Much like last season, the Baltimore Orioles don’t have very high expectations in 2020. Almost every projection and article I read has the O’s at the bottom of the MLB yet again.
2020 is another rebuilding year, one for developing prospects as best as possible and experimenting with the major league team to see who can stick long-term. But this doesn’t mean this year can’t be fun. Several players you’ll watch this season could be on the next great Orioles team, and the diversity they’ll face will be crucial to their development. This season preview features a position-by-position breakdown of the team, as well as players to keep an eye on at the alternate training site, a final record prediction, and how a shortened major league season and cancelled minor league season will affect a team in rebuild mode.
The backstop position appears to be another Pedro Severino/Chance Sisco platoon again this season. The duo finished last season starting 89 and 52 games behind the plate respectively, and don’t be surprised if that split is a little closer to 50/50 this season. According to those in attendance at Orioles Summer Camp, Sisco has made noticeable improvements to his swing from last season.
With expanded rosters for the first number of weeks this season, carrying a third catcher, perhaps Austin Wynns, is something the team is considering. However, with a third catcher being only a call and a thirty minute drive away and with the three-man taxi squad coming to away games including a catcher, two is probably enough.
Chris Davis is locked in at first base, especially with his only real competition at the position, Trey Mancini, out for the year. Is this the year that Davis turns it around? Probably not. Let’s move on.
Now the fun stuff. With Jonathan Villar being shipped off to Miami this offseason, second base is now wide open for a left-handed pitcher’s worst nightmare Hanser Alberto, who split time between second and third base last season. Diving into the numbers, Alberto might be the most interesting yet confusing Oriole. Versus lefties, he was among the hardest to get out in the league last year, leading baseball with 88 hits against southpaws. His plate discipline stats are all over the place, as he sports an above average zone-swing percentage (73.7) and below average swinging strike percentage (7.9) to go along with an above average outside of strike zone swing percentage of 47.6%. He may just really like swinging the bat, and I would too if I could hit .302. This would also explain his poor walk rate of just 2.9% in 2019. Despite the walk rate, he had an elite K% of just 9.1%. Furthermore, he doesn’t hit for much power (12 HR’s, .116 ISO). The 27 year-old is average in just about every other offensive metric and isn’t anything special defensively, posting a slightly above average DRS of 2 and UZR of 4.0 last season. Considering all of this, the question has to be asked. Is Alberto a one-hit wonder? In 89 games from 2015-’18 for the Texas Rangers, Alberto slashed .191/.210/.231. Hopefully the breakout season after the first real opportunity of his career is just that, a breakout season, and not a fluke. I sure hope not, as he’s one of the few bright spots for the team going into this season.
One of the newest Orioles seems to have the shortstop position locked up, and he goes by the name of Jose Iglesias. The team inked the 30 year-old to a 1 year, $3 million deal in early January. Iglesias, who spent last season in Cincinnati, is coming off his best season since his 2015 All-Star season in Detroit, slashing .288/.318/.407 with as many homers last season as he smashed the previous two. In a normal year, I would have suggested Iglesias could be a trade candidate at the deadline, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s deadline is much quieter than years past. Last year’s primary shortstop, Rule-5 pick Richie Martin, was placed on the 60-day IL after breaking his wrist diving back to first base to avoid being picked off in an intrasquad game last week.
Over at third, Rio Ruiz doesn’t seem to have much competition for his starting spot. There’s not much to Ruiz, he’s a below average to average hitter, average defender, and doesn’t appear to be the long term answer at the position.
Renato Nunez, who gave Davis and Ruiz occasional days off at first and third base last season, looks to do so again this season while primarily being the team’s designated hitter. Nunez was solid in that role last season, finishing second on the team behind Mancini in home runs with 31 to go along with a .216 ISO.
Others such as Pat Valaika, Stevie Wilkerson, and Andrew Velazquez look to fill out the bench while also providing the team some much needed versatility. With question marks all over the thin outfield group, these three utility men provide manager Brandon Hyde with coverage across the diamond. Another bench candidate, Dilson Herrera, has been tearing up Summer Camp, according to reports.
Speaking of the thin outfield group, let’s take a look at it.
Austin Hays is the only sure thing, as centerfield appears to be his now and moving forward. The 2016 third round pick’s month of September to finish last season was spectacular, slashing .303/.373/.574 with a 146 wRC+, above average walk rate and below average strikeout rate, 9.3% and 17.3% respectively, while also providing solid defense and baserunning.
Mancini’s absence benefits no one more than DJ Stewart, who has been looking for a real opportunity the last two seasons. The former first round pick’s major league career to date hasn’t been successful, being below average in nearly every offensive and defensive metric, but we’ll see how this year goes and what he can do in an everyday role.
Two outfielders who each played at least 90 games last season, Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr., have been the only Orioles to date to test positive for COVID-19, which delayed their arrival to big league camp. Santander arrived first, and is reportedly on pace to be ready for Opening Day. Smith Jr. is a little behind Santander in his recovery, having just reported to camp this past Friday. He says he is “ready to get ready for the season”, but after being placed on the injured list with ability to be removed at any time, his Opening Day status is up in the air. The team was rumored to have interest in free agent Yasiel Puig, but ultimately no deal was reached.
With that being said, the fourth outfield spot becomes a little tricky to predict. Cedric Mullins, who broke out in 2018 and appeared to be the Adam Jones replacement, regressed heavily in 2019, going from Opening Day starter to eventually being demoted to Triple-A Norfolk and later Double-A Bowie. His numbers to close out Bowie’s season looked promising, and perhaps that’s enough to earn him a spot back on the major league roster.
It was announced last week that All-Star and AL Rookie of the Year finalist John Means would be the team’s Opening Day starter on the road in Boston. Means’ chances of becoming the team’s ace only increased after the team agreed with the Angels on a Dylan Bundy trade this offseason. His status now, however, is unclear after reports of arm fatigue have sidelined Means for the last few days. After the All-Star break is when the Rookie of the Year runner up’s season went downhill, with an ERA rise from 2.50 to 4.85 and a K% drop of 20.6% to 17.2% in the second half. We’ll see which Means we get in this shortened season.
Behind Means will be Alex Cobb, who is heading into the third year of a 4 year, $57M deal signed prior to the 2018 season. The 32 year-old missed the majority of last season when he underwent surgery in June to relieve a hip impingement. Cobb, who pitched to a 4.90 ERA in 28 starts two seasons ago, excels at pitching to soft contact, illustrated by his above average 49.5% ground ball rate and below league average 31.5% fly ball rate in 2018, especially useful at Oriole Park.
Asher Wojochiecowski, as well as recent signings Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, should fill out the remaining rotation spots. Wojochiecowski is the opposite of the aforementioned Cobb, a high strikeout guy with an excellent 8.94 career K/9 but below average ground ball and above average fly ball rates. Both LeBlanc and Milone have apparently been impressive at Summer Camp. Fellow offseason addition Kohl Stewart, a former first round pick from the Minnesota Twins, could also compete for a rotation spot, but more on him in a minute.
Expanded rosters likely means an expanded bullpen for the Orioles, who will use the extra spots to help a pitching staff full of young and inexperienced arms who are rushing back to get ready for a season as quickly as possible by carrying 15-16 pitchers. We’ve already seen two hurlers suffer injuries, Means and Dillon Tate, who took a come-backer to the elbow area last week.
After missing out on a spot in the rotation, Kohl Stewart’s likely role is a multiple inning relief option out of the bullpen. Other candidates for this role include David Hess and César Valdez, a 35 year-old who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017 when he pitched just over 30 innings with Oakland and Toronto, then before that hadn’t appeared since 2010 with Arizona.
One relief option who has earned praise from Brandon Hyde is left-hander Tanner Scott. “(Scott) has been outstanding. Throwing 98 with a nasty slider. It’s been fantastic.” Hyde said. Scott has shown steady improvement in parts of three seasons in Baltimore. The 25 year-old debuted with a 1.2 inning 2017 season. The following year was his first real opportunity, and Scott took advantage, posting an excellent 12.8 K/9 in 53 appearances. Scott kept it going this past season with a 12.6 K/9 while also lowering his ERA, line drive, and fly ball rates, but was limited to only 28 games.
Other left-handed options include Richard Bleier and Paul Fry. Bleier has been incredibly solid in three seasons with the O’s with a career 3.05 ERA and only 1.5 BB/9. He also excels at producing ground balls, doing so at a 59.9% rate, nearly 16 percentage points above league average.
Continuing to fill out the ‘pen, we have righties Mychal Givens, Hunter Harvey, Miguel Castro, and Shawn Armstrong. Harvey is one of my favorite Orioles and one I’ll be interested to watch this year. A move to the bullpen after six injury-filled minor league seasons rejuvenated his career. He featured an above average strikeout rate and FIP in Triple-A last season, earning his way to a September call-up. Harvey’s development is vital to the future success of the Orioles bullpen.
The remaining spots could go to Evan Phillips and Cole Sulser. Philips pitched in 33.1 innings in parts of two seasons since joining the organization at the 2018 trade deadline, and had a 3.86 ERA and 9.9 K/9 in 39.2 innings in Triple-A this past season. Sulser was a waiver claim just after the conclusion of last season from Tampa Bay. Sulser had a solid strikeout rate of 12.1 and a 3.27 ERA for the Rays Triple-A affiliate before earning a September call-up.
More guys possibly in the mix are right-handers Tom Eshelman, Cody Carroll, and Dillon Tate. Tate, as previously mentioned, suffered an elbow injury from a comebacker early on in Summer Camp and may not be ready for Opening Day. Eshelman wasn’t special in 10 games and 4 starts last season, with a 6.50 ERA and subpar strikeout and hard-hit rates. Carroll only has 17 big league innings to his name since coming to Baltimore from New York in the Zach Britton trade in 2018. Braden Kline and Eric Hanhold could also see some time on the mound this season. The two combine for just 43 major league innings, Kline last season with Baltimore and Hanhold in 2018 with the Mets.
Players at the Bowie site to keep an eye on
The Orioles may have one of the most underrated advantages in all of baseball, which is having every minor league affiliate being located relatively close to the home ballpark, with only one affiliate outside of Maryland and three within just fifty miles of Baltimore. The club decided on the Double-A affiliate Bowie Baysox stadium to host the alternate training site.
Six of Baseball Prospectus’ top 10 Orioles prospects will be in Bowie this year. Of those, Ryan Mountcastle and pitcher Dean Kremer are the most likely to make their debut this season. The team may keep Mountcastle down to begin the season simply for service time reasons, and Hyde reportedly likes what he sees from Kremer and thinks he may be a late season addition.
Pitcher DL Hall and outfielder Yusniel Diaz were added to the player pool last week. Although neither appear to be major league ready just yet, seeing how they react to competing against major league talent without a traditional minor league season will be interesting. Hall was only in Advanced-A Ball last year, and Diaz has yet to earn a promotion from Bowie to Norfolk in two years with the organization. 2019’s first overall draft pick and face of the Orioles rebuild Adley Rutchsman is also in attendance at the alternate camp.
PECOTA projected record: 22-38
My prediction: 18-42
With only 19 wins through 60 games last season, the team’s best player in Trey Mancini unavailable, and having a young and inexperienced team that hasn’t played meaningful baseball in nine months, 20-plus wins seems a little high. The scheduling in this shortened season doesn’t give Baltimore any help either, with 29 of their 60 games coming against the Yankees, Rays, Braves, and Nationals. Then again, the difference between 18 and 22 wins is as easy as getting hot for a week, so it’s not unlikely we see a win total in the low-20’s.
How will no minor leagues affect the organization’s future?
Considering Baltimore’s future success is so reliant on those currently in the minor leagues, the Orioles stand to be one of the teams most heavily impacted by the cancelling of the minor league season. Hopefully the experience some of the top prospects will acquire at Bowie is enough to replace a year without a full season, and doesn’t delay their track to Baltimore much, if at all.
Featured photo: @Orioles on Twitter