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Twelve Orioles thoughts following series sweep over Tampa Bay

Posted on 02 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles completing a series sweep with a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Recording their first series sweep since August of 2018, the Orioles played a good brand of baseball over the weekend disposing of a struggling Rays club with higher expectations. The 5-3 start doesn’t change anything for a rebuilding team, but it’s been fun, plain and simple.

2. Averaging more than a strikeout per inning thus far, Baltimore set a club record by striking out at least 10 batters for a fifth consecutive contest. The 2020 Orioles setting this mark says everything about today’s game. Entering Sunday, there had been 279 more strikeouts than hits across the majors.

3. Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc pitched as well as you could expect from soft-tossing lefties, but Milone stood out with eight strikeouts and no walks in five-plus innings Sunday. Entering 2020 with a career 6.7 strikeouts per nine rate, he has 13 in eight frames. That changeup was tough.

4. Hanser Alberto was one of the good stories last year with a .305 average and .398 mark against lefties, but many — this writer included — anticipated regression in 2020. So far, the 27-year-old is batting .429 with an 1.145 OPS and already has three three-hit games. Perhaps 2019 wasn’t a fluke.

5. Give Cole Sulser credit for rebounding from the brutal loss to the Yankees last Thursday with two saves in the Rays series. Brandon Hyde clearly likes the 30-year-old’s stuff and didn’t hesitate going to him in the ninth inning 24 hours after Aaron Judge’s three-run homer. I respect that conviction.

6. Hyde gave Austin Hays “a little bit of a breather” Sunday after his 3-for-28 start to 2020, but the center fielder went 0-for-2 as an in-game replacement. It’s too soon to panic, of course, but you worry about the mental drain of a poor start for a young, unproven player.

7. If we learned anything about Renato Nunez last year, it was how streaky the right-handed slugger can be. Nunez homered in each of the last two games of the series. Defensive limitations hurt his value, but the power is evident with 40 homers in 219 games as an Oriole.

8. Mike Elias says there’s no set date for Ryan Mountcastle to be promoted, but the longer DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins fail to hit, the tougher the sell becomes on restricting Mountcastle to workouts and simulated games at the alternate camp in Bowie. He needs to play in games.

9. The highlight of the weekend was the socially-distanced celebration after Pat Valaika drove in the winning run on Saturday, but the former Colorado utility infielder showed off his pop with a homer on Sunday. Valaika, 27, hit 13 homers in 195 plate appearances for the Rockies in 2017.

10. Placing a runner on second base in extra innings is weird, but it’s kind of fun. That’s not necessarily a long-term endorsement, but an open mind for this season and 2020 in general is a must. At least we saw the first leadoff double play in major league history, right?

11. The Richard Bleier trade after Friday’s win was a reminder of where Elias and the Orioles stand no matter how this crazy 60-game sprint goes. I don’t expect the player to be named later to be anything of consequence, but the 33-year-old lefty reliever wasn’t part of the future either.

12. With Miami scheduled to come to town this week after having its season paused due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the doubts, questions, and concerns about this season are impossible to ignore. I don’t have the answers, but it’s difficult envisioning this continuing much longer with repeats of the past week.

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Finding value in 2020 Orioles season challenging and easy at same time

Posted on 23 July 2020 by Luke Jones

I love baseball.

I’ve really missed it.

One of my cathartic moments in the early months of this dystopian world in which we currently reside was dusting off my glove to play catch in the backyard for the first time in who knows how long. Such an experience was therapy at a time when the only live baseball being played was half a world away

Like so many, my feelings are mixed and my fingers crossed about navigating an unprecedented season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I respect those individuals who’ve elected not to participate and the many players, coaches, and team personnel trying to push through the bizarre circumstances and risks to complete a 2020 season and provide an outlet of temporary escape. I’m hoping for the best while recognizing the undesirable outcomes that could again bring baseball to an abrupt halt.

That paramount acknowledgement aside, finding value in this abbreviated season for the Orioles is challenging

A 60-game sprint of a schedule dares even the worst clubs to dream about a small-sample-size run to the postseason — especially with the playoff field expanding from 10 to 16 teams — but we’re talking about an outfit that hasn’t had as much as a winning month of baseball since August of 2017. Last year’s world champion Washington Nationals and their 19-31 start are the popular citation for the unpredictability of a short season, but 60 games is much more often than not an accurate barometer to distinguish legitimate contenders and teams with a fighting chance from the ones having no shot.

The Orioles lost 108 games last year and won’t have the services of team MVP Trey Mancini (recovering from colorectal cancer), positional player WAR leader Jonathan Villar (traded to Miami), and innings pitched leader Dylan Bundy (traded to the Los Angeles Angels). Making short-term feelings worse, the club placed starting ace John Means (left shoulder) and promising reliever Hunter Harvey (right forearm strain) on the 10-day injured list to begin the season even though manager Brandon Hyde says both should be back sooner than later. Frankly, none of these developments are encouraging beyond the Orioles’ chances of securing the top overall pick in the 2021 draft.

With Means temporarily sidelined, the Baltimore rotation currently consists of 30-somethings with little upside or trade value. Perhaps a healthy Alex Cobb will look more like the pitcher he was in Tampa Bay, but the four-year, $57 million deal a playoff-hopeful Orioles club invested in him 2 1/2 years ago simply isn’t going to bring real value for the future.

Of course, there’s Chris Davis, entering the fifth season of a seven-year, $161 million contract that’s been nothing short of disastrous. Even if his surprising Grapefruit League performance was the harbinger for a modest renaissance, it just won’t mean much beyond the short-term surprise.

Worst of all, the minor league season isn’t taking place with top organizational prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman and pitcher DL Hall restricted to working out at the secondary camp in Bowie. So many of the young players critical to Baltimore’s long-term success simply aren’t getting the desired seasoning to expedite a multiyear rebuilding effort, a cold reality from a baseball perspective.

But all isn’t lost.

Austin Hays will man center field and hit at the top of the order on Opening Day in Boston. It’s easy to forget after two injury-plagued years that the 25-year-old was the first player selected in the 2016 draft to make the majors, but Hays should have every opportunity to prove he belongs if he can stay healthy.

Outfielders still in their mid-20s such as Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, and Cedric Mullins present varying degrees of intrigue and can improve their standing for the future over these next two months.

Veteran reliever Mychal Givens could become general manager Mike Elias’ most appealing chip for the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but the 30-year-old will have just over five weeks to regain his pre-2019 form.

The most anticipated development of the summer will be the debut of Ryan Mountcastle, who is expected to arrive in Baltimore sooner than later. His latest defensive endeavor is learning left field and a problematic strikeout-to-walk ratio should temper expectations, but the 2019 International League MVP’s 61 extra-base hits last year provide more than enough reason for excitement.

There’s also the potential promotions of young starting pitchers such as Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who seem like decent bets to pitch for the Orioles by season’s end. Outfield prospect and Manny Machado trade centerpiece Yusniel Diaz appears less likely to be promoted after failing to progress to Triple-A Norfolk last year, but his progress in the Bowie camp will be monitored closely.

Yes, you’ll need to look closely for those signs of promise while hiding your eyes from what’s likely to be plenty of losing, but we’re all looking for signs of hope — in the Orioles, baseball, and beyond. A 60-game baseball “season” — perhaps it’s better described as an event — with empty ballparks, COVID-19 testing, fake crowd noise, and social distancing is so far from ideal, but so is the rest of life these days.

Weird baseball — even bad baseball — is better than none at all. It’s a difficult reminder of where we are as a country right now and the normalcy for which we long. If the game can safely — a colossal caveat — bring a few hours of smiles, laughs, or even some groans over something trivial, yet important every night, it’s worth it to try, even if that hot dog and cold beer at Camden Yards will have to wait.

In that regard, finding value in this season — even one likely to be forgettable for the Orioles — is easy.

With fingers crossed, let’s play ball.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts entering abbreviated 2020 season

Posted on 20 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With an unprecedented Opening Day set to take place later this week amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With Major League Baseball’s most recent testing report revealing a 0.05 percent positive rate from more than 10,000 samples, the 2020 season will indeed begin later this week. The impact of travel will further reveal the viability of navigating the 60-game season. Fingers crossed.

2. From masks and dugout overflow tents to the absence of fans, the ballpark experience is strange, but artificial crowd noise is preferable to an almost distracting silence otherwise. “Reactions” to in-game events are awkward, but the normal ambience of a “crowd” can help the suspension of disbelief for TV viewers.

3. The Orioles are playing a 7:30 p.m. Opening Day game at Fenway Park on Friday and a 7:35 p.m. home opener a week from Wednesday. That lack of weekday baseball makes perfect sense in the absence of fans, of course, but add it to the lengthy list of weird.

4. Not counting potential promotions later this summer, Austin Hays tops my list of interesting youngsters to watch on a rebuilding club still with many more placeholders than prospects. A strong defender in center field with pop emerging as a long-term piece would be quite valuable.

5. A rotation with four projected starters over age 30 lacks upside, but you hope Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone, and Asher Wojciechowski are functional enough to keep Brandon Hyde from burning through relievers at an alarming rate, especially with the limitations created by the cancellation of the minor leagues.

6. Remember that spring hype over Chris Davis adding weight and going 7-for-15 with three home runs and nine walks in the Grapefruit League? That was such a simpler time, but we’ll see what the veteran with two more years remaining on his contract after 2020 can do.

7. After missing large chunks of five straight professional seasons, Hunter Harvey was finally healthy last season, but the former first-round pick transitioned from a starting role to relief. Can we get this talented 25-year-old both sustained health and a normal season eventually?

8. Let’s hope the Orioles won’t wait long to promote Ryan Mountcastle as the 2019 International League MVP will work at the alternate camp in Bowie for now. Mountcastle, 23, isn’t a slam dunk, but let’s see the bat and whether he can find a defensive home in left field.

9. It was a surreal Friday night intrasquad game in mid-July, but seeing top prospect Adley Rutschman bat at Camden Yards was still a pretty cool scene. Sorry the outcome below wasn’t a little more exciting.

10. Dwight Smith Jr. hasn’t been ruled out for the opener yet, but the Orioles placed him on the 10-day injured list. With left field seemingly wide open, it’s quite the contrast in fortunes for Smith and DJ Stewart, who wouldn’t have been ready in late March due to ankle surgery.

11. Dilson Herrera may still find himself on the wrong side of the roster bubble, but the former top 100 prospect in the Mets system offers some positional versatility and has shown power in intrasquad games. The July restart has been kind to the 26-year-old vying for a job.

12. The absence of Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne — both over 70 — from regular telecasts is understandable, but MASN still not providing in-market subscribers the ability to watch games on their phones or computers is inexcusable. The network remains absent from all streaming services. This isn’t OK in 2020.

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Four long-term story lines for start of 2020 Orioles season

Posted on 16 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With the start of an unprecedented and abbreviated 2020 season now only a week away, the Orioles are in an undesirable place from a baseball perspective.

That a rebuilding club has no reasonable shot to contend in even a 60-game schedule conducive to statistical noise isn’t the problem as no one envisioned the AL East standings being of consequence for the Orioles after a combined 223 losses in the previous two seasons. But the cancellation of the entire minor league season leaves general manager Mike Elias and the goal of fostering “an elite talent pipeline” with limited avenues to develop the young prospects vital to Baltimore’s future.

Like last season, the number of veteran placeholders and overmatched players on the major league roster will greatly outweigh the interesting talents fighting to become long-term pieces for the Orioles’ next contending club, a contrast exacerbated by 2019 Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini’s season-long absence due to colon cancer and the offseason trade of productive infielder Jonathan Villar. But that doesn’t mean a pleasant surprise or two can’t emerge as baseball attempts to navigate a strange season through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are four story lines with long-term ramifications at the start of 2020:

1. The encore for John Means

There was no bigger surprise for the Orioles last year than the 27-year-old Means, who went from an organizational lefty on the Opening Day roster bubble to the 2019 All-Star Game and second place in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Means used a superb changeup and improved fastball velocity to pitch to a 3.60 ERA in 155 innings that included 27 starts, 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.21 walks per nine, a 1.135 WHIP, and 23 home runs allowed. However, he struggled to a 4.85 ERA and a 6.5 per nine strikeout rate after the All-Star break and doesn’t have the stuff to overwhelm hitters who will now be more familiar with his repertoire. Keys to Means not being a one-year wonder are the continued development of his slider and a growth mindset to stay ahead of the curve, something he attempted to do for a second straight offseason. He’ll have his first chance to show his progress when he starts the opener at Fenway Park, the place where he made his unceremonious major league debut at the end of 2018. With the rest of the projected rotation to begin the season — Alex Cobb, Asher Wojciechowski, Wade LeBlanc, and Tommy Milone — all over age 30, Means remains the most intriguing starter by a wide margin.

2. Austin Hays and a wide-open outfield

The outfield remains in flux with Mancini’s absence, Anthony Santander just returning this week from testing positive for the coronavirus, Dwight Smith Jr. still absent for undisclosed reasons, and DJ Stewart returning from offseason ankle surgery, leaving Hays — and his 75 plate appearances last September — as the ironic best bet to be in the Opening Day outfield. A consensus top 100 prospect in baseball entering 2018 after an outstanding first full season of professional ball, Hays struggled to stay healthy for the better part of two years until his late-season promotion resulted in some highlight defensive plays in center field and a .309/.373/.574 slash line that included 10 extra-base hits and 13 RBIs in 21 games. To say Hays can cement his place as the center fielder of the future in only a 60-game sample would be premature, but the 25-year-old has the opportunity to make a lasting impression. Meanwhile, Santander, 25, will try to show his 20-homer campaign last year was no fluke, and the 26-year-old Stewart could have his last best chance to live up to his former first-round billing.

3. Hunter Harvey’s place in the bullpen

After missing significant parts of the previous four seasons with various injuries, the 2013 first-round pick was one of the better stories in the organization last season as he remained healthy and settled into a new role pitching in relief. Harvey, 25, posted a 4.32 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 16 2/3 innings for Triple-A Norfolk before being promoted to the majors in mid-August. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out 11 batters, walked four, and allowed only one run in seven appearances before reaching his innings limit and being shut down with minor arm soreness in mid-September. Manager Brandon Hyde didn’t hesitate to throw Harvey into some high-leverage situations last year, so that should continue, regardless of whether he settles into a traditional closer role. As for the rest of the bullpen, the Orioles hope late-inning right-hander Mychal Givens rebounds from an underwhelming 2019 to reestablish some trade value before the Aug. 31 deadline and that 25-year-old right-hander Miguel Castro can build upon his second-half improvement from a year ago.

4. Graduations from the alternate camp in Bowie

If we’re being honest, the happenings at the Orioles’ secondary training site will be of far greater interest and consequence to the big picture with prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman, lefty pitcher DL Hall, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, and right-hander Michael Baumann taking part, but which talents there will have the best chance of playing in the majors in 2020? Plate discipline concerns (24 walks in 553 plate appearances) and the lack of a position should make one take pause about 23-year-old Ryan Mountcastle’s upside, but the 2019 International League MVP has little to prove down below after 61 extra-base hits and an .871 OPS at Norfolk last year. Especially with Mancini out of the 2020 picture, there’s no logical reason not to give Mountcastle major league at-bats and looks in left field and at first base sooner than later. On the pitching side, lefty Keegan Akin’s 4.73 ERA and 4.9 walks per nine innings in 112 1/3 innings at Norfolk last season didn’t scream promotion, but his 10.5 strikeouts per nine still make him a viable prospect if the 25-year-old can hone his control. Right-hander Dean Kremer, 24, is another promotion candidate, but his injury-delayed 2019 season consisted of only four starts at the Triple-A level, making it unlikely the Orioles will rush him to Baltimore. The 23-year-old Diaz shouldn’t be completely ruled out, but he’s yet to log a professional at-bat above the Double-A level and Elias has been pretty firm about prospects not skipping steps. Outfielder Cedric Mullins could also play his way back to the majors, but he has much to prove after a nightmare 2019.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts with 2020 season training resuming

Posted on 01 July 2020 by Luke Jones

With players and coaches returning to Camden Yards this week to resume training for the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Mike Elias said the organization had been “remarkably lucky” not to have any positive COVID-19 tests (as of Monday) while acknowledging the Orioles are “going to have cases.” It’s a realistic assessment and a reminder of just how uncertain this all is from even the most optimistic viewpoints.

2. To this point, the Orioles aren’t expecting any players to opt out of the 2020 season, but you wonder if the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond choosing not to play coupled with additional positive tests this week could change minds. It’s a personal decision that should be respected.

3. The inevitable became official Tuesday with the minor leagues canceling their season. The minors are critical to the game’s long-term health in not only developing prospects but also cultivating young fans around the country. I’m concerned with MLB’s inability — or cold refusal — to recognize that.

4. The Heston Kjerstad signing is official with the second overall pick from Arkansas receiving a $5.2 million bonus, which was $2.59 million below slot. Of course, no one will remember that if Kjerstad becomes a mainstay in right field and shows the potent left-handed bat the Orioles like so much.

5. The organization is telling Kjerstad and other 2020 draft picks to stay ready in hopes of being able to gather for instructional work at some point. Everyone’s in the same boat, but Baltimore losing so much development time in a season so inconsequential at the major league level is tough.

6. The first 44 players announced for the Orioles’ 60-man pool list made clear we’ll wait at least a little longer to see Ryan Mountcastle as well as Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, and Dean Kremer. Especially with Trey Mancini out, there’s no excuse not to give Mountcastle extensive at-bats.

7. With the potential statistical noise of a 60-game sprint of a season, Elias was asked how he’d handle the Orioles being a surprise contender at the trade deadline and replied that he’d “look at that very seriously.” Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

8. If a roster without its two best position players from 2019 — Mancini and Jonathan Villar — weren’t enough, a daunting schedule now including the entire NL East in addition to the usual AL East nightmares should halt any talk of the Orioles being Cinderella. There are much better sleeper picks.

9. In addition to the aforementioned prospects we could see at some point, Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, John Means, and Anthony Santander provide incentives to watch a club still too short on talent expected to be in Baltimore for the long run. Another Means-like story or two would help.

10. Asked about his biggest prospect-related concerns, Elias noted the obvious long-term health of pitchers not accumulating innings and mentioned young hitters missing “key at-bats in their life cycle” as players. How many fringe talents who could have made it will never get a real chance now?

11. The labor war is exhausting and the pandemic concerns omnipresent, but I’m otherwise embracing the weirdness of a 60-game season as well as rule changes and quirks. Some of the best innovation comes through unusual circumstances. There’s been nothing traditional about 2020, so why start now?

12. Current frustrations with MLB aside, I appreciated the following video and wish the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues could have been celebrated in ballparks around the country. From Rube Foster’s vision to baseball royalty like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil, these men need to be remembered.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts in early days of March

Posted on 02 March 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Grapefruit League schedule underway in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With three home runs and a 2.460 OPS in 14 plate appearances, Chris Davis rebounding at age 34 after a historically poor two-year stretch would be a great story, but let’s slam on — not pump — the brakes. There’s a reason Jake Fox’s name is mentioned in these parts every spring.

2. Acquired for cash last July, Asher Wojciechowski being penciled in for one of the top three spots in the rotation says way more about the Orioles than his 4.92 ERA last year, but the 31-year-old averaged 5.1 innings per start. That’s not impressive, but it’s functional, something this staff needs.

3. After adding a couple ticks to his fastball and breaking through with his changeup last year, All-Star pitcher John Means is trying to improve his breaking ball. Is he closer to being a Dallas Keuchel story like Mike Elias saw in Houston or merely the next Jeff Ballard?

4. Yusniel Diaz was slowed by a sore left shoulder before seeing his first action over the weekend and collecting a triple and a walk Monday. It’s a big year for the centerpiece in the Manny Machado trade, who needs to stay healthy and will likely begin 2020 with Norfolk.

5. Making his spring debut Monday after dealing with an illness, Hunter Harvey threw fastballs from 95 to 97 miles per hour, exactly where you’d expect him to be for his first Grapefruit League outing. His mullet is in midseason form, however. He’ll be fun to watch this year.

6. It’s a crucial time for guys like Rio Ruiz and Dwight Smith Jr. to make the case to be more than the placeholders they’re perceived to be. Ruiz faces less competition at third base, but Smith, who’s out of options, could be the odd man out in a crowded outfield.

7. Renato Nunez has made six spring starts at third after starting eight games there all last year. The designated hitter spot will be quite crowded once Ryan Mountcastle arrives in Baltimore, so Nunez would really benefit from showing defensive improvement. I’m interested to see how he follows his 31-homer campaign.

8. With Baltimore trying to improve a league-worst 5.79 bullpen ERA, Tanner Scott must show growth after walking 6.5 batters per nine innings last year. The fastball-slider combination is there and he’s struck out 12.7 per nine in his career, but finding a way to get right-handed bats out is crucial.

9. Bruce Zimmermann, a 25-year-old Loyola Blakefield graduate, gave up two homers on Monday, but he struck out six in 2 2/3 innings with a swing-and-miss slider and fastball touching the mid-90s. He’ll be a lefty to watch at Norfolk for a potential call-up later this season.

10. The Orioles made too many mistakes on the bases last year, but it’s interesting to hear how they’re exploring using speed in a power-hungry era in which steals have diminished to preserve outs. It’s a way a rebuilding club should be experimenting in search of a future edge.

11. J.J. Hardy is one of several guest instructors to be invited to camp this spring. Considering the positive influence he had on young infielders like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop in his time as an Oriole, the former Gold Glove shortstop is a nice resource to have around.

12. This is an annual complaint, but 21 clubs will have more spring games televised locally than the Orioles’ seven on MASN. Other bottom-tier teams are streaming additional games. For an organization selling the future, not offering more looks at Adley Rutschman and other prospects in camp is a missed opportunity.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts at start of 2020 spring training

Posted on 18 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With full-squad spring workouts now underway in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The patience required for a multiyear rebuild was already agonizing enough for the fan base, but the model being the 2017 Houston Astros now carries much different connotations. That’s a tough pill to swallow when there is no guarantee of success.

2. That’s not to convict Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal of anything beyond association as neither has been named in any scandal reporting so far, but I can’t believe they weren’t aware of what was going on as longtime Jeff Luhnow lieutenants dating back to their St. Louis days. It’s uncomfortable.

3. Chris Davis adding 25 pounds to get stronger doesn’t carry much weight when he balked at overhauling his swing, citing age and past success that was an eternity ago. He still views himself as an everyday player “until it’s proven otherwise,” but shouldn’t that be the other way around?

4. Some are interpreting Davis’ admission of contemplating retirement as the end being near, but it could have the opposite effect. Ownership hasn’t been willing to walk away from this disastrous contract so far, so why wouldn’t they dig in their heels over the possibility of Davis forgoing millions?

5. On a more positive note, Adley Rutschman being in major league camp is the brightest sign of hope yet for the rebuild. You wouldn’t expect him to be there long, but the first overall pick seeing a little Grapefruit League action would be fun.

6. We’ll likely wait until summer for more prospects to debut in Baltimore, but Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey showed enough late last season to be excited for 2020. Health remains a sticking point, but both have a chance to be part of the next contender in Baltimore.

7. Ryan Mountcastle has worked in the outfield over the first couple days of camp as the organization’s search for his defensive position continues. I’m still a little more concerned about him walking only 24 times in 553 plate appearances at Norfolk last season. He just turned 23 Tuesday, however.

8. The minor-league signings of Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc aren’t moving the meter for a rotation projected to again be poor, but either veteran lefty eating innings and decreasing the need for position players to pitch as frequently would be welcome. Just be a little more functional.

9. At this time last year, no one was predicting John Means to make the club, let alone the All-Star team. It would be encouraging to see another Means-like story or two — David Hess took a cue from the lefty — on a roster still with more placeholders than players of interest.

10. The performances of Hays and Chance Sisco last spring serve as a reminder that Elias doesn’t put much stock in Grapefruit League numbers, but Mountcastle and pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer performing well would serve as promising harbingers for call-ups later this year.

11. I believe in Elias, but I hoped to see more imagination this offseason in terms of signing a value free agent to flip or taking on a contract in a trade to buy a prospect. Having baseball’s lowest payroll is great for ownership, but that alone doesn’t expedite this process.

12. Rob Manfred stating his belief of “a good future for baseball in Baltimore” is fine, but the MASN resolution and a new stadium lease beyond the 2021 season are the real keys. The attendance for a team currently not trying to win has nothing to do with it.

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Rutschman, two Orioles pitching prospects on Baseball America’s top 100 list

Posted on 22 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Anticipation for the 2020 season isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with the Orioles still in the early innings of a massive rebuild, but there’s hope for the future if Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list is any indication.

Each of Baltimore’s last three first-round picks landed among the publication’s latest top 100 released Wednesday with 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman ranking as the fifth-best prospect in baseball. Regarded by many as the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010, the 21-year-old catcher won countless collegiate awards as a junior at Oregon State before being selected with the first pick of the Mike Elias era in Baltimore last June.

Set to be among the Orioles’ non-roster invitees to major league spring training next month, Rutschman appeared in 37 games across three levels last summer, batting a combined .254 with four home runs, 26 runs batted in, and a .774 on-base plus slugging percentage. The switch-hitting catcher played for the Gulf Coast League Orioles, short-season Single-A Aberdeen, and Single-A Delmarva and appeared in the South Atlantic League playoffs with the Shorebirds last September.

Baltimore’s 2018 first-round round pick, right-handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez ranks 35th overall on Baseball America’s list after sharing the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award with Double-A Bowie right-hander Michael Baumann last season. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Rodriguez, 20, went 10-4 with a tidy 2.68 ERA in 94 innings with Delmarva, averaging 12.4 strikeouts compared to 3.4 walks per nine innings.

Left-hander DL Hall was Baseball America’s No. 47 prospect after going 4-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 80 2/3 innings at Single-A Frederick. The 21-year-old averaged an impressive 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings, but he’s still honing his control after averaging 6.0 walks per nine frames. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Hall was the No. 54 prospect on Baseball America’s top 100 list last January.

Both Rodriguez and Hall were selected to play in last year’s All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland.

Other notable Orioles prospects listed as missing the cut included infielder Ryan Mountcastle and outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Austin Hays. All three had appeared on past Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists.

Despite being named the organization’s Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year and winning the International League MVP award in 2019, Mountcastle didn’t make the list after batting .312 with 25 homers, 35 doubles, 83 RBIs, and an .871 OPS for Triple-A Norfolk. Mountcastle’s future remains promising since he’ll turn only 23 next month, but his lack of a defined defensive position and underwhelming plate discipline — 24 walks in 553 plate appearances — probably didn’t help his case with the publication.

The centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade in 2018, Diaz was one of the bigger disappointments in an otherwise fruitful year for Baltimore’s farm system as nagging leg injuries limited the 23-year-old to 85 games. The Cuban outfielder batted .262 with 34 extra-base hits, 53 RBIs, and an .807 OPS in 322 plate appearances for Bowie last season.

Hays was hampered by injuries for a second straight season, but a September promotion to the Orioles allowed the 24-year-old to showcase his upside as he shined in center field and batted .309 with four homers, six doubles, 13 RBIs, and a .947 OPS in 75 plate appearances. He’ll be vying to break camp as Baltimore’s Opening Day center fielder this spring.

This marks the first time since 2009 that the Orioles have three prospects in Baseball American’s top 50 after Matt Wieters ranked first overall, Chris Tillman 22nd, and Brian Matusz 25th that year.

Below are the Orioles who have appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list since 2008:

2020: C Adley Rutschman (5th), RHP Grayson Rodriguez (35th), LHP DL Hall (47th)
2019: OF Yusniel Diaz (37th), LHP DL Hall (54th), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (90th)
2018: OF Austin Hays (21st), C Chance Sisco (68th), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (71st)
2017: C Chance Sisco (57th)
2016: none
2015: RHP Dylan Bundy (48th), RHP Hunter Harvey (68th)
2014: RHP Dylan Bundy (15th), RHP Kevin Gausman (20th), LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (65th)
2013: RHP Dylan Bundy (2nd), RHP Kevin Gausman (26th)
2012: RHP Dylan Bundy (10th), SS Manny Machado (11th), 2B Jonathan Schoop (82nd)
2011: SS Manny Machado (14th), LHP Zach Britton (28th)
2010: LHP Brian Matusz (5th), 3B Josh Bell (37th), LHP Zach Britton (63rd), RHP Jake Arrieta (99th)
2009: C Matt Wieters (1st), RHP Chris Tillman (22nd), LHP Brian Matusz (25th), RHP Jake Arrieta (67th)
2008: C Matt Wieters (12th), RHP Chris Tillman (67th), RHP Radhames Liz (69th), LHP Troy Patton (78th), OF Nolan Reimold (91st)

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Orioles' Joe Jordan introduces pitcher Bundy to the media before the Orioles' MLB American League baseball game against the Blue Jays in Baltimore

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Bundy trade serves as reminder of Orioles’ past — and unknown future

Posted on 04 December 2019 by Luke Jones

Dylan Bundy was once the consensus best pitching prospect in baseball and considered a centerpiece of the Orioles’ bright future.

Making his major league debut two months shy of his 20th birthday seven years ago, Bundy was thought to be the future ace of a Baltimore club that was about to make its first postseason appearance in 15 years and entering a competitive window that would bring two more trips to the playoffs in a five-year period. On Wednesday, the 27-year-old with a career 4.76 ERA, diminishing velocity, and a longer history of injuries than successes was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for four minor-league pitchers.

With general manager Mike Elias clearly in the midst of an offseason teardown after a mostly status quo 2019 used to evaluate every aspect of the organization, Bundy was always on borrowed time with the Orioles. The trade hardly falls into the same category of a full-blown salary dump like Monday’s Jonathan Villar deal — which was a tough pill to swallow for anyone searching for any redeeming entertainment value in the 2020 Orioles — but a league-average starter projected to fetch upwards of $5 million in arbitration and with two years of remaining club control was an asset that could be used to at least improve the baseline of pitching depth in the organization. Of course, we all knew Bundy and Villar weren’t going to be part of the Orioles’ next contending club — whenever that might be.

Right-handers Kyle Bradish, Isaac Mattson, Kyle Brnovich, and Zach Peek are unlikely to land on any top 100 prospect lists anytime soon, but the marked strides made in the minors under the guidance of director of pitching Chris Holt last year offer hope that Elias and the organization see potential and value in these four pitchers, especially with Peek and Brnovich having just been drafted in the sixth and eighth round respectively last June. The same logic can apply to left-hander Easton Lucas, who was viewed as little more than a token piece from Miami in the Villar deal.

But there are no sure things other than the organization now having cut roughly $15 million in projected payroll for 2020. Those savings will be championed by optimists as fruitful during a rebuild, but we have no way of knowing whether those resources will go back into baseball operations in some form or simply into ownership’s pockets, the latter possibility painting the more cynical picture of clubs “tanking” in today’s game while still charging major-league prices.

In Villar’s case, there appeared to be little downside to keeping a productive player on a club that had already lost 108 games last year and slashed its Opening Day payroll in half from 2017 to 2019. No viable infield prospect is knocking at the major-league door either, but he was deemed too expensive to play on a last-place club.

Bundy clearly brought a more valuable return, but a major league club that struggled mightily last year just to field a functional pitching staff — one that avoids the need for position players to pitch in the late innings if nothing else — will now be tasked with filling an additional 30 starts and 160 innings. Perhaps utility man Stevie Wilkerson should be on a throwing progression this spring.

Yes, the thought of the Orioles being even worse in 2020 after a combined 223 losses the last two seasons is difficult to stomach if you’re still trying to watch on a semi-nightly basis, but Elias has never shied away from the organization’s “strategic objectives” being solely about the future. That’s why you wonder if trades of Mychal Givens and, yes, possibly Trey Mancini could be right around the corner.

The short-term pain — alright, let’s call it medium-term if we’re being realistic — is intended to reap long-term success. As Elias said in a conference call Wednesday evening, the goal isn’t to field a more competitive team in 2020 but to field a sustainable playoff contender at Camden Yards in the future. None of this is surprising or even the wrong strategy, but that doesn’t make the current state easy or enjoyable in what’s ultimately an entertainment business.

And it isn’t necessarily destined to work in the same way it did for the Houston Astros or the Chicago Cubs.

In the same way Orioles supporters are now daydreaming about better days with Adley Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle, Grayson Rodriguez, and DL Hall, Bundy was once the future. But instead of being a difference-maker for a 2014 club that ended up falling four wins shy of an American League pennant or becoming a young ace for a contender, he never realized that once-great potential because of injuries and became only a serviceable major league starter once the Orioles’ competitive window was already closing.

Bundy’s departure is both a reminder of those better days for the Orioles and his own unfulfilled promise.

That same kind of hope is all Orioles fans have right now. With no guarantees of a reward down the line.

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mountcastle

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Orioles elevate Mountcastle, three others to 40-man roster

Posted on 20 November 2019 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have protected 2019 International League MVP Ryan Mountcastle and three other prospects who were eligible for next month’s Rule 5 draft by placing them on their 40-man roster.

The others were Triple-A Norfolk starting pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer and Double-A outfielder Ryan McKenna. Those additions leave Baltimore with one open spot on the 40-man roster, which could be used to make a selection in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12.

The 2019 Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year winner, Mountcastle completed an impressive season with the Tides in which he batted .312 with 25 home runs, 35 doubles, 83 runs batted in, and an .871 on-base plus slugging percentage, making the decision to protect the 22-year-old a no-brainer. Some were surprised the first baseman and left fielder didn’t receive a September promotion, but general manager Mike Elias has remained steadfast in his desire to see Mountcastle improve his defense that’s prompted multiple position changes and refine his plate discipline after he walked just 24 times in 553 plate appearances last season.

Those developmental goals — as well as the manipulation of service time — will likely keep Mountcastle in Norfolk for the start of 2020.

Akin, 24, is coming off an uneven season in which he posted a 4.73 ERA and walked 4.9 batters per nine innings, but that came in a high run-scoring environment in the International League. The lefty struck out an impressive 10.5 batters per nine inning at Triple A and is likely to be promoted to the big leagues at some point in 2020.

A bright spot in the Manny Machado trade return, Kremer overcame an oblique injury in the spring to post a 2.98 ERA and strike out 9.2 batters per nine innings at Bowie. The 23-year-old right-hander struggled in four starts at Norfolk, but he cemented his status as a legitimate pitching prospect with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Kremer struck out an impressive 122 batters in 113 2/3 innings in the minors in 2019.

Unlike the aforementioned trio, McKenna wasn’t considered a sure thing to be protected after posting an underwhelming .232 average and .686 OPS with Bowie in 2019. However, his above-average defense in center field and the memory of his 2018 breakout first half with Single-A Frederick made the speedy 22-year-old a possibility to be selected by another major league club eyeing a defense-first reserve outfielder, especially with teams now allowed to carry a 26th player on the roster.

The biggest omission from the 40-man roster was 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock, who overcame consecutive injury-riddled seasons to post a 2.84 ERA and a 9.5 per nine strikeout rate split between Frederick and Bowie in 2019. Exposing the 24-year-old right-hander to the Rule 5 draft carries risk, but his bounce-back performance came at an advanced age for the Carolina League — where he spent most of the season — and his previous two years could prompt clubs to pass on him next month.

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