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.
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.
The rebuilding Orioles always seemed likely to keep Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson on their 25-man roster, but the release of veteran infielder Alcides Escobar further cements those plans.
The former Kansas City shortstop and 2015 All-Star selection was granted his unconditional release on Wednesday after batting just .219 in 38 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League. Escobar signed a minor-league deal with Baltimore in mid-February and was viewed as an insurance policy in case Martin or Jackson — neither of whom have played above the Double-A level — were overwhelmed by spring competition.
With Escobar’s departure, Martin, 24, becomes the clear favorite to be the Opening Day shortstop and entered Wednesday batting .270 with four extra-base hits, four runs batted in, and a .747 on-base plus slugging percentage. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Jackson has played all over the diamond and is on track to serve as a utility player and entered Wednesday’s action hitting .333 with a home run, six RBIs, and a .798 OPS.
Escobar, 32, posted a .593 OPS and was worth minus-0.7 wins above replacement in 140 games for the Royals last season.
With Wednesday’s transaction, the Orioles have 38 players remaining in major league camp.
With the start of the 2019 regular season just over three weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. We all know not to draw conclusions from a handful of spring games, but it’s impossible to ignore Chris Davis striking out seven times and registering only one hit — a homer — in his first 14 plate appearances. If he’s not going to show improvement in the Grapefruit League, then what?
2. Hopes of the new regime fixing Davis have been discussed plenty, but Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde have no prior ties to feel obligated to be patient. If he’s simply “finished” as a player, how long do you keep him in the lineup or even in the organization?
3. Trey Mancini playing left field a little longer probably isn’t hindering anyone’s development drastically, but Ryan Mountcastle taking to first base and tearing up Triple A would put Baltimore in position to improve by cutting Davis later this year if he shows no improvement. The money’s already been spent, folks.
4. Chance Sisco already has four home runs and four walks in 14 plate appearances. If nothing else, that should really help his confidence level, something that took a major hit in the midst of his difficult 2018 campaign.
5. Nate Karns being set to return to game action after experiencing arm soreness is good news, but it’s a reminder why he received only an $800,000 contract. Pitchers have returned from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, but it’s not a high-percentage outcome for someone with his injury history.
6. Kudos to the new regime for not wasting time in reassigning Hunter Harvey to minor-league camp. He’s pitched just 63 2/3 professional innings since being shut down the first time in July 2014. Leave the 24-year-old alone this year to — hopefully — stay healthy and log innings in the minors.
7. Reviews for Richie Martin at shortstop have been positive, and he’s gone 7-for-17 with two doubles and two walks. He isn’t the first Rule 5 pick with spring success, of course, but Alcides Escobar registered a combined 0.4 wins above replacement from 2015-18. The bar needn’t be very high
8. The acquisition of right-hander Xavier Moore from Minnesota marked the Orioles’ second spring trade of international signing bonus slots. I’ve said it before, but Kevin Gausman would have been a great piece for Mike Elias to trade instead of being included in a salary dump for unused slots.
9. Austin Hays is off to a strong start with two homers and a triple in his first 15 plate appearances, but it’s been interesting to note that four of his five starts have come in center field. He’s much healthier and moving better now after last fall’s ankle surgery.
10. Joey Rickard is easily forgotten with the collection of outfield prospects moving up the ladder, but he’s started spring games at all three outfield spots. He’ll be 28 in May, so this is probably his last chance to establish himself as more than a fringe reserve in Baltimore.
11. Jimmy Yacabonis has five strikeouts in four innings of one-hit ball so far. He remains one of my interesting names to watch knowing what Houston has done for pitchers possessing plus sliders.
12. Preston Palmeiro and Ryan Ripken each received a look as minor-league replacements in games this past week, which had to be pretty cool for their families. The 24-year-old Palmeiro remains a sleeper type to monitor.
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