For all the fun the Orioles have provided in this unprecedented 2020 season, John Means hadn’t been a part of it.
The 2019 second-place finisher in AL Rookie of the Year voting began the abbreviated 60-game campaign with a sore left shoulder and made just two starts before losing his father to pancreatic cancer in early August. Though carrying a couple extra ticks on his fastball from 2019, Means had lost the feel for his changeup, the game-changing pitch that transformed him from being a fringe member of the Opening Day bullpen to the All-Star Game last season. Through six starts in 2020, the 27-year-old had pitched to an ugly 8.10 ERA and allowed eight home runs in 20 innings of work.
That changed Tuesday as Baltimore won its fourth straight to improve to 20-21 and tie the struggling New York Yankees in the loss column for the final wild-card spot in the AL’s expanded eight-team field. After a “tough talk” with manager Brandon Hyde last week, Means looked more like the 2019 version of himself in what was easily his best outing of the season in the 11-2 victory over the New York Mets.
“I was trying to force a lot of things, trying to get strikeouts, trying to blow it by everybody,” said Means after allowing one run and three hits over six innings to collect his first win of 2020. “That’s just not how I pitch. That’s not me. Hyde called me into the office and … told me this isn’t me. This isn’t how I pitch. This isn’t who I should be. I was getting frustrated; I was getting upset and angry with myself. To be able to relax out there and just be myself, it really helped me.”
By not trying to miss bats, Means struck out five and registered 15 swinging strikes, season highs in those departments. He effectively located his fastball that still carried extra giddy-up while better commanding the changeup over the course of the night, retiring 14 of the final 15 Mets hitters he faced to take full advantage of the run support from the Baltimore lineup.
Yes, it’s only one start, but a Means resurgence on the heels of rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer shutting down the Yankees last weekend would give the Orioles the makings of their most interesting starting rotation in quite some time. Regardless of whether that helps propel them to an unlikely 2020 playoff berth, it’s the latest sign of the Orioles beginning to turn the corner in a rebuilding process that’s far from complete.
And it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Though the Orioles placing Chris Davis on the 10-day injured list to make room for Ryan Mountcastle felt poetic in some ways, assuming it was the end for the first baseman was premature.
Davis was activated on Tuesday, but Hyde made no firm commitment to play the 34-year-old first baseman, who had started just two of the club’s last eight games before being sent to the IL with “left knee patellar tendinitis” on Aug. 21.
“I’m going to find spots to possibly play him,” Hyde said. “I think that when I make the lineup out, I’m going to give our team the best chance to win. If [Davis] is part of the lineup that day, he is. And if not, he’s going to be ready to pinch hit or defend late.”
Whether clubbing home runs, drawing more walks that expected, playing a respectable left field, or beating out routine grounders for infield hits, Mountcastle is rapidly emerging as one of the Orioles’ best players, especially helpful after the oblique injury to Anthony Santander.
In his first 63 plate major league plate appearances, the 23-year-old is batting .339 with a 1.004 OPS, four home runs, three doubles, 13 runs batted in, six walks, and 12 strikeouts. Despite a fraction of the playing time as most Baltimore regulars, Mountcastle currently ranks fourth on the club with 0.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
Perhaps Mountcastle should have been promoted sooner, but it’s sure fun watching him now.
Odds & ends
Cedric Mullins was just a homer shy of the cycle in Tuesday’s win to raise his season average to .293 with a rock-solid .780 OPS. After a nightmare 2019 that saw him demoted to Double-A Bowie, Mullins taking full advantage of the opportunity created by the Austin Hays rib injury has been one of the better stories of the season. … The Orioles were seemingly waving the white flag on 2020 by trading veteran bullpen arms Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, and Richard Bleier, but a hard-throwing back end of Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey, and Dillon Tate could be fun to watch for the rest of 2020 and beyond. … I’m not sure DJ Stewart’s current hot streak means he’ll stick in the majors for good this time, but his .185/.421/.630 slash line entering Wednesday is about as crazy as it gets in terms of weird baseball stats.
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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The Orioles continue to seek fresh arms and palatable answers in the American League’s worst bullpen.
After optioning relievers Paul Fry and Evan Phillips to Triple-A Norfolk early Friday morning, Baltimore recalled left-hander Tanner Scott from the Tides and right-hander pitcher Branden Kline from Double-A Bowie for the second contest of a four-game set in Seattle. With starting pitcher John Means going to the 10-day injured list with a left shoulder strain a day earlier, manager Brandon Hyde was forced into a bullpen game for the second time in three days with lefty Sean Gilmartin opening Friday’s tilt against the Mariners.
The hard-throwing Scott had gotten on a role for the Tides in recent weeks, pitching to a 1.96 ERA and striking out 22 batters over his last 18 1/3 innings. The 24-year-old has struck out a very impressive 13.1 batters per nine innings over 61 2/3 frames in the majors, but control problems and extreme inconsistency prompted demotions both at the end of spring training and after a 2 1/2-week stint with Baltimore in April.
Scott had a 3.57 ERA with 27 strikeouts and 10 walks in 22 2/3 innings with Norfolk this season, but he will need to improve upon his career 5.69 mark in the majors to stick with the Orioles this time around.
Kline, 27, making his major league debut two months ago was an uplifting story after his well-chronicled injury history in the minors, but his initial success in the majors was fleeting as he had been scored upon in five straight appearances with the Orioles before being optioned to the Baysox earlier this month. The right-hander has a 5.89 ERA in 18 1/3 innings with Baltimore this season.
Fry had been one of Hyde’s few trusted relievers all season until he’d surrendered six earned runs in his last five appearances covering 2 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old lefty owns a 4.75 ERA in 30 1/3 innings this season and wouldn’t figure to be in the minors for long.
Phillips had been recalled for his fifth stint with the Orioles Thursday before once again being sent out. He has a 7.79 ERA in 17 1/3 innings for Baltimore in 2019.
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BALTIMORE — DJ Stewart doesn’t headline the list of prospects needing to work out for the Orioles in the early stages of what’s expected to be an extensive rebuilding effort.
The 2015 first-round pick was cut from big-league camp nearly three weeks before the start of the season, leading one to believe the new regime wasn’t overly impressed with the 25-year-old outfielder who’d made his major league debut the previous September. Though some believe Stewart can become a solid everyday starter at a corner outfield spot or as a designated hitter, others project him to be more of a bench player or platoon contributor. In other words, he’s not a cornerstone talent like whichever player general manager Mike Elias selects with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft next week.
But Stewart’s Tuesday arrival is still meaningful for an organization whose minor-league call-ups so far this season have mostly been dictated by someone else performing poorly or the need for a fresh reliever on a pitching staff ranking last in the majors in ERA. We’ve seen center fielder Cedric Mullins and hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scott struggle and sent down despite spending extensive time in Baltimore last year. On the positive side, right-hander Branden Kline has emerged as one of the Orioles’ better relievers of late, but his arrival was facilitated by the bullpen being taxed in April.
After batting a whopping .456 with a 1.395 on-base plus slugging percentage for Triple-A Norfolk in May, Stewart is in the big leagues to hopefully signal the start of the eventual talent pipeline to which Elias has referred as the key to the Orioles’ future. Unlike the many players on the current roster viewed more as placeholders than prospects, Stewart forced his way to the Orioles with a .316 average, 23 extra-base hits, and a 1.010 OPS for the Tides.
“DJ’s definitely earned his way here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Like we told a lot of those guys in their exit meetings in spring training, go down to Triple A with a chip on your shoulder, prove to everybody that you should be in the big leagues, and do everything you can to get back here. And DJ did that.”
It’s no secret the Orioles want players to develop fully in the minor leagues in hopes of staying in the majors when finally promoted, which is why top-10 prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin aren’t being considered for a call-up after only two months at Triple A. That approach is a stark contrast to recent years in which prospects were frequently rushed to the majors and then shuttled back and forth to Norfolk due to poor performance or the roster needs of a contending club. Much like Trey Mancini a few years ago, Stewart has been challenged to master every minor-league level in a more traditional way.
Instead of sulking after his mid-spring demotion, Stewart seized the opportunity to grow as a player and improve upon a pedestrian 2018 season in which he batted .235 and posted a .716 OPS at Norfolk. The Florida State product increased his walk rate from 11 percent to 15 percent, decreased his strikeout rate from 21 percent to 14 percent, and added nearly 200 points to his slugging percentage from a year ago.
Simply put, there was nothing else for him to accomplish in the minors. And even though the recent acquisition of outfielder Keon Broxton made it look like Stewart might be forced to wait even longer, Chris Davis going to the 10-day injured list with a hip injury opened up first base for Trey Mancini and cleared a roster spot for another outfielder.
“You can only control what you can control,” said Stewart, who credits the loosening of his back elbow in his hitting approach for his Triple-A tear. “You’ve got continue to play wherever you’re at. I know that they were watching, and they were just trying to find a way to get me here. It’s nothing against them at all. It’s a business, and they had to find the right opportunity. I’m glad that it happened sooner than later.”
The wait for the next notable call-up after Stewart might be a while. Mullins is batting just .235 for the Tides since the Orioles sent him down in late April. Catcher Chance Sisco entered Tuesday with an .865 OPS for Norfolk, but lingering doubts about his defense and the surprising play of Pedro Severino in Baltimore have seemingly delayed his return to the majors. Outfielder Austin Hays has just gotten back to playing at Double-A Bowie after his late-spring thumb injury and has still never played at the Triple-A level, a reason why he was optioned to the minors despite his strong spring.
That means Stewart will serve as an object of curiosity for the foreseeable future on a club on pace to lose 111 games and needing as much young talent as it can find. The Orioles hope he’ll be the first of many call-ups over the next few years that will be based on merit more than attrition and will result in a permanent stay.
“I want him to play. I want him to not change a thing from what he’s doing at Norfolk,” said Hyde, who plans to rotate Stewart with Broxton, Dwight Smith Jr., and Stevie Wilkerson in the outfield alignment. “Not to put too much pressure on himself, not feel like he has to carry us in any way. I just want him to do what he was doing.
“I think a lot of times what happens is guys come up from Triple A and feel like they have something to prove and try a little too hard. I want to make him as relaxed as possible and make him really comfortable here, and I think we’re going to see good things.”
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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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With the Orioles having lost seven of eight before embarking on their second road trip of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the pitching staff, each in 50 words or less:
1. Chris Davis’ record hitless streak is national news, but allowing 37 home runs in 13 games borders on the unthinkable. No other team entered Friday surrendering more than 26. The major league record for a season is 258 allowed by Cincinnati in 2016; Baltimore’s current pace is 461.
2. Watching Dylan Bundy strike out five — four on sliders — and not allow a hit the first time through the order before giving up four home runs Thursday makes you wonder if he’s better suited to relieve. It could help an average fastball velocity that’s down to 90.8 miles per hour.
3. Miguel Castro has never missed as many bats as you’d expect despite a mid-90s fastball and a slider that’s often shown good movement, but he’s been a mess so far. After posting a solid 3.77 ERA the previous two years, Castro should have been ready to graduate rather than regress.
4. There was never a guarantee Richard Bleier would be ready for the start of 2019 following last June’s lat surgery, so sending him to the injured list with shoulder tendinitis is the responsible move. He and that sinker that sparked a 1.97 ERA the last three seasons clearly weren’t right.
5. Brandon Hyde expressed optimism about Alex Cobb’s back issue not lingering beyond the 10-day minimum, but even a rebuilding club still needs starters to eat innings and provide stability. Especially with a contract that will be difficult to move, Cobb needs to be a big part of that.
6. Many expected Mychal Givens to be the closer, but Hyde said he “wants to use Mike when the game’s on the line,” whether that’s the ninth inning or sooner. It’s a refreshing stance, especially for a club without the options to have a paint-by-numbers bullpen like Buck Showalter enjoyed.
7. Even having pitched his first two games as an “opener” and being on a schedule, Nate Karns showed diminished velocity in each of his outings before going to the IL with forearm tightness. You hope for the best, but his injury history is why he was available for $800,000.
8. Paul Fry has been the Orioles’ best reliever so far with a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings and the highest game-entering leverage index on the team, an indication of the kind of game situations in which Hyde has used the lefty. He was a nice find by Dan Duquette.
9. Despite the apparent Houston influence from Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal that has Andrew Cashner throwing more sliders and fewer fastballs, his swinging-strike percentage has decreased from last year. The veteran just isn’t missing bats, which makes it much more challenging to succeed.
10. John Means pitched into some bad luck in his first start, but he’s been a pleasant surprise early, especially with a changeup that’s fetched 18 swinging strikes out of the 73 times he’s thrown it. Hyde wants to give him more starting opportunities.
12. If the intention behind optioning Tanner Scott to Triple-A Norfolk after a poor spring was to make him succeed at that level after he originally went from Double A to the majors, recalling him after just two appearances for the Tides didn’t seem to make much sense.
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With a new season upon us, here are nine questions on the rebuilding Orioles entering the 2019 campaign:
Will the Orioles be even worse than last year?
Their 115 losses last season set a club record and were the fourth most in the majors since 1900, but the Orioles now begin 2019 without Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach, who all began 2018 with the organization and made meaningful contributions to previous playoff runs. Of the four other clubs to lose 115 games in a season since 1900, all won at least 11 more games the following year and only the 1962 Mets suffered triple-digit losses again. In other words, the probability of the Orioles plummeting to the same level of ineptitude remains low with many projection models forecasting somewhere between 98 and 105 losses. Still, looking at that Opening Day roster reminds you of those early scenes in Major League, doesn’t it?
How will manager Brandon Hyde handle his first season?
The former Chicago Cubs bench coach received positive reviews in his first spring camp for creating an upbeat and efficient working environment, but now the games count and the dark shadow of losing lingers. No one expects Hyde to be a miracle worker with a club that wasn’t constructed with any intention to contend, but how he handles a young clubhouse and how hard players compete on a nightly basis will reflect on his managing acumen more so than the AL East standings. The 45-year-old knew what he was getting into when he accepted this job in December and understands the organization’s focus on the big picture, but the reality of a long season is upon him. No matter how ugly it might get, the Orioles still have to show up and play the games.
Who will begin — or continue to — establish himself as a piece for the long run?
The late-spring demotions of catcher Chance Sisco, outfielder Austin Hays, and lefty reliever Tanner Scott took much of the air out of this balloon for fans desperate to at least watch interesting prospects in what’s expected to be a losing season, but Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins certainly stand out on a 25-man roster consisting mostly of fringe placeholders and veterans likely to be long gone before Baltimore’s next competitive window opens. With so many changes over the last year, we forget Mancini has just two full seasons under his belt as he tries to find more consistency after a rough first half in 2018. Meanwhile, Mullins opens 2019 as the starting center fielder, but Hyde and general manager Mike Elias have shared the potential they see in Hays as an eventual center fielder, which should serve as motivation for the incumbent. There are fair questions about his throwing arm and ability to hit from the right side, but the switch-hitting Mullins will have his opportunities to establish himself as an everyday player this season. Though not exactly prospects, Miguel Castro, David Hess, and Jimmy Yacabonis are under-the-radar pitchers who could benefit from the analytical advances introduced by the new regime.
Which veterans will play well enough to become trade chips?
The reward for guys like Jonathan Villar, Andrew Cashner, Nate Karns, and Mark Trumbo having good seasons is a likely ticket out of Baltimore as Elias aims to add more talent in the farm system. That’s just reality in the early stages of a rebuild, regardless of how much an organization might say it values veteran leadership. The cases of Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens will be more interesting to monitor as they’re both under club control through 2021 and would carry more trade value than the aforementioned names if they can rebound from their underwhelming 2018 performance levels. Some might add Alex Cobb to the list of potential trade chips, but the 31-year-old would have to pitch exceptionally well for another club to be willing to commit to the additional $29 million he’s owed beyond 2019.
What will happen with Chris Davis?
We’re all aware of the historic nightmare that was last season for the 33-year-old first baseman, but where does the new Orioles regime go from here with a player who is still owed $92 million over the next four seasons and will be collecting deferred money long after that? Davis fared a little better late in the spring, but he still batted .189 with 19 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League. It will be interesting to see where Hyde uses him in the batting order – Davis batted third or fourth for much of the spring before dropping to sixth in Monday’s finale – or how long he sticks with him as a starter if he looks like the same guy from last year. Everyone hopes a new front office and coaching staff can salvage some semblance of value, but the Angelos brothers will be the ones to make the ultimate call on Davis’ status if he’s no better this year. It’s one thing to talk about Davis as a sunk cost on a losing club, but Mancini has already been pushed to left field and a strong 2019 from Mountcastle — who worked extensively at first base this spring — will have him knocking on the major-league door. You don’t want Davis blocking other young players ready for the majors.
How will the Rule 5 picks fare?
The Orioles will enter a season with three Rule 5 picks on the roster for a second straight year as reliever Pedro Araujo has a couple more weeks to go to fulfill his requirement in the majors and new Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson both made the team. It appears Martin will begin the year as the starting shortstop despite a difficult finish to spring training while Jackson was used in a super utility role this spring. A rebuilding club desperate for more talent is smart to carry promising Rule 5 picks, but let’s hope the practice brings more value than it did for Dan Duquette. For all the roster headaches and shorthanded situations the Orioles endured carrying Rule 5 players while trying to contend from 2012-18, those players netted a total of 1.1 wins above replacement in their time with the organization.
When will more interesting prospects be arriving in Baltimore?
Aside from Sisco and Scott, Hays appeared to be the next prospect on the cusp of the majors before spraining his thumb over the weekend. Beyond that trio, many fans will follow how Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle fare at Triple-A Norfolk with hopes of them making their major league debut later this season. Of course, how Elias handled Sisco, Scott, and Hays – three prospects already having major league experience – should make everyone take pause about the development timeline for any prospects at this point. The Orioles are prioritizing player development over attempts to squeeze out a couple more wins at the major league level or to appease fans hoping to watch more exciting young players. That said, other names acquired in last year’s deadline deals – many of whom already made cameos in Baltimore — appear likely to show up at some point this season. Lefty Keegan Akin, a 2016 second-round pick, and 23-year-old right-hander Dean Kremer, acquired in the Manny Machado trade, are two starting pitchers to monitor in the high minor leagues.
How much innovation and experimentation will we see from a club with nothing to lose?
Entering a season with expectations lower than they’ve been at any point in the history of the franchise, the rebuilding Orioles should embrace the opportunity to innovate and experiment, making it refreshing to hear Hyde reveal plans to use an opener in the second game of the season against the New York Yankees. Why not dive even deeper into infield and outfield positioning and explore new ideas for pitch sequencing, bullpen usage, and batting orders? Why lose with conventional practices when you can at least explore some new ideas and theories contenders might be afraid to try? Perhaps the Orioles even discover an edge or two that might help in the future when they’re ready to contend again. Much of this work with technology and analytics will remain behind the scenes, of course, but any new ideas making their way to the field will be interesting.
What will attendance look like at Camden Yards?
Asked to give his pitch for why fans should still come to the ballpark this season, Elias offered the following on Tuesday:
“We’re doing things the right way, the way that they need to be done. The end goal here is not to try to cobble together a one-year-wonder .500 club that could be a disaster if it doesn’t work out right and then we spend a few years digging out of that hole. We want to put together a perennial contending organization. And we’re initiating that process. We know how to do it. We’re going about it the way that we need to go about it. In the meantime, there’s going to be young talent on the field. These guys are going to be hustling, playing hard. There are going to be ‘tools’ as we say in the scouting world — big talent out there — that we can watch. And we’re in a wonderful baseball environment here in Camden Yards and here in the Inner Harbor. You come appreciate the sport and see some good baseball and watch this team grow.”
While I agree with those sentiments, expecting fans to pay major-league prices to watch a rebuilding team is a lot to ask, especially with attendance having already fallen annually since 2014 when the club was coming off a 96-win season and still in the midst of its competitive window. The Orioles ranked 26th in the majors in average attendance (20,053 per game) last year despite there being some hope of contending entering 2018. To be clear, no one should be crying the blues for an organization that’s cut its payroll in half over the last 18 months, but an empty Camden Yards hurts nearby businesses and seasonal stadium workers. The “Kids Cheer Free” initiative is a positive step that will be continued this year, but more ticket deals, promotions, and imagination are required if the Orioles hope to draw people to watch an inferior on-field product.
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Orioles catching prospect Chance Sisco had a heck of a spring.
But despite leading the club with a stout 1.298 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, the 24-year-old was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday. General manager Mike Elias and the Orioles now appear set to head north with the duo of Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino, two defensive-minded catchers who’ve shown little offensive ability in their major league experiences.
The decision was met with scrutiny from those citing the organization’s declaration of open competition this spring or fans merely wanting what’s shaping up to be another difficult season to be more compelling. The latter sentiment is perfectly understandable with the Orioles still charging major-league prices for a club that doesn’t look dramatically different than it did at the conclusion of a franchise-worst 115-loss campaign last fall. The idea of a full-scale rebuild clashes with the reality of the Orioles ultimately being an entertainment business still trying to sell tickets to 81 home games this year.
Finding compelling reasons to go to the ballpark beyond an unconditional love for the Orioles, an attractive giveaway night, or wanting to cheer on the few interesting players who might still be around a few years from now isn’t easy.
That said, we shouldn’t forget Sisco also posted a 1.274 OPS last spring to win a spot on the Opening Day roster to split time with veteran Caleb Joseph. In 184 plate appearances in the regular season, he batted .181 with a strikeout rate only a hair better than Chris Davis’ and ranking among the worst 10 in baseball among those with at least 150 plate appearances. That’s not even considering the questions about his defense that have surrounded Sisco since being selected in the second round of the 2013 amateur draft.
You always prefer good numbers over poor statistics in the spring, but how much do small sample sizes — which are problematic enough in the regular season — really mean when spring box scores are littered with competitors having no chance of playing in the majors this season? As Elias has noted more than once, there is more predictive power from minor-league regular-season numbers than with performance in spring training.
Despite formerly being ranked a top-100 prospect in baseball, Sisco owns a career .260 average with a .733 OPS in 557 plate appearances at Norfolk. Those sound like solid numbers for a catcher, but they’re not impressive enough to confidently predict major league success or to overlook the concerns about his ability behind the plate, a factor to consider even more with such a young pitching staff in Baltimore. It’s clear Elias and the organization believe there’s unfinished business for Sisco to complete in the minors, and that’s all that should matter for the Orioles now.
The sense of “competition” isn’t as much about Sisco being a better present-day option than Sucre or Severino in the majors — which is still debatable when you factor in defense — than it is about him meeting benchmarks that will improve his chances of being a successful major leaguer, something he wasn’t last year. It’s where the intersection of player development and analytics come into the picture to use coaching methods as well as technology and data to chart out a path to success. As their track record in player development reflects in Houston, Elias and assistant general manager and analytics guru Sig Mejdal deserve trust in assessing someone who’s hardly considered to be a slam-dunk prospect anyway.
To be clear, none of this is a knock on Sisco as the same principles hold true for the likes of hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott and outfielder Austin Hays, who have also spent time in the majors. These are individuals who were rushed to the major leagues by the previous regime before completing their development as Scott and Hays have combined to appear in a total of 10 games at Norfolk.
For every rare talent such as Manny Machado capable of skipping minor-league levels, there are many more who benefit from more experience before graduating to the majors. Such a mindset sure beats the perceived philosophy of “you can’t mess up the good ones” that was practiced frequently in the past, whether it was the Orioles shuffling Kevin Gausman between the bullpen and the rotation — and the majors and the minors — for years or even briefly calling up oft-injured pitching prospect Hunter Harvey last season despite the former first-round pick having pitched very little the previous three years. These were examples of questionable tactics for even a winning club, but such a mindset would be wildly inappropriate for one with no hope of contending this year.
As we’ve said all offseason, patience is the most difficult part at the start of a rebuild. It’s easy to romanticize the process with this year marking the 30th anniversary of the “Why Not?” Orioles, but that was a rare exception to the rule and that club wasn’t exactly an example of sustaining long-term success. Rushing prospects like Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle isn’t turning Baltimore into a wild-card contender overnight and could compromise their long-term chances for success.
Simply put, this season isn’t likely to be fun and isn’t designed to be despite what will be manager Brandon Hyde’s best efforts to get the major league club to play hard and compete every night. Elias isn’t forming an Opening Day roster to try to squeak out a couple more wins in 2019; he’s trying to cultivate assets in the best way he sees fit to eventually be part of the Orioles’ next contending club.
When those young players accomplish what they need to down below, we’ll see them in Baltimore as part of the next phase of the process. In the meantime, the Orioles will look a lot like they did last year.
That’s just the hard truth with the big picture being paramount.
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Catcher Chance Sisco and relief pitcher Tanner Scott were thought to be among the few intriguing young players who would begin the season with the rebuilding Orioles while most others go the minors.
General manager Mike Elias had other ideas, however, as the two were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday despite seeing extensive playing time with the Orioles last season. The moves were just the latest reminder of there being a new regime in Baltimore with a different vision prioritizing player development for the future over the short-term results at the major-league level.
Sisco and defensive-minded veteran Jesus Sucre had appeared to be the favorites to head north on the 25-man roster, but the waiver acquisition of former Washington catcher Pedro Severino over the weekend led to the former’s demotion, a clear sign of the organization valuing defense behind the plate to help a young pitching staff. Sisco, 24, had a strong spring in which he posted a 1.298 on-base plus slugging percentage in 45 plate appearances — his second straight impressive Grapefruit League — but his defense remains a major question mark in his long-term development.
In 184 plate appearances with the Orioles last season, Sisco batted just .181 with 66 strikeouts and a .557 OPS. He also struggled in his 2018 stints with the Tides, batting just .242 with a .696 OPS in 151 plate appearances.
Once thought to be the Nationals’ catcher of the future, the 25-year-old Severino is out of minor-league options and owns a career .560 OPS in 282 major league plate appearances. His defense is his strength as he’s thrown out 36 percent of runners attempting to steal in his brief major league career.
Also vying for a major league job, 28-year-old catcher Austin Wynns has missed extensive spring action while recovering from an oblique strain and is likely to begin the season on the injured list.
Scott was demoted to Norfolk after a rough spring in which he posted an 8.00 ERA with six walks and six strikeouts in nine innings. The hard-throwing lefty posted a 5.40 ERA in 53 1/3 innings with the Orioles last season, but his 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings were encouraging, especially if he can further improve his control.
It’s worth noting Scott has pitched just 12 innings at the Triple-A level, which may have factored into Elias’ decision to send him to the minors after an up-and-down rookie season. The Orioles are also trying to fulfill the remainder of right-hander Pedro Araujo’s Rule 5 requirement, which will require the 25-year-old to stay in the majors until mid-April.
The Orioles also optioned left-hander Josh Rogers to Norfolk and reassigned catchers Carlos Perez and Andrew Susac and infielder Jace Peterson to minor-league camp on Sunday.
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With Grapefruit League action beginning over the weekend, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. The early reviews of the culture being created by Brandon Hyde have been very positive. That probably won’t mean much in the standings this season, but it will matter for players continuing to buy into the process and to play hard as losses likely mount.
2. Top outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz is unlikely to break camp with the Orioles, but his two-run home run in the first spring game was a glimpse of the power the organization believes is still ascending. General manager Mike Elias offered a glowing review on Saturday.
3. It’s no secret the Houston Astros emphasized slider usage with much success, a philosophy that figures to be applied in Baltimore. Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Tanner Scott, and Jimmy Yacabonis are a few pitchers to watch in this regard.
4. Alcides Escobar has been Baltimore’s most notable signing — even on a minor-league deal — despite registering a .593 on-base plus slugging percentage and minus-0.7 wins above replacement last season. Rule 5 pick Richie Martin is still preferable if he at least proves he can play quality major league defense.
5. I’m excited to watch Cedric Mullins in his first full major league season, but he’s produced no better than a .662 OPS against left-handed pitching at any level of his professional career. That did come at Triple-A Norfolk last year, so you hope the development of his right-handed swing continues.
6. Branden Kline struck out the side to earn Sunday’s save. The Frederick native missed two full seasons due to elbow surgeries, but he posted a 1.80 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings for Bowie last year and features a mid-90s fastball and plus slider. Keep an eye on him.
7. Aside from Diaz, it’s been a rough start to the spring for two others acquired in the Manny Machado trade as starting pitching prospect Dean Kremer recovers from an oblique injury and hard-throwing reliever Zach Popshowed substantially diminished velocity on Saturday, which is always concerning.
8. Chris Davis striking out in his first two spring at-bats wouldn’t be noteworthy if he weren’t coming off one of the worst seasons in major league history from an everyday player. As it stands, every trip to the plate will be under a microscope. I’m curious to see his adjustments.
9. I’ll miss the retiring Joe Angel, but more Ben McDonald on Orioles broadcasts would be a great development. He has an engaging personality and was very enlightening discussing spin rate and other pitching-related topics during Saturday’s broadcast.
11. Machado going to the National League West was probably the best-case scenario for the Orioles, but anyone mocking him for signing with San Diego — I would too for $300 million — is overlooking a loaded farm system. The Padres could be very interesting in the not-too-distant future.
12. One of the more vivid memories of my early childhood was chanting “Edd-ie! Edd-ie!” at Memorial Stadium. Orioles legend and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray turned 63 on Sunday. Where have the years gone?
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