With the Orioles off to an 8-12 start after their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:
1. The Orioles entered Friday with the majors’ third-worst run differential — defending World Series champion Boston was shockingly second worst — but a 3-4 trip left them a respectable 7-6 road record. The 2018 club had 19 away wins all season. A roster overmatched on paper nightly has played with good energy.
2. Credit Baltimore for getting off the mat to win in extra innings Thursday, but that doesn’t wipe away the bullpen squandering a 5-2 lead with five outs to go. Orioles relievers have allowed seven more homers than any other team in baseball. Who can you really trust out there?
3. The top answer could be John Means if he doesn’t settle into the rotation. The lefty will fill a hybrid role for the time being with Alex Cobb returning, but a 1.72 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings have made him fun to watch in whatever capacity he’s pitched.
4. I’m glad to no longer be tracking a historic hitless streak for Chris Davis, but we’re a long way from suggesting he’s made meaningful improvement. I will note his average exit velocity (91.1 mph) is the best it’s been since 2015, but we’re talking about a very small sample size.
5. An 0-for-5 Thursday dropped Cedric Mullins to an .089 batting average. Patience is warranted and he’s defended well in center, but you wonder how hard a healthy Austin Hays — who’s just beginning a hitting progression after recovering from the thumb injury — might have been knocking at the door.
6. The Orioles own only two starts of six innings or more so far this season. It’s fair mentioning the handful of times they’ve used someone who wasn’t fully stretched out as a starter, but that still doesn’t say much for veterans like Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy.
7. Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino have combined to hit barely above the Mendoza line, but the catchers have thrown out eight of 13 runners attempting to steal this season. I would like to see Severino receive a few more opportunities since he’s five years younger.
8. Trey Mancini has been far and away Baltimore’s best hitter, but Dwight Smith Jr. has been the biggest surprise so far as he’s shown some power with a .474 slugging percentage and gone 9-for-24 with four extra-base hits against lefties. He has a nice swing.
9. After a slow start at Triple-A Norfolk, Ryan Mountcastle has homered in three of his last four games and has received all but two of his starts in the field at first base. His development is the most relevant baseball-related factor in the Davis saga at this point.
10. In his first three starts for Single-A Delmarva, 19-year-old Grayson Rodriguez has pitched to a 0.54 ERA and struck out 28 batters in 16 2/3 innings. I suppose that’s not too shabby for the 2018 first-round pick.
11. Brian Roberts has been impressive as a color analyst on MASN, especially considering his limited experience in the role. He clearly does his homework and presents those insights in an entertaining way. I’d like to hear more of him on broadcasts.
12. This FanGraphs article offered a look at Brandon Hyde, his daily routine, and how he interacts with Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal. It’s also a reminder the infrastructure of baseball operations is far from complete as the manager notes the current size of the front office and analytics department.
With the Orioles having lost seven of eight before embarking on their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:
1. Chris Davis’ record hitless streak is national news, but allowing 37 home runs in 13 games borders on the unthinkable. No other team entered Friday surrendering more than 26. The major league record for a season is 258 allowed by Cincinnati in 2016; Baltimore’s current pace is 461.
2. Watching Dylan Bundy strike out five — four on sliders — and not allow a hit the first time through the order before giving up four home runs Thursday makes you wonder if he’s better suited to relieve. It could help an average fastball velocity that’s down to 90.8 miles per hour.
3. Miguel Castro has never missed as many bats as you’d expect despite a mid-90s fastball and a slider that’s often shown good movement, but he’s been a mess so far. After posting a solid 3.77 ERA the previous two years, Castro should have been ready to graduate rather than regress.
4. There was never a guarantee Richard Bleier would be ready for the start of 2019 following last June’s lat surgery, so sending him to the injured list with shoulder tendinitis is the responsible move. He and that sinker that sparked a 1.97 ERA the last three seasons clearly weren’t right.
5. Brandon Hyde expressed optimism about Alex Cobb’s back issue not lingering beyond the 10-day minimum, but even a rebuilding club still needs starters to eat innings and provide stability. Especially with a contract that will be difficult to move, Cobb needs to be a big part of that.
6. Many expected Mychal Givens to be the closer, but Hyde said he “wants to use Mike when the game’s on the line,” whether that’s the ninth inning or sooner. It’s a refreshing stance, especially for a club without the options to have a paint-by-numbers bullpen like Buck Showalter enjoyed.
7. Even having pitched his first two games as an “opener” and being on a schedule, Nate Karns showed diminished velocity in each of his outings before going to the IL with forearm tightness. You hope for the best, but his injury history is why he was available for $800,000.
8. Paul Fry has been the Orioles’ best reliever so far with a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings and the highest game-entering leverage index on the team, an indication of the kind of game situations in which Hyde has used the lefty. He was a nice find by Dan Duquette.
9. Despite the apparent Houston influence from Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal that has Andrew Cashner throwing more sliders and fewer fastballs, his swinging-strike percentage has decreased from last year. The veteran just isn’t missing bats, which makes it much more challenging to succeed.
10. John Means pitched into some bad luck in his first start, but he’s been a pleasant surprise early, especially with a changeup that’s fetched 18 swinging strikes out of the 73 times he’s thrown it. Hyde wants to give him more starting opportunities.
12. If the intention behind optioning Tanner Scott to Triple-A Norfolk after a poor spring was to make him succeed at that level after he originally went from Double A to the majors, recalling him after just two appearances for the Tides didn’t seem to make much sense.
Orioles first baseman Chris Davis hit one “right on the screws” in the eighth inning of Saturday’s loss, as manager Brandon Hyde described it.
After quickly falling behind 0-2, Davis fouled off two mid-90s fastballs from New York Yankees reliever Chad Green and took two pitches to work the count even. It was a competitive at-bat that ended with him making hard contact, regardless of the unsuccessful outcome.
That we’re breaking down a routine grounder to the first baseman in the eighth game of the season, however, illustrates how extraordinary this problem has become with someone in the midst of a seven-year, $161 million contract running through 2022. Davis concluded Sunday hitless in his first 27 plate appearances of 2019 and is now 0-for-44 since collecting his last hit last Sept. 14. That leaves him two at-bats shy of the longest hitless streak by a non-pitcher in major league history, set by Eugenio Velez from 2010-11.
But this story is no longer about futility records or punchlines, though they will certainly persist in the foreseeable future. This isn’t a “slump” or something easily explained by the simplistic theories we’ve all heard or discussed at times, ranging from the effects of infield shifting to the aftermath of Davis’ 2014 suspension for Adderall use. It isn’t a debate about whether fans paying big-league prices should boo their own players, though we do need to remember this is still a human being when the criticisms turn too personal.
This situation grows more uncomfortable by the day with Davis’ historic fall from being a useful major league player contrasting with an Orioles club focused solely on the future. That was never more evident than in the home opener when Davis struck out three times — the boos intensifying with each one — and was replaced by Hanser Alberto in his final scheduled at-bat. The utility infielder sporting a career .489 on-base plus slugging percentage — worse than Davis’ .539 mark last year — received a rousing ovation simply because he was someone else stepping to the plate.
Even the loudest critics of the Davis contract three years ago never predicted it going this poorly this soon, but to continue this partnership much longer in its current state is unfair to virtually everyone involved.
With Davis still owed more than $100 million when accounting for deferred money, the hope was a new analytic-minded front office and coaching staff might be able to help him make the adjustments to become a passable major leaguer again like he was as late as 2017. In 44 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League against various levels of pitching, however, Davis batted .189 with three home runs and 19 strikeouts. So far, he’s struck out in nearly half of his plate appearances in the regular season.
Manager Brandon Hyde continues preaching patience and is doing his best to note positives, but it’s evident the new regime is already handling Davis differently as he batted seventh, was benched against two lefty starters, and was pinch-hit for two other times over the first nine games. The 33-year-old didn’t start on Saturday despite owning nearly twice as many career homers as the entire Baltimore starting lineup combined.
“Chris is on the team, and we’re going to support Chris like I support everybody else,” Hyde said. “I feel like I have a really good relationship with Chris and I’m behind Chris. I know our coaching staff is as well, and I couldn’t be happier for what he’s put in so far this year and how he’s gone about his business. It just hasn’t happened yet. From spring training, he really has been focused to improve. He’s been a team guy, done unbelievable in defensive drills, has worked really good with the hitting coaches. He’s been present every single day and is a nice voice in our clubhouse. He’s just off to a slow start. And I’m going to support him, and I’m not going to stop supporting him. He’s one of 25 guys that I’m going to be positive with, and I want to believe he’s going to turn it around.”
As much as general manager Mike Elias and Hyde wanted to take a clean-slate approach with incumbents and wouldn’t draw any conclusions based solely on 27 plate appearances so far this season, no one can ignore Davis’ rapid decline since 2016. Even breaking the nightmare body of work into smaller pieces for signs of short-term success, Davis hasn’t produced a single month with an OPS above .800 since May of 2017. The last time he produced an OPS above .750 — a decent mark at best — was August of 2017. Since then, his best month has been a .695 OPS last July that was buoyed by six home runs and still accompanied by a .169 average.
So far in 2019, Davis is striking out more frequently than ever, making less contact than ever, and swinging less frequently than ever. Small sample sizes, yes, but part of a much larger historic decline showing no evidence of changing course for the better.
That brings us to ownership and what the endgame is with Davis remaining on a rebuilding club at this point. Even if he magically rediscovers his stroke, there isn’t a single club who would take as much as a phone call about a trade involving Davis, and his contract will be expiring right around the time the Orioles realistically hope to be competitive again. Hyde’s comments reflect favorably on Davis’ character, but it’s a hard sell to get anyone to buy into what the Orioles are doing for the long haul if Davis continues to play and remains on the roster without substantial improvement sooner than later. You can only imagine how such intense failure impacts any individual and their personality, leaving one to wonder if that would be the healthiest environment for younger players try to find their way.
The greatest of cynics might even suggest this situation could become a game of “chicken” in which the Orioles hope Davis will grow so despondent and humiliated from failure that he’ll quit, which would allow the organization to recover money. But remember we’re talking about a human being — albeit a highly-paid one — whom the Orioles were never forced to sign to a guaranteed contract three years ago. Davis is far from perfect and deserves great criticism for his play, but you don’t get to the point he did in his career without caring about your craft, even if not always taking the proper steps.
As various theories will continue to be discussed, it becomes more likely that his once-impressive talents simply aren’t there anymore, especially if a front office with new information and technology and a new coaching staff with fresh eyes and ideas can’t help him make any improvement. To deliberately prolong that reality in hopes of “breaking” him would be wrong.
Ultimately, this is a decision falling at the feet of Louis and John Angelos as there isn’t a general manager in professional sports who’d be able to jettison a player still owed nine figures without ownership’s approval. The Angelos sons made excellent hires in luring Elias and analytics guru Sig Mejdal away from Houston, but their next test will be how much longer they allow the Davis saga to play out.
The organization having the conviction to want to give him a little more time in a new season to try to figure it out is fine, but his start makes the need for a long-term plan and exit strategy that much more urgent, especially with legitimate prospect Ryan Mountcastle now playing first base at Triple-A Norfolk. The Orioles shifting Trey Mancini to a corner outfield spot these last couple of years is one thing, but Davis also hindering Mountcastle’s development would add organizational malpractice to an already-painful sunk cost.
Whether a long-term stint on the injured list for Davis to try to rebuild his swing in Sarasota or an outright release by a certain date is in the cards, the Orioles can no longer just sit back and assume — or even pray — this will get better.
How fans already being asked to endure a lengthy rebuild reacted in the first home game of the season made it evident how uncomfortable this has become for everyone.
The Orioles have added an established veteran to their rotation with the signing of former Miami starting pitcher Dan Straily to a one-year contract.
The 30-year-old was released by the Marlins in a cost-cutting move on March 25 and owns a career 4.23 ERA in 142 major league appearances, 132 of them starts. Straily went 5-6 with a 4.12 ERA and averaged 7.3 strikeouts and 3.8 walks per nine innings in 23 starts spanning 122 1/3 innings last season. In addition to beginning his career with Oakland and spending time with Cincinnati over seven major league seasons, Straily also pitched for the Chicago Cubs and Houston, giving him some familiarity with Orioles manager Brandon Hyde and general manager Mike Elias.
Straily figures to eventually settle into a rotation spot with the current quartet of Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, and David Hess. Baltimore has already pitched two bullpen games this season with Cobb having a short stint on the injured list and Mike Wright working in a relief role. Nate Karns has started each of those two games as an “opener.”
To make room for Straily on the 25-man roster, the Orioles have designated Rule 5 utility player Drew Jackson for assignment. The 25-year-old had impressed the organization with his defensive versatility and batted .327 in the Grapefruit League, but Elias prefers going to a 13-man pitching staff for the time being and cited the difficulty in carrying Rule 5 players on the active roster all season. Jackson was 0-for-3 with a walk in limited playing time so far this season.
Jackson is the second Rule 5 pick Elias has jettisoned from the roster in the opening week of the season, which is a stark contrast from the previous regime’s obsession with Rule 5 players that was so frequently detrimental and not exactly fruitful for contending clubs. Right-handed reliever Pedro Araujo was designated for assignment earlier this week, but the Orioles announced they reacquired his rights from the Cubs for international signing bonus slots and assigned him to Double-A Bowie.
The Orioles won’t satisfy relief pitcher Pedro Araujo’s remaining Rule 5 requirement as the 25-year-old was designated for assignment prior to Wednesday’s series finale in Toronto.
The right-hander could have been optioned to the minor leagues by mid-April, but general manager Mike Elias instead chose to remove Araujo from the 40-man roster to make room for Triple-A Norfolk right-hander Matt Wotherspoon and give the Orioles more length in the bullpen. Araujo had appeared in only one game this season, surrendering a two-run home run and recording only two outs in Monday’s win over the Blue Jays.
Selected by former executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette in the Rule 5 draft preceding the 2018 season, Araujo had shown a lively arm, but Wednesday’s news was a clear indication that Elias didn’t have the same lofty opinion of him. Araujo missed much of last season with an elbow injury, which prevented from serving the requisite number of days on the active roster, rolling over his Rule 5 status to the start of this season. He posted a 7.71 ERA and averaged 9.3 strikeouts and 5.8 walks per nine innings in 28 frames.
Araujo will now be placed on waivers and would be offered back to his original organization — the Chicago Cubs — if he goes unclaimed by another club.
Wotherspoon, 27, had yet to make his major league debut and was acquired from the New York Yankees in 2017. He posted a 4.60 ERA in 94 innings for the Tides last season. His stay on the 25-man roster could be brief with veteran starting pitcher Alex Cobb set to come off the injured list on Thursday to start Baltimore’s home opener.
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With the Orioles suffering a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees to begin the 2019 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Last year brought the joy of a walk-off win on Opening Day and hope before the soon-to-follow revelation of the Orioles being the worst team in baseball. There would be no falsehood of optimism this time with Luke Voit’s blast giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the opening inning.
2. File “an Oriole runner being struck by a batted ball to end the first half-inning of 2019” into the category of stuff you just couldn’t make up when pondering what this season was going to look like.
3. It was a disappointing day for Andrew Cashner in his second career Opening Day start — the other with San Diego — as he lasted only four innings. Brandon Hyde needs his veterans to at least eat innings if this pitching staff is going to survive on even a functional level.
4. If you’re looking for a sign of the Houston analytics influence, Cashner threw fastballs 45.3 percent of the time, a lower percentage than in any 2018 start, and used sliders 32 percent of the time, a higher mark than in any 2018 outing. You still have to execute, of course.
5. Fourteen of the first 17 pitches thrown by the Orioles in the fifth inning were balls, leading to two more runs. They issued eight walks and hit a batter in the season opener. Then again, I’d probably walk everyone too if I had to face that Yankees lineup.
6. Trey Mancini was a rare bright spot with two infield hits and a run-scoring double that chased New York starter Masahiro Tanaka with two outs in the sixth. Mancini accounted for half of Baltimore’s six hits off Tanaka.
7. Striking out three times was the last way Chris Davis wanted to start 2019, but Hyde batting him seventh and removing him for a pinch hitter couldn’t signal any louder a new brain trust being in town. He batted seventh — and never lower — only 18 times last year.
8. The off-day helps, but Hyde using David Hess — Monday’s expected starter in Toronto — behind Cashner and Mike Wright seems less than ideal with Alex Cobb already on the injured list until next Thursday. I suspect the Norfolk shuttle will be as busy as ever sooner than later.
9. Richie Martin looked smooth defensively at shortstop, but late-spring struggles resulted in him finishing with a .582 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League. Some patience is definitely warranted for someone who had never played above the Double-A level until now.
10. Mike Elias joining the MASN telecast for a lengthy conversation was a good decision and one the Orioles should repeat as often as possible with the current state of the major league club. Without compromising ideas, he offered insight on the big picture and what’s going on behind the scenes.
11. If Elias is able to eventually build a championship club, will we look back on the 2019 opener and see a keeper or two in such an anonymous group or merely look at these names in the way we remember the likes of Pete Stanicek, Jay Tibbs, and Rick Schu?
12. The Orioles lost their first opener since 2010, the last time they were managed by someone other than Buck Showalter. That’s no knock on Hyde, but it’s a nod to the man who was at the helm for an enjoyable run that’s not erased solely because of last year.
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With a new season upon us, here are nine questions on the rebuilding Orioles entering the 2019 campaign:
Will the Orioles be even worse than last year?
Their 115 losses last season set a club record and were the fourth most in the majors since 1900, but the Orioles now begin 2019 without Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach, who all began 2018 with the organization and made meaningful contributions to previous playoff runs. Of the four other clubs to lose 115 games in a season since 1900, all won at least 11 more games the following year and only the 1962 Mets suffered triple-digit losses again. In other words, the probability of the Orioles plummeting to the same level of ineptitude remains low with many projection models forecasting somewhere between 98 and 105 losses. Still, looking at that Opening Day roster reminds you of those early scenes in Major League, doesn’t it?
How will manager Brandon Hyde handle his first season?
The former Chicago Cubs bench coach received positive reviews in his first spring camp for creating an upbeat and efficient working environment, but now the games count and the dark shadow of losing lingers. No one expects Hyde to be a miracle worker with a club that wasn’t constructed with any intention to contend, but how he handles a young clubhouse and how hard players compete on a nightly basis will reflect on his managing acumen more so than the AL East standings. The 45-year-old knew what he was getting into when he accepted this job in December and understands the organization’s focus on the big picture, but the reality of a long season is upon him. No matter how ugly it might get, the Orioles still have to show up and play the games.
Who will begin — or continue to — establish himself as a piece for the long run?
The late-spring demotions of catcher Chance Sisco, outfielder Austin Hays, and lefty reliever Tanner Scott took much of the air out of this balloon for fans desperate to at least watch interesting prospects in what’s expected to be a losing season, but Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins certainly stand out on a 25-man roster consisting mostly of fringe placeholders and veterans likely to be long gone before Baltimore’s next competitive window opens. With so many changes over the last year, we forget Mancini has just two full seasons under his belt as he tries to find more consistency after a rough first half in 2018. Meanwhile, Mullins opens 2019 as the starting center fielder, but Hyde and general manager Mike Elias have shared the potential they see in Hays as an eventual center fielder, which should serve as motivation for the incumbent. There are fair questions about his throwing arm and ability to hit from the right side, but the switch-hitting Mullins will have his opportunities to establish himself as an everyday player this season. Though not exactly prospects, Miguel Castro, David Hess, and Jimmy Yacabonis are under-the-radar pitchers who could benefit from the analytical advances introduced by the new regime.
Which veterans will play well enough to become trade chips?
The reward for guys like Jonathan Villar, Andrew Cashner, Nate Karns, and Mark Trumbo having good seasons is a likely ticket out of Baltimore as Elias aims to add more talent in the farm system. That’s just reality in the early stages of a rebuild, regardless of how much an organization might say it values veteran leadership. The cases of Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens will be more interesting to monitor as they’re both under club control through 2021 and would carry more trade value than the aforementioned names if they can rebound from their underwhelming 2018 performance levels. Some might add Alex Cobb to the list of potential trade chips, but the 31-year-old would have to pitch exceptionally well for another club to be willing to commit to the additional $29 million he’s owed beyond 2019.
What will happen with Chris Davis?
We’re all aware of the historic nightmare that was last season for the 33-year-old first baseman, but where does the new Orioles regime go from here with a player who is still owed $92 million over the next four seasons and will be collecting deferred money long after that? Davis fared a little better late in the spring, but he still batted .189 with 19 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League. It will be interesting to see where Hyde uses him in the batting order – Davis batted third or fourth for much of the spring before dropping to sixth in Monday’s finale – or how long he sticks with him as a starter if he looks like the same guy from last year. Everyone hopes a new front office and coaching staff can salvage some semblance of value, but the Angelos brothers will be the ones to make the ultimate call on Davis’ status if he’s no better this year. It’s one thing to talk about Davis as a sunk cost on a losing club, but Mancini has already been pushed to left field and a strong 2019 from Mountcastle — who worked extensively at first base this spring — will have him knocking on the major-league door. You don’t want Davis blocking other young players ready for the majors.
How will the Rule 5 picks fare?
The Orioles will enter a season with three Rule 5 picks on the roster for a second straight year as reliever Pedro Araujo has a couple more weeks to go to fulfill his requirement in the majors and new Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson both made the team. It appears Martin will begin the year as the starting shortstop despite a difficult finish to spring training while Jackson was used in a super utility role this spring. A rebuilding club desperate for more talent is smart to carry promising Rule 5 picks, but let’s hope the practice brings more value than it did for Dan Duquette. For all the roster headaches and shorthanded situations the Orioles endured carrying Rule 5 players while trying to contend from 2012-18, those players netted a total of 1.1 wins above replacement in their time with the organization.
When will more interesting prospects be arriving in Baltimore?
Aside from Sisco and Scott, Hays appeared to be the next prospect on the cusp of the majors before spraining his thumb over the weekend. Beyond that trio, many fans will follow how Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle fare at Triple-A Norfolk with hopes of them making their major league debut later this season. Of course, how Elias handled Sisco, Scott, and Hays – three prospects already having major league experience – should make everyone take pause about the development timeline for any prospects at this point. The Orioles are prioritizing player development over attempts to squeeze out a couple more wins at the major league level or to appease fans hoping to watch more exciting young players. That said, other names acquired in last year’s deadline deals – many of whom already made cameos in Baltimore — appear likely to show up at some point this season. Lefty Keegan Akin, a 2016 second-round pick, and 23-year-old right-hander Dean Kremer, acquired in the Manny Machado trade, are two starting pitchers to monitor in the high minor leagues.
How much innovation and experimentation will we see from a club with nothing to lose?
Entering a season with expectations lower than they’ve been at any point in the history of the franchise, the rebuilding Orioles should embrace the opportunity to innovate and experiment, making it refreshing to hear Hyde reveal plans to use an opener in the second game of the season against the New York Yankees. Why not dive even deeper into infield and outfield positioning and explore new ideas for pitch sequencing, bullpen usage, and batting orders? Why lose with conventional practices when you can at least explore some new ideas and theories contenders might be afraid to try? Perhaps the Orioles even discover an edge or two that might help in the future when they’re ready to contend again. Much of this work with technology and analytics will remain behind the scenes, of course, but any new ideas making their way to the field will be interesting.
What will attendance look like at Camden Yards?
Asked to give his pitch for why fans should still come to the ballpark this season, Elias offered the following on Tuesday:
“We’re doing things the right way, the way that they need to be done. The end goal here is not to try to cobble together a one-year-wonder .500 club that could be a disaster if it doesn’t work out right and then we spend a few years digging out of that hole. We want to put together a perennial contending organization. And we’re initiating that process. We know how to do it. We’re going about it the way that we need to go about it. In the meantime, there’s going to be young talent on the field. These guys are going to be hustling, playing hard. There are going to be ‘tools’ as we say in the scouting world — big talent out there — that we can watch. And we’re in a wonderful baseball environment here in Camden Yards and here in the Inner Harbor. You come appreciate the sport and see some good baseball and watch this team grow.”
While I agree with those sentiments, expecting fans to pay major-league prices to watch a rebuilding team is a lot to ask, especially with attendance having already fallen annually since 2014 when the club was coming off a 96-win season and still in the midst of its competitive window. The Orioles ranked 26th in the majors in average attendance (20,053 per game) last year despite there being some hope of contending entering 2018. To be clear, no one should be crying the blues for an organization that’s cut its payroll in half over the last 18 months, but an empty Camden Yards hurts nearby businesses and seasonal stadium workers. The “Kids Cheer Free” initiative is a positive step that will be continued this year, but more ticket deals, promotions, and imagination are required if the Orioles hope to draw people to watch an inferior on-field product.
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Orioles catching prospect Chance Sisco had a heck of a spring.
But despite leading the club with a stout 1.298 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, the 24-year-old was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday. General manager Mike Elias and the Orioles now appear set to head north with the duo of Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino, two defensive-minded catchers who’ve shown little offensive ability in their major league experiences.
The decision was met with scrutiny from those citing the organization’s declaration of open competition this spring or fans merely wanting what’s shaping up to be another difficult season to be more compelling. The latter sentiment is perfectly understandable with the Orioles still charging major-league prices for a club that doesn’t look dramatically different than it did at the conclusion of a franchise-worst 115-loss campaign last fall. The idea of a full-scale rebuild clashes with the reality of the Orioles ultimately being an entertainment business still trying to sell tickets to 81 home games this year.
Finding compelling reasons to go to the ballpark beyond an unconditional love for the Orioles, an attractive giveaway night, or wanting to cheer on the few interesting players who might still be around a few years from now isn’t easy.
That said, we shouldn’t forget Sisco also posted a 1.274 OPS last spring to win a spot on the Opening Day roster to split time with veteran Caleb Joseph. In 184 plate appearances in the regular season, he batted .181 with a strikeout rate only a hair better than Chris Davis’ and ranking among the worst 10 in baseball among those with at least 150 plate appearances. That’s not even considering the questions about his defense that have surrounded Sisco since being selected in the second round of the 2013 amateur draft.
You always prefer good numbers over poor statistics in the spring, but how much do small sample sizes — which are problematic enough in the regular season — really mean when spring box scores are littered with competitors having no chance of playing in the majors this season? As Elias has noted more than once, there is more predictive power from minor-league regular-season numbers than with performance in spring training.
Despite formerly being ranked a top-100 prospect in baseball, Sisco owns a career .260 average with a .733 OPS in 557 plate appearances at Norfolk. Those sound like solid numbers for a catcher, but they’re not impressive enough to confidently predict major league success or to overlook the concerns about his ability behind the plate, a factor to consider even more with such a young pitching staff in Baltimore. It’s clear Elias and the organization believe there’s unfinished business for Sisco to complete in the minors, and that’s all that should matter for the Orioles now.
The sense of “competition” isn’t as much about Sisco being a better present-day option than Sucre or Severino in the majors — which is still debatable when you factor in defense — than it is about him meeting benchmarks that will improve his chances of being a successful major leaguer, something he wasn’t last year. It’s where the intersection of player development and analytics come into the picture to use coaching methods as well as technology and data to chart out a path to success. As their track record in player development reflects in Houston, Elias and assistant general manager and analytics guru Sig Mejdal deserve trust in assessing someone who’s hardly considered to be a slam-dunk prospect anyway.
To be clear, none of this is a knock on Sisco as the same principles hold true for the likes of hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott and outfielder Austin Hays, who have also spent time in the majors. These are individuals who were rushed to the major leagues by the previous regime before completing their development as Scott and Hays have combined to appear in a total of 10 games at Norfolk.
For every rare talent such as Manny Machado capable of skipping minor-league levels, there are many more who benefit from more experience before graduating to the majors. Such a mindset sure beats the perceived philosophy of “you can’t mess up the good ones” that was practiced frequently in the past, whether it was the Orioles shuffling Kevin Gausman between the bullpen and the rotation — and the majors and the minors — for years or even briefly calling up oft-injured pitching prospect Hunter Harvey last season despite the former first-round pick having pitched very little the previous three years. These were examples of questionable tactics for even a winning club, but such a mindset would be wildly inappropriate for one with no hope of contending this year.
As we’ve said all offseason, patience is the most difficult part at the start of a rebuild. It’s easy to romanticize the process with this year marking the 30th anniversary of the “Why Not?” Orioles, but that was a rare exception to the rule and that club wasn’t exactly an example of sustaining long-term success. Rushing prospects like Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle isn’t turning Baltimore into a wild-card contender overnight and could compromise their long-term chances for success.
Simply put, this season isn’t likely to be fun and isn’t designed to be despite what will be manager Brandon Hyde’s best efforts to get the major league club to play hard and compete every night. Elias isn’t forming an Opening Day roster to try to squeak out a couple more wins in 2019; he’s trying to cultivate assets in the best way he sees fit to eventually be part of the Orioles’ next contending club.
When those young players accomplish what they need to down below, we’ll see them in Baltimore as part of the next phase of the process. In the meantime, the Orioles will look a lot like they did last year.
That’s just the hard truth with the big picture being paramount.
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No player in Orioles major league camp was having a better spring than Austin Hays, but that didn’t stop the 23-year-old outfielder from being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday.
The decision was met with some surprise after Hays batted .351 with five home runs and a 1.277 on-base plus slugging percentage in 40 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League, but the 2016 third-round pick’s only professional experience above the Double-A level to this point in his career is 63 plate appearance with Baltimore in the final month of 2017. Entering spring training, most didn’t consider Hays a strong bet to make the major league club after his injury-riddled 2018 season that ended with him undergoing ankle surgery in September, but he used the spring to reestablish himself as one of Baltimore’s best prospects and eased concerns about his ankle by showing off good speed and strong defense. His nine extra-base hits led the club.
Baseball America named Hays its No. 21 overall prospect entering 2018, but the first 2016 draftee to make the major leagues struggled at Double-A Bowie, batting just .242 with 12 homers and a .703 OPS in 288 plate appearances while missing significant time with his ankle injury. With Hays struggling, the Orioles promoted the likes of Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart after the trade deadline last year.
Mullins is expected to be the Opening Day center fielder for Baltimore, but Hays has impressed with his defense in center and appears likely to play that position for the Tides. Questions about Mullins’ throwing arm could eventually push him to a corner outfield spot, especially if Hays plays the position effectively at Norfolk.
Hays wasn’t the only young outfielder to be optioned to Norfolk on Sunday as former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander was cut from major league camp. The 24-year-old also made a favorable impression this spring with the new Orioles regime by batting .333 with eight extra-base hits and a 1.086 OPS in 36 plate appearances.
With Hays and Santander demoted, Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini, Joey Rickard, Dwight Smith Jr., Eric Young Jr., and Drew Jackson remain in the outfield picture to varying degrees.
General manager Mike Elias also optioned infielder Stevie Wilkerson and right-handed pitchers Cody Carroll, Branden Kline, and Yefry Ramirez to the Tides. Ramirez was vying for a spot in the Orioles’ starting rotation after making 12 starts in the majors last year, but he posted a 5.11 ERA in 12 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League.
Right-hander Gabriel Ynoa and infielder Christopher Bostick were also reassigned to minor-league camp, leaving 39 players in major league camp with the start of the season less than two weeks away.
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With Grapefruit League action beginning over the weekend, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. The early reviews of the culture being created by Brandon Hyde have been very positive. That probably won’t mean much in the standings this season, but it will matter for players continuing to buy into the process and to play hard as losses likely mount.
2. Top outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz is unlikely to break camp with the Orioles, but his two-run home run in the first spring game was a glimpse of the power the organization believes is still ascending. General manager Mike Elias offered a glowing review on Saturday.
3. It’s no secret the Houston Astros emphasized slider usage with much success, a philosophy that figures to be applied in Baltimore. Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Tanner Scott, and Jimmy Yacabonis are a few pitchers to watch in this regard.
4. Alcides Escobar has been Baltimore’s most notable signing — even on a minor-league deal — despite registering a .593 on-base plus slugging percentage and minus-0.7 wins above replacement last season. Rule 5 pick Richie Martin is still preferable if he at least proves he can play quality major league defense.
5. I’m excited to watch Cedric Mullins in his first full major league season, but he’s produced no better than a .662 OPS against left-handed pitching at any level of his professional career. That did come at Triple-A Norfolk last year, so you hope the development of his right-handed swing continues.
6. Branden Kline struck out the side to earn Sunday’s save. The Frederick native missed two full seasons due to elbow surgeries, but he posted a 1.80 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings for Bowie last year and features a mid-90s fastball and plus slider. Keep an eye on him.
7. Aside from Diaz, it’s been a rough start to the spring for two others acquired in the Manny Machado trade as starting pitching prospect Dean Kremer recovers from an oblique injury and hard-throwing reliever Zach Popshowed substantially diminished velocity on Saturday, which is always concerning.
8. Chris Davis striking out in his first two spring at-bats wouldn’t be noteworthy if he weren’t coming off one of the worst seasons in major league history from an everyday player. As it stands, every trip to the plate will be under a microscope. I’m curious to see his adjustments.
9. I’ll miss the retiring Joe Angel, but more Ben McDonald on Orioles broadcasts would be a great development. He has an engaging personality and was very enlightening discussing spin rate and other pitching-related topics during Saturday’s broadcast.
11. Machado going to the National League West was probably the best-case scenario for the Orioles, but anyone mocking him for signing with San Diego — I would too for $300 million — is overlooking a loaded farm system. The Padres could be very interesting in the not-too-distant future.
12. One of the more vivid memories of my early childhood was chanting “Edd-ie! Edd-ie!” at Memorial Stadium. Orioles legend and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray turned 63 on Sunday. Where have the years gone?
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