AL EastAnalysis

Orioles 2021 Season Preview

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Drew Reynolds takes a look at the Orioles! 

On 2/16 the Orioles were trending on Twitter! It was exciting! Did they sign someone noteworthy? Did they make a blockbuster trade? Uh… no: They were the only team that fangraphs gave a 0.0% chance at making the playoffs. While it may be hard to argue against that percentage, if 2020 was an indicator, the Orioles seem to be slowly making their way back to relevance.

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 25-35, 4th Place in AL East

Team MVP: OF Anthony Santander

Team Cy Young: RP Tanner Scott

A .417 win percentage isn’t usually seen as a good, but for the 2020 Orioles it was better than expected. They even managed to stay out of the basement of the AL East (the Orioles were better than the Red Sox!). And statistically, they were right around league average both offensively and on the mound. 

Outfielder and 2016 Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander was the Orioles standout player despite missing a large portion of the season due to injury. After sneakily hitting 20 homers in 2019, Santander would have crushed that plateau given a full season, as he hit 11 in 37 games while slashing .261/.315/.575.

Left-handed reliever Tanner Scott finally lived up to the potential he’s shown throughout his minor league career. After years of control issues, Scott was finally able to limit the walks to an acceptable level. And while his K/9 ratio dropped, it remained at 10.0 which speaks for itself. Scott finished the year allowing 3 ERs over 20.2 innings which was good for a 1.31 ERA.

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020: 1B/DH Renato Nunez, 2B Hanser Alberto, SP Alex Cobb (traded), SS Jose Iglesias (traded)

Notable Free Agent Additions: IF Yolmer Sanchez (Waivers-CWS), SS Freddy Galvis, SP Felix Hernandez (Minor), SP Matt Harvey (Minor)

Notable Trades: (1) SS Jose Igelesias to LAA for SP Jean Pinto and SP Garrett Stallings. (2) SP Alex Cobb to LAA for 2B/CF Jahmai Jones

The Orioles are still in rebuild mode, thus it isn’t surprising that they tweaked their roster a bit in the offseason. With Trey Mancini’s upcoming return and Ryan Mountcastle’s stellar showing in 2020, Orioles GM Mike Elias saw Renato Nunez as expendable, and he was DFA’d and subsequently released in November. Nunez was slated to get a raise via arbitration, which is also the likely reason for 2B Hanser Alberto’s departure, as he was non-tendered in early December.

A slightly more surprising move happened the same day that Alberto was non-tendered, as SS Jose Iglesias was traded to the Angels for two prospects. This came as a surprise as Iglesias was terrific in 2020 and the club had exercised the 2021 club-option in his contract a month prior. The Orioles were also able to make a separate deal with the Angels for SP Alex Cobb, receiving 2B/CF Jamai Jones in return. The Orioles do have to retain $10m of the $15m Cobb is slated to make this upcoming season.

To no one’s surprise, the Orioles have not signed any big money free agents. Instead, they opted to take flyers on two big-name free agent starting pitchers in former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and former All-Star pitcher Matt Harvey. Both are coming in on minor-league deals and are looking to make the Opening Day roster. The Orioles also claimed former Gold Glove winning 2B Yolmer Sanchez off waivers from the White Sox and signed veteran shortstop Freddy Galvis to replace Alberto and Iglesias, respectively.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup: Bold Additions from 2020 to 2021

1) CF Austin Hays (R)

2) RF Anthony Santander (S)

3) DH/1B Trey Mancini (R)

4) 1B/DH Ryan Mountcastle (R)

5) C Chance Cisco (L)

6) LF DJ Stewart (L)

7) SS Freddy Galvis (S)

8) 3B Rio Ruiz (L)

9) 2B Yolmer Sanchez (S)

Projected Bench: C Pedro Severino (R), 1B Chris Davis (L), IF/OF Pat Valaika (R), OF Cedric Mullins (L)

Projected Rotation:

  1. LHP John Means
  2. LHP Keegan Akin
  3. RHP Dean Kremer
  4. RHP Jorge Lopez
  5. RHP Felix Hernandez

Projected Bullpen: RHP Hunter Harvey, LHP Tanner Scott, RHP Cesar Valdez, RHP Cole Susler, LHP Paul Fry, RHP Shawn Armstrong, RHP Travis Lakins Sr, RHP Tyler Wells (Rule 5)

Despite the departure of a couple of mainstays in Nunez and Alberto, the Orioles’ lineup is their biggest strength and should benefit greatly from the return of fan-favorite Trey Mancini who missed all of 2020 recovering from stage 3 colon cancer.

The Orioles’ batting order will largely be decided by two things; current form and lefty/righty matchups. Catching will be a platoon with Chance Sisco mostly catching against righties and Pedro Severino mostly against lefties. Pat Valaika will also likely platoon against lefties coming in for 3B Rio Ruiz or OF DJ Stewart. 

Santander, Mancini, and Mountcastle should routinely be in the heart of the lineup, but outside of that, nothing is set in stone. Center fielder Austin Hays will probably begin the season as the leadoff hitter but it wouldn’t be shocking to see a lefty or switch-hitter (such as Sanchez, Galvis, Stewart, Mullins) be given leadoff duty to keep the lineup L/R/L/R. Highly-paid 1B Chris Davis will start the season on the bench but has claimed to have substantially changed his swing. He’ll see some starts at 1B or DH against righties, with Mancini or Mountcastle either moving to an OF spot or getting a day off on those days.

As for the Orioles’ pitching staff, it is and will likely remain in flux as most of the rotation and bullpen spots are completely up for grabs. Despite a terrible start to his 2020 campaign, John Means recovered nicely at the end of the year and will likely be the Opening Day starter and is the only member of the rotation that is guaranteed to have a spot.

As for the rest of the rotation…uhh…who knows? Jorge Lopez is out of minor-league options so he’ll probably hold down a spot on the roster. Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin both pitched fairly well in their limited 2020 starts and are probably the favorites to make the rotation. Bruce Zimmerman also has a shot. After that, it’s seemingly all a bunch of non-roster invitees as King Felix, Matt Harvey, Wade LeBlanc, and Tom Eshelman all have a legitimate shot at the rotation (and bullpen for that matter).

The 2020 minor leagues were cancelled and because of that it’s hard to gauge the readiness of the Orioles’ top pitching prospects. For the sake of projections, we’re going to assume the likes of Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alex Wells, DL Hall, and Grayson Rodriguez will start the season in the minors and will see their debuts some time later this season or possibly in 2022. This can also be said for a number of position player prospects including IF Rylan Bannon, OF Yusniel Diaz, and the most well-known prospect, 2019 1st overall draft pick, catcher Adley Rutschman.

Much like the rotation, the Orioles’ bullpen will likely be decided in spring training. Despite having only recorded one save throughout his professional career, former first round pick Hunter Harvey is the assumed closer with Tanner Scott being his setup man and the only other reliever guaranteed a roster spot. Cesar Valdez and Shawn Armstrong both had sub-2.00 ERAs and are out of options and will also be favorites for a roster spot. Paul Fry, who pitched well in 2020, has little competition for the second lefty in the bullpen. After that, it’s a toss-up. Cole Susler, Travis Lakins Sr., Dillon Tate, and Isaac Mattison are all currently on the 40-man roster currently. They, along with two Rule 5 picks (Tyler Wells and Max Sceroler), will probably make up the rest of the bullpen. 

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 63-99, 5th place in AL East

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PECOTA Projected Record: 66-96, 5th place in AL East

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Personal Projection: 66-96, 5th place in AL East

The Orioles’ lineup, if it can stay healthy, has serious and sneaky potential. They are young as a whole, but they have significant Major League experience and could be dangerous on any given night. 

Ironically, some of the same could be said for the pitching staff, namely the “young” and “dangerous” part. Sadly, that connotation is not positive on the pitching side. While it was alright in 2020, there are just too many question marks in the Orioles’ rotation to take them as a serious threat in one of the most difficult divisions in baseball. Take them out of the AL East and their win total could probably reach the low 70s. However, as it is, they are more likely to lose 100 games than to win 75 in 2021.

Final Thoughts

There’s a famous saying in the world of English soccer: “It’s the hope that kills you.” Luckily for the Orioles, they shouldn’t have much hope for 2021. Still, that means they have nothing to lose and that’s always fun. The Orioles shouldn’t be embarrassing and, with a boatload of prospects waiting for their shot, have a lot to look forward to.

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