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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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means

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Means offering unexpected intrigue for rebuilding Orioles

Posted on 07 May 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There was no “aha” moment for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde watching John Means pitch during spring training.

Hyde liked the 26-year-old lefty’s changeup and how his four-seam fastball played up in the strike zone, but an underwhelming 5.40 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League wasn’t a harbinger of Means leading Baltimore in both ERA (2.48) and wins above replacement (1.1) through the first six weeks of the 2019 season. In fact, he was the next-to-last relief pitcher on the Opening Day roster to appear in a game with the only one waiting longer being former Rule 5 pick Pedro Araujo, who would be designated for assignment a few days later.

Entering 2019, there was little reason to view Means as more than left-handed organizational depth with an ordinary fastball-slider combination and a respectable but ordinary 3.83 ERA over five minor-league seasons. His season debut against the New York Yankees in the Bronx changed that perception, however, as Means allowed only one run and struck out five over 3 1/3 innings to earn his first major league win.

The outing included an eye-opening 17 swinging strikes, 14 coming on the changeup Orioles infielder and teammate Jonathan Villar has since labeled “unbelievable” to watch. You don’t get that many swings and misses with pure luck as Means entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the majors in FanGraphs’ pitch value metric for changeups, further reinforcing it being no fluke.

Means began elevating his fastball more effectively last season — a trend seen around baseball in recent years — and sought help inside and outside the organization to both improve his velocity and develop his changeup this offseason, but he still offered no profound explanation for his early success after pitching a career-high seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball against defending champion Boston Monday night.

“I don’t know. I just feel comfortable up here,” said Means, who abruptly made his major league debut at Fenway Park last September in the midst of the Orioles’ embarrassing pitching shortage. “I feel like these games really matter. I was never a prospect, so I feel like my back’s against the wall every time I go out there and I feel like I pitch better that way.”

An 11th-round pick out of West Virginia in the 2014 draft, Means is hardly the first relative unknown to find success in a small sample of innings as critics wait for a return to reality when opponents face him multiple times, but Monday’s career-best outing brought evidence of adjustments in his second start against the Red Sox. After relying almost exclusively on his fastball-changeup combination and throwing only two sliders out of 82 total pitches at Fenway on April 14, Means threw his slider 21 times to keep Red Sox hitters off balance this time around.

The breaking pitch resulted in two swinging strikes, four called strikes, and a sixth-inning strikeout of Boston center fielder Jackie Bradley. Means said the increase in slider usage was out of necessity, perhaps in response to his lower strikeout rate since becoming a starter. The next possible step could be mixing in a few more curveballs after he threw only four out of his 96 total pitches in the 4-1 victory.

“I’m going to need that as I go forward,” Means said. “The first month, the changeup kind of surprised everybody. As I move forward [and] as I establish myself, I’m going to need the breaker and the slider more.”

Of course, time will tell whether this version of Means is for real as opponents and scouts become more familiar with his repertoire and tendencies. After striking out an impressive 13 batters in 7 2/3 innings in relief, the southpaw has struck out only 5.8 batters per nine innings in five starts covering 25 frames, a rate suggesting his ultimate place may still be in the bullpen. His opponents’ .244 batting average on balls in play also indicates Means has benefited from some good fortune with the league average right around .295.

But good fastball and changeup command, only 1.93 walks per nine innings, and a willingness to evolve make Means more intriguing to watch as the sample size grows with each start. It’s a pleasant surprise for an organization lacking enticing prospects at the major-league level.

“He’s still developing, which is cool and impressive,” Hyde said. “What we’re looking for from our younger players is to not only have results, but to improve over the course of the year. Those two breaking balls are just getting better and better, and he’s getting some confidence with it.”

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mancini

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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 Cobb back to IL, recall Wynns, designate Sucre for assignment

Posted on 28 April 2019 by Luke Jones

A frustrating start to the 2019 season continues for Orioles starting pitcher Alex Cobb, who was placed on the 10-day injured list for the third time since late March.

The 31-year-old right-hander continues to deal with a lower back strain and has allowed an alarming nine home runs in 12 1/3 innings. Cobb allowed four homers in Friday’s 6-1 loss at Minnesota and is sporting a 10.95 ERA in three starts this season.

Originally scheduled to be the Opening Day starter in spring training, Cobb sustained a groin strain in his final Grapefruit League start that landed him on the IL and made only one start before being sidelined again with lower back spasms. Manager Brandon Hyde told reporters prior to Sunday’s series finale against the Twins the Orioles want to give Cobb more time to fully recover to get more extension on his pitches. John Means and David Hess will fill the final two spots in the starting rotation behind veterans Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, and Dan Straily in Cobb’s absence.

The Orioles also made a notable change at the catcher position as Austin Wynns was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk and veteran Jesus Sucre was designated for assignment. Entering spring training as a favorite to make the club, Wynns missed extensive time with a strained oblique and was sent to the minors after being activated from the IL earlier this month. The 28-year-old batted .333 with an .887 on-base plus slugging percentage in 39 plate appearances between Norfolk and Double-A Bowie and hit a respectable .255 with four homers in 118 plate appearances as a rookie with Baltimore last season.

Sucre, 30, began the season as Baltimore’s starting catcher and was batting .210 with a .511 OPS in 67 plate appearances. Wynns and Pedro Severino will now share the catching duties.

In an effort to reinforce a taxed bullpen, the Orioles also optioned right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis to Norfolk and recalled right-handers Branden Kline and Luis Ortiz before Sunday’s game. Later in the day, Baltimore also claimed right-handed relief pitcher Shawn Armstrong off waivers from Seattle, meaning a subsequent 25-man roster move will be made when he reports to the club.

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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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Twelve Orioles thoughts after first 20 games of 2019 season

Posted on 19 April 2019 by Luke Jones

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.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on struggling pitching staff

Posted on 12 April 2019 by Luke Jones

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.

11. The Dan Straily signing made sense for a club eyeing rotation stability and a possible trade chip, but he’s allowed 10 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. His spring was disrupted by Miami releasing him, but he probably needs to lean more on his changeup to be successful.

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.

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Orioles starting pitcher Cobb back on injured list with lower back issue

Posted on 09 April 2019 by Luke Jones

Less than a week after returning from a late-spring groin strain to make his 2019 debut, Orioles starting pitcher Alex Cobb is now sidelined with a different health ailment.

Prior to Tuesday’s game against Oakland, the right-hander was placed on the 10-day injured list with lower back spasms. The Orioles are officially labeling the problem as a lumbar strain that will force Cobb to miss his scheduled start against the Athletics on Wednesday night.

Cobb allowed two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings and arguably showed the best split-changeup of his short time in Baltimore against the New York Yankees last Thursday, but his absence will once again leave manager Brandon Hyde short in the starting rotation. The Orioles had appeared to fortify their staff with the signing of veteran Dan Straily last weekend, a move intended to allow them to go to a traditional five-man starting rotation. Nate Karns served as the opener for two bullpen games over the first week of the season, but he was also placed on the 10-day IL with forearm tightness on Tuesday as lefty John Means made his first start of the season.

Straily will make his first start for the Orioles on Wednesday.

In the second season of a four-year, $57 million contract, Cobb was hoping to get off to a much better start than in 2018 when he missed most of spring training before signing with the Orioles and pitched to a nightmarish 6.41 ERA before the All-Star break. The 31-year-old was much better in the second half with a 2.56 ERA in 59 2/3 innings, but he was limited to just eight frames in September because of a lingering blister on his pitching hand. Cobb was originally scheduled to start the 2019 season opener in the Bronx before groin tightness forced him out of his final Grapefruit League outing and he was placed on the IL, leaving Andrew Cashner to take his place for Opening Day.

Cobb underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and owns a career 3.74 ERA in 858 innings in the majors.

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Davis problem growing even more uncomfortable in Orioles rebuild

Posted on 08 April 2019 by Luke Jones

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 trying 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.

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