved playing center field in his career, but his career 36.9 percent strikeout rate is higher than Chris Davis’ (32.6 percent), a clear factor that’s prevented him from establishing himself as an everyday player.

“We had our eye on him,” general manager Mike Elias said. “Speed, excellent center-field ability, he’s got some raw power. He hasn’t gotten a lot of consistent playing time — certainly not this year and even in the past year. But two years ago, he put together a pretty good campaign for Milwaukee.

“We’re trying some different things in center field, and we wanted to give him a look and hopefully give him a little bit more extended time than he’s had. We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The Orioles have received surprising play from Stevie Wilkerson in center, who’s handled the position adequately in recent weeks despite having never played there before this season. Broxton’s arrival could allow Wilkerson to slide into more of a utility role, but his .783 OPS entering Wednesday’s game is among the best on the club and will make it difficult for manager Brandon Hyde to keep his name out of the everyday lineup.

Cedric Mullins began the season as the starting center fielder before a 6-for-64 start led to his demotion to Triple-A Norfolk where he has continued to struggle at the plate. Joey Rickard has also received 14 starts in center for Baltimore, but a .198 batting average hasn’t helped his case for regular playing time.

The acquisition of Broxton could impact the promotion timetable for Norfolk corner outfielder DJ Stewart, who has batted .435 with five home runs, 23 runs batted in, and a 1.439 OPS in May. The 25-year-old and 2015 first-round pick has caught the organization’s attention with his .962 OPS this season, but he may need to wait a little longer to be recalled.

“We have two corner outfielders up here with [Trey] Mancini and [Dwight] Smith who are doing great, so it’s just hard to find an easy way to get him here,” Elias said. “But we would love to have him join this team, and I’m hopeful that we can figure out a way to do that on the sooner side.”

It remains to be seen how the Orioles will make room for Broxton on the 25-man-roster, but Rickard does have minor-league options remaining. Baltimore moved right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb to the 60-day injured list and designated right-hander Yefry Ramirez for assignment Wednesday to clear spots on the 40-man roster for Broxton and right-hander Chandler Shepherd, who was claimed off waivers from the Chicago Cubs and optioned to Norfolk.

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stewart

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

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Twelve Orioles thoughts approaching mid-May

Posted on 10 May 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nine notable Orioles numbers at end of April

Posted on 01 May 2019 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

.333 — winning percentage

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

73 — home runs allowed

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

7.56 — strikeouts per nine innings

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

6.67 — Dylan Bundy’s ERA

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

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

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

Minus-15 — defensive runs saved

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

14 — stolen bases

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

1 — intentional walks issued 

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

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Orioles send struggling Mullins to Triple-A Norfolk

Posted on 22 April 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Viewed as the hopeful heir apparent to former Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, the struggling Cedric Mullins was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk prior to Monday’s series opener against the Chicago White Sox.

The 24-year-old Mullins was hitting just .094 with four runs batted in, a stolen base, and two triples in 74 plate appearances this season and owned just two hits — both singles — in his last 40 at-bats since his two-triple game against Oakland on April 8. Mullins batted an impressive .317 over his first 72 plate appearances upon making his major league debut last August, but he holds a .152 batting average over his last 193 major league plate appearances dating back to last Sept. 1, which was concerning enough to warrant a demotion. The switch-hitting center fielder also struggled at the plate this spring, hitting just .160 in 59 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League.

Mullins didn’t start Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Minnesota and rolled out weakly to first base in his only at-bat in the eighth inning, showing some frustration as he crossed the bag and jogged back to the dugout. Backup catcher Pedro Severino batted for him an inning later with the bases loaded and the Orioles trailing by one run with two outs.

“Cedric’s off to kind of a tough start offensively,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We love the way he was playing defense; he’s really contributed defensively. We just felt like, from a confidence standpoint, we’d like to see him go down there, work on some things, get some more at-bats. Mainly, he’s been scuffling, and he’s a big part of our club going forward and the future. We want to see him have success. We thought the best thing for him was to go down there, kind of ‘clean-slate’ the season, work on a few things offensively, and hopefully come back up here soon.”

Mullins entered the season facing questions about his ability to hit from the right side of the plate after struggling against southpaw pitching throughout his minor-league career, but Hyde wants to see him get more at-bats from both sides of the plate with the Tides as he started only four games against left-handed pitchers this season and went 1-for-15 against lefties. A 13th-round pick in the 2015 draft, Mullins was batting .102 in 56 plate appearances against right-handers this season, making the previous doubts about his right-handed swing seem trivial in comparison.

There have also been some long-term questions about the strength of Mullins’ throwing arm, leaving many to wonder if he’ll eventually slide to left field or settle into a role as a fourth outfielder. In the spring, both Hyde and general manager Mike Elias commented on the possibility of outfield prospect Austin Hays eventually playing center field in Baltimore before he was optioned to Norfolk, which wasn’t exactly interpreted by some as a ringing endorsement for Mullins. Of course, Hays is still recovering from a thumb injury suffered late in minor-league spring training.

Mullins’ demotion is a frustrating reminder that prospects often don’t develop on a linear path after he entered the season as one of only a few on the current roster seemingly having a good chance to last through a lengthy rebuilding process in Baltimore. That’s not to say Mullins won’t still develop into an effective everyday player, but his struggles are only one example of what’s sure to be at least a few speed bumps along the Orioles’ road back to respectability and contention.

“This is a tough game, and this game can beat you up,” Hyde said. “When you don’t have maybe the major league experience and the confidence or something to go to where you can look back and say, ‘This is how I dealt with it at this time in my career,’ I think there’s a lot of pressure that you put on yourself that you want to succeed.

“There are a lot of great players that have been sent back to Triple A — a lot of great players. That’s part of the game, and that’s just part of your development and learning to deal with adversity and fighting through tough times and maybe going down there to recharge and restart something, figure something out, go back to something that worked, and then come back up here and hopefully have a long career.”

It’s worth noting Mullins had only 269 plate appearances for Norfolk before making his major league debut, which would have likely clashed with the deliberate focus Elias has placed on player development so far with both Hays and catcher Chance Sisco being sent to Norfolk despite strong spring performances and previous major league experience. Mullins batted .269 with six home runs, 17 doubles, three triples, 19 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, and a .771 OPS for the Tides last season before being called up to the majors, numbers not so great to suggest he couldn’t benefit from some more seasoning.

The Orioles selected the contract of utility player Stevie Wilkerson from Norfolk to take Mullins’ place on the 25-man roster. Hyde said he could see some playing time in center field along with veteran Joey Rickard, who started at that position Monday night.

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