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O’s Pitcher Suggests to MLB, “Let’s Play it Safe!”

Alex Cobb pitching

On March 12, the Orioles had literally to turn around while already on the bus to go to Fort Myers for a spring training game, and go back to the Ed Smith Stadium complex. That was the moment Major League Baseball announced the season would be delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak. The Orioles were planning to stay in Sarasota, but in a matter of hours that changed too and they were to be sent home. Minor league players fared no better, and this is something that could disrupt indiana sports betting online too, since the Hoosiers have no Major League teams. But the situation is serious, as State Health Commissioner Kris Box told the press in Indianapolis on Friday: there are probably tens of thousands of people infected with Covid-19 in Indiana, even though limited available tests have only confirmed 12 such cases.

On the same day, Friday 13,  the declaration of the state of emergency in Baltimore County followed suit. No wonder then that the Orioles too suggested to the MLB to cancel the whole season to be safe. “We just think that given the risk there is really no reason why we should have to go out there and play 162 games this year—we just care about people’s safety is all,”  pitcher Alex Cobb told the press. “Why play against the Yankees and the Red Sox game after game with this horrible infectious disease out there. It might seem safe to just take a month off, but it could come roaring back in the middle of July when we are already 40 games under .500, not that that matters at all. We’re just thinking about the fans and their health, nothing else.” 

Just a day before, Orioles executive vice president and general manager, Mike Elias, had told a conference call in Sarasota that they were “very intent on keeping everyone here until told otherwise.” The plan in that moment was to operate on a day-to-day basis, do a full cleaning of the major league and minor league complexes on Friday, and then have players returning to camp. That was the team’s preference. But it all changed in a matter of hours, as MLB decided that all major and minor league players could go home, if they wished.

On Sunday MLB issued guidelines on the situation, after Commissioner Rob Manfred, Players Association executive director Tony Clark and key aides met in Arizona on Friday and Saturday. There was no mention of completely cancelling the season yet, but it is clear by now that the delay will probably last until May, or longer. Clubs have been told to cease any organized informal workouts, further closing down camp activity. MLB has made it clear that they want to comply with governmental requests for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the meanwhile, the Yankees confirmed that a minor-league player tested positive for Covid-19 and was quarantined Friday morning after experiencing a fever.

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Once Upon a Time…When “Orioles” Meant Football Too

Kevin Gausman of the Orioles throws a football.

In the beginning was baseball. Did you know that the first American League of Professional Football in the United States was created by… the owners of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs? Yes, the National League. That was a long, long time ago. In 1894, to be precise. Eons before anyone could even dream that there would be anything like online football betting some day, there was already a clear business case for the move: baseball stadiums were empty during the winter, so additional activities were needed. There was also a promotional reason, and that was to keep public attention somewhat on baseball even during the off-season.

This is wise strategy. Now, Baltimoreans were even wiser. Guess what? They did it first. The F.C. Baltimore Orioles was founded even earlier, in 1883. It was short-lived, just one season. The baseball club, the first, 19th-century Baltimore Orioles, was born in 1882 and lived through 1899. A short but very successful life, starting from the flamboyant three consecutive first places in the League, in 1894, 1895 and 1896. And the victories in the “Temple Cup” national championship series in 1896 and 1897.

Then something went awry. The National League reduced its number of teams and franchises from 12 to 8, concentrating on the northeastern United Stated. The Baltimore Orioles were contracted out of the League after the 1899 season. After reorganizing, they became a prominent member of the Western League, which in turn evolved into the American League.

But what about the Orioles football club?

They were actually very successful. There were remarkable crowds that gathered to attend their matches, as many as 8,000 people. This stirred some jealousy in the owners of other clubs. They started to campaign against Baltimore on allegations that the Orioles were illegally employing British players. This in turn caused the U.S. immigration services to investigate the situation. But this was only part of the story.

Before the professional football League was created, the sports American Football Association had been in operations since 1884, in an effort to standardize rules and procedures. They did not appreciate at all that a new, professional league had been created and started to encroach on their territory. The stage was set for a frontal clash, and happen it did: the AFA banned players of the ALPF from playing in their tournaments. As a result, the season that had been planned for 1885 collapsed and the American League of Professional Football fell apart.

Actually, what really tanked the Baltimore football adventure was business. Baseball was much more successful and lucrative. The average public for National League games at that time was in the range of 6000, while the only season organized by the American League of Professional Football in 1984 had a weak turnover of 500 spectators on average. A total of 23 games with six teams were played, and the club owners tried to make them more attractive with very low ticket prices (about 25 cents), but to no avail.

This is why the Baltimore Orioles in the end dropped the football.

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O’s & Mets to Play at Naval Academy on March 24

It’s show time! Get ready for the exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets 

The date is March 24 at 2:05 p.m. ET, the venue is the campus of the Naval Academy, more precisely the Terwilliger Brothers Field. The Baltimore Orioles have announced they are going to play against the New York Mets in a Major League Baseball exhibition game. But, alas, tickets for the game will not be available to the public. Getting in will be a bit more difficult than getting a promo code for hollywood casino, yet it might be still possible. Learn how.

The easy way is to be a member of the Brigade of Midshipmen, or a select U.S. Navy personnel: they will get complimentary tickets. Short of that, you can get lucky if you are a Birdland Member: a limited number of remaining tickets will be made available for selected members of the fan club. The details are not known yet, so if you are a Birdland Member – stay tuned.

For all the less lucky, the game will air on 105.7 The Fan and the Orioles Radio Network. There is some ceremony involved, namely a tour of the academy facilities by players and staff from both teams, accompanied by representatives from the Naval Academy. All this is going to take place before the game.

The Orioles have had a multi-dimensional partnership with the United States Naval Academy since early 2018. An Army vs. Navy baseball doubleheader was hosted by the Baltimoreans at Oriole Park in March 2018. Then they payed a courtesy return visit to the Naval Academy facilities in Annapolis in March 2019. There is an earlier background to this partnership.

As long as 35 years went by since the Orioles played an exhibition game at Navy, though they were among the most frequent participants. Major league teams played at Bishop Stadium 13 times, and the Orioles where the protagonists in seven of those games, in 1973, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1984 and 1985. In 2017, they torpedoed a three-year agreement, known as the Naval Academy Baseball Classic, between the Washington Nationals and Navy, by complaining to Major League Baseball headquarters on the grounds they had territorial rights to Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. The Nationals had played just one of three slated games, against the Bostron Red Sox, but had to cancel the remaining two.

After the announcement of the multi-year partnership with the Naval Academy, an exhibition game was planned at Bishop Stadium in March 2019. But the Orioles could not find an opponent and had to postpone the game a whole year. A visit by the Navy baseball team to Sarasota, Florida, to meet the Orioles on their ground during spring training could not take place either. Apparently, the busy schedules of both teams could not find a suitable common date.

They did manage, though, to have an Army vs. Navy baseball doubleheader at Oriole Park in March 2018. The Orioles visited the Naval Academy facilities in Annapolis in March 2019.

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Hanser Alberto Cannot Surprise Me in 2020

During this time last year, most people didn’t have infielder Hanser Alberto breaking camp with the Orioles. I include myself among that list. But keeping him turned out to be a great decision by the club. He rotated between second and third base while contributing both in the field and at the dish. He got the job done, but did it in an unusual way.

In 139 games in 2019, Alberto slashed .305/.329/.422 with 12 home runs. The .305 batting average obviously looks marvelous, but I continue to be stunned at the on-base percentage of .329. I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed a player be seen as a quality regular contributor while only having .014 separation between his average and on-base percentage, but Alberto found a way to pull it off.

The 27-year-old infielder doesn’t play like most in the game. When you think of a “free-swinger,” you usually envision a player who swings for the fences, strikes out a bunch and doesn’t walk a ton. Only the latter is true for Alberto.

Among all qualified major league hitters in 2019, Alberto tied for the second-lowest walk rate at 2.9 percent. His tie was with Tim Anderson and the only walk rate that was lower was Kevin Pillar’s at 2.8 percent.

So if he isn’t walking, that must mean he’s chasing a lot of pitches and striking out often, right?

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Yes, he’s chasing a lot of pitches, but he almost never strikes out. Alberto’s 9.1-percent strikeout rate was the lowest among all qualified hitters last season. Of the top-20 lowest strikeout rates in 2019, he was one of just three players to also have a walk rate under four percent. Alberto shares this company with Pillar and new Orioles’ teammate Jose Iglesias.

To hold a .305 batting average throughout a full season, he must have been hitting the ball hard, right?

Nope. Alberto had a hard-hit rate of 24.6 percent last year, which was the lowest among qualified hitters. He wasn’t always just poking it around, though, don’t get me wrong. His 17.5-percent softly-hit rate was tied for 43rd-highest with Jose Altuve. But Alberto did have the highest medium-hit percentage in the majors at 57.9 percent. All in all, Alberto was worse than league average in all three categories of soft-hit, medium-hit and hard-hit rates last season.

Well if he held a .305 batting average and didn’t hit the ball hard often, he must be a pure contact, spray-the-ball hitter.

Contact hitter, that he is. But he didn’t spray the ball all over the field frequently. Of 135 qualified hitters, Alberto’s 22.1-percent opposite-field rate tied for 104th-highest. He made not-so-hard contact, but he made it work mainly by pulling the ball and going up the middle.

He also posted the second-highest rate for swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone and combined that with the fourth-highest rate of making contact with pitches outside of the zone. To post a .305 batting average with that type of approach does in fact involve some luck. But I also don’t think that will make him change.

Alberto steps in the box with a “see ball, hit ball” mentality. He’s not there to walk. He’s not there to scorch the baseball. He’s not there to please the analytics crowd (and I’m in that crowd!) He’s there to put the ball in play and see what happens, even if the pitch he’s doing it with is as low as his ankles or as high as his neck.

A variety of different scenarios could occur for Alberto this season. He could stick with the same approach and wind up with similar results in back-to-back years. He could stick with the approach but not be as fortunate, resulting in a lower batting line and less excitement. He could set his sights on walking more or, at least, working on better pitch selection so he can find a good pitch to drive more often. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see him have success – or failure – with such a new approach.

Alberto made the team out of spring training in 2019, which I did not see coming. He stuck on the roster all season long while playing solid defense at second and third base, which I did not see coming. He slashed .305/.329/.422 with 12 home runs by swinging at more pitches than most players in the game, which I did not see coming.

He’s projected to start the 2020 season as the Orioles’ everyday second baseman. No matter what the results show by the end of the year, I’m much more prepared for what’s coming. Alberto has surprised me enough already. I love relating new-age analytics to performances by players on the field.

But with Alberto, I’m just going to sit back and watch the Punch and Judy hitter do his thing.

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Framing up Orioles’ Options Behind the Dish

In 2019, the Orioles selected catcher Adley Rutschman with the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. The switch-hitting backstop out of Oregon State quickly jumped to the top of the Orioles’ top prospects list and became a  top-10 prospect throughout all of baseball. The Orioles’ plan was made very clear – Rutschman will be looked upon as the future face of the franchise.

Although he is seen as the star catcher of the future, the club still needs to pencil catchers in two major league roster spots for this season. And if you have any thoughts that Rutschman could break camp with the Orioles and start on opening day, you should stop before you disappoint yourself.

Four catchers received starts behind the dish for the Orioles last season. Pedro Severino started 80 games, Chance Sisco started 45, Austin Wynns received 20 starts and Jesus Sucre got 17. Sucre is the only one of the four who is no longer with the organization. The former three are competing for opening day roster spots along with three additional non-roster invitees in camp: Bryan Holaday, Taylor Davis and Martin Cervenka.

Severino is a favorite to earn a spot on the opening day roster and catch the majority of the time to start out the 2020 season. The 26-year-old came up in the Washington Nationals’ system, where MLB Pipeline ranked him within the club’s top 15 prospects for five consecutive seasons from 2013 through 2017. He never gained traction in the Nationals’ major plans, however, as they designated him for assignment prior to the 2019 season. That’s when he was claimed by the Orioles and went on to post a .249/.321/.420 slash line with 13 home runs in 96 games. He’s probably a lock on the roster, and I wonder if he could become a trade chip for the Orioles this summer if he continues to perform like the catcher the Nationals thought they would have.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

If you poll O’s fans on who they expect to be the two catchers on opening day, it’s likely most results would show Severino paired with Sisco. The latter was formerly a top prospect in the organization. MLB Pipeline ranked Sisco within the Orioles’ top 10 prospects for four consecutive years from 2014 to 2017, also listing him 45th on the site’s Top 100 in all of baseball in 2017. Throughout his minor league years, Sisco was known as a bat-first backstop. His abilities would almost guarantee his name being written on the lineup card regularly, but the only question was whether or not he’d stick behind the plate. So far in the majors, however, Sisco’s bat hasn’t lived up to the hype. He has slashed .203/.319/.357 with 13 homers in 404 career plate appearances from 2017 through 2019. The concerns over his defensive abilities still remain, but now questions have surfaced about his hitting. If he doesn’t improve one of the two areas, his time in the big leagues may be short-lived this season. The 25-year-old told Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com he revamped his hitting approach this past offseason, so we’ll see if his tweaks can help improve his career numbers.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Wynns is once again involved in the mix competing for a spot on the O’s roster. Entering his age-29 season, he owns a career .239/.271/.339 slash line with five home runs in just 70 games. He doesn’t have the strongest of arms behind the dish, but his mechanics and exchange make up for it, as he possessed the best pop time on throws to second among all Orioles catchers in 2018 and the second-best in 2019. Of 78 qualified catchers last season, Severino had the 28th-best average pop time at 1.98 seconds, Wynns was 46th at 2.02 seconds, Sucre was 60th at 2.05 seconds and Sisco was 74th at 2.10. Wynns isn’t an above-average catcher behind the plate, but he can handle his own. As a 29-year-old who still has a minor league option remaining and is about average at best at everything in his game, Wynns serves as your typical third catcher to stash as depth in Triple-A Norfolk. If a change is needed at the big league level, he’s not going to hurt you.

Holaday, Davis, and Cervenka are in camp as non-roster invitees and are each pushing for an opening day roster spot. Holaday has made his rounds over the last eight seasons, serving two stints with the Detroit Tigers and making stops with the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Miami Marlins. Sporting a .241/.287/.340 slash line over 269 career games, Holaday basically presents himself as a 32-year-old version of Wynns. Holaday doesn’t do anything exceptionally well but he does provide value as a quality depth option who can use his veteran experience to be a mentor toward the younger catchers and pitchers in the organization.

Austin Wynns behind the dish.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Davis is a veteran minor leaguer who could serve as an experienced shoulder to lean on for young pitchers and catchers in the minors. The 30-year-old has spent each of the last nine seasons in the Cubs’ organization, yet has only played in 20 major league games in his career. He has one homer in the majors, which just happens to be a game-tying grand slam after the Cardinals intentionally walked Kyle Schwarber to face him. Despite that exciting moment in his career, the clear role for Davis is as an experienced catcher to have in the minors. He also presents himself as a great clubhouse guy who loves to have fun, as he and the camera always seem to find each other even though he has never been known as a popular prospect. Between his personality and his experience in the minors, he should be a good fit for Double-A Bowie or Triple-A Norfolk.

Cervenka has the lowest chance of all six of these catchers to break camp with the Orioles solely because he still has yet to play in the majors. However, the 27-year-old could make history if the Birds ever call him to the show, as he would become the first major league player from the Czech Republic since Carl Linhart in 1952. Cervenka spent seven years on the Indians’ farm before the Orioles selected him in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft prior to the 2018 season. He has spent the majority of his time with Bowie before the Orioles gave him a late-season promotion to Norfolk in 2019. He recorded at least one hit in each of his 12 games with Norfolk, which helped produce a small sample slash line of .372/.438/.442. It may be tough, given the competition, for him to stick with Norfolk to start this season, but he’s a solid depth catcher who has an intriguing story to keep an eye on.

Looking toward the future, the Orioles are set behind the dish. I mentioned Rutschman being the catcher of the future for the club as he leads the pack of all prospects in the organization. But Baltimore also has a few more catchers on the farm to keep an eye on as possible backup options for Rutschman down the road.

The first of three to mention is Brett Cumberland. The 24-year-old switch-hitter was traded as part of a package from the Atlanta Braves to the Orioles in exchange for right-handers Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day in 2018. In 46 games with Bowie last season, Cumberland slashed .248/.395/.408 with four homers. Like the next two I will be touching on, Cumberland is not featured on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Orioles prospects this season, but the site ranked him 29th on the O’s list in 2018 as well as 24th and 29th on the Braves’ list in 2017 and 2016, respectively.

The next two to cover were drafted by the Orioles within the first 10 rounds in 2019 after selecting Rutschman. The first is Maverick Handley, who the Birds took with their sixth round selection. Handley is known for being very defensively sound behind the dish and can provide decent on-base capabilities offensively. His .290/.393/.442 line at Stanford translated to just .202/.298/.237 in his first 41 games of professional ball. However, Handley threw out 19 of 30 attempted basestealers in the 41 games with short-season Single-A Aberdeen in 2019.

The last minor leaguer to cover is Jordan Cannon, who the O’s selected in the 10th round last season. Although the last name Cannon is a perfect fit behind the plate, the 22-year-old is more known for his bat, as he hit .372/.455/.521 with four homers in 53 games with Sam Houston State last season. In 24 games between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Aberdeen, Cannon batted .212/.312/.379 with one home run. When it comes to throwing out runners, he was quite the opposite of Handley in his first pro short season, as Cannon caught just two of 13 attempted basestealers. If his bat comes around to what is expected of him, it’ll be interesting to see if the O’s consider a position change for the 23-year-old. Of the three catching prospects behind Rutschman, Cannon likely has the lowest chance of reaching the majors behind the plate.

I think the Orioles will roll with the popular choices in Severino and Sisco behind the dish to start this year. If that duo can’t stick for the time being, the Birds have a few experienced backstops stashed as depth in Wynns, Holaday and Wynns, as well as two minor leaguers waiting for their first crack at the big stage in Cervenka and Cumberland. In the end, we all know that these players are placeholders for what we’re truly waiting for: Adley Rutschman’s eventual call to the show in 2021 or 2022.

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Players Making Good Early Impressions This Spring

It’s early in Spring Training thus far, but it’s an important camp for many players and for the Baltimore Orioles organization. With a presence of fringe veterans and up-and-coming prospects, it is also an intriguing camp for fans like us.

As I’ve followed the first week or so of camp and gameplay, here’s who’s impressed in the initial stages.

 

Chris Davis

Chris Davis in Grapefruit League action.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

I won’t waste any time getting to this name. Chris Davis has been outstanding thus far at the plate. Through his first few appearances he failed to record an out, hit three home runs and showed a sharp eye, something that had been lacking in recent years. Obviously, we’ll have to see this success continue for fans to really trust that he’s turned the corner, but either way, his hot start has warmed my heart.

 

Pat Valaika

Batting an astounding .375 with two HRs and three RBI thus far, Pat Valaika is making a strong case that he’s the best option for a backup utility infielder for the start of this season. Flashing surprising power and poise at the plate, the 27-year old could be a nice veteran to have in the clubhouse. If he continues to hit well and play a solid infield, he’ll tough to turn away.

 

Cedric Mullins

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Rebounding off of a disappointing 2019 campaign that saw Cedric Mullins fall from grace in the organization, he opened Spring Training batting .333, but has gone 0-for-5 since. Still, Mullins is getting on base with regularity (two walks) – and has shown to be dangerous on the base paths (three stolen bases). The question with Mullins has never been about his defense, so continued offensive success could indicate a return to his former status as an intriguing outfield option.

 

Shawn Armstrong

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

This may not be the most surprising start considering that Shawn Armstrong was a relatively consistent member of the bullpen in 2019. However, through two innings of work in two separate appearances, he has allowed just one walk and no hits, while striking out three.

The Orioles need reliable relievers this season, and Armstrong might be making a name for himself as one of their best.

David Hess

David Hess came into camp garnering attention for his approach this offseason. To go out and throw two scoreless innings in his first start was an impressive follow-up, especially considering his struggles last year. Unfortunately, he was hit around a bit his second time out. Still, spots at the back-end of the rotation are wide open right now, and I was both impressed and excited by Hess’ start to Spring Training. Let’s hope he strings together more outings like his first, and fewer like his second, moving forward.

None of these guys have completely changed their fate in the first weeks of Spring Training – that’s simply impossible. However, you can only do so much given the time afforded to you, and in their short stints to date, these five players have been impressive.

Even if they don’t continue their success long-term, perhaps their performances will light a competitive fire in others.

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(Belated) Thursday Thoughts: O’s Shake Up the Booth

Chris Davis in Grapefruit League action.

(Ed note: Andrew submitted this last week as part of his regular Thursday Thoughts series. Due to some technical issues, we weren’t able to post it until today.)

1. The Orioles made a number of changes to freshen up their broadcasting team recently, as games got started down in Sarasota. We’ve heard from a number of the voices that will be on the call through both television broadcasts on MASN and on the Orioles Radio Network, but there are also some new ones to add to the mix. It includes new roles for both Jim Hunter and Tom Davis, two mainstays that O’s fans have grown used to over the years. Gary Thorne is back for games on MASN, which makes folks like me very excited and a very small minority upset. He’ll be joined by analysts we’ve all grown to know better over the years like the Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and other former Birds Mike Bordick, Ben McDonald and Brian Roberts.

On the radio side, Kevin Brown is back in the booth after joining the roster last season. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard from Brown and look forward to hearing more of him.

There’s also a slew of new voices and a “new-old” one as well. Longtime Baltimore sportscaster Scott Garceau is on board to call games, which for someone of my age, makes me reminisce of his days calling Ravens games. Garceau also called O’s games back in the 1980s. The Orioles have also brought in former Frederick Keys broadcaster Geoff Arnold and Melanie Newman, who was most recently with the Single-A Salem Red Sox. I’ve heard a little bit of Arnold’s work, but am unfamiliar with Newman. I don’t tend to track the Red Sox farm system like you might think.

Regardless, I’m really excited that the Orioles are bringing in new voices, especially female voices. Expanding these roles to women is a great thing.

2. I very much want to say a few things about Chris Davis with the obvious caveat that I am NOT getting my hopes up for anything major out of him. The first baseman has had a good start to the spring and many reporters and writers are commenting on weight he’s put on (good weight, apparently) and how strong he looks.

Let’s be honest, Davis has always looked strong. He’s a very Paul Bunyan-looking man. He has tree trunks for arms. But Davis is doing a few positive things at the plate in meaningless spring games. That’s all fine and well. I want to make it abundantly clear that the only good thing that can come from Davis having a good season in 2020 is our feelings, and those are valid! As Orioles fans, we can all hope for Davis to be a positive contributor and be happy if that happens. But we can’t really hope for anything else. We can’t hope for him to return to his 2013 form. We can’t hope for him to solve all of the Orioles’ woes.

Chris Davis in Grapefruit League action.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

And we CERTAINLY can’t hope for the O’s to be able to trade him at the deadline. That is a nonstarter. It’s not going to happen. The contract is far too bad to be able to trade. The Orioles won’t be willing to eat the money (at least they haven’t shown that willingness to this point).

Davis can be a fun story this season, but that’s it. There’s an argument that you may want to see other players get at-bats in his place to see how they develop, and that’s a valid argument. It’s also something that will certainly happen. Davis isn’t going to be an every day player unless he absolutely tears the cover off the ball and gives Brandon Hyde no choice.

The chances of that happening are extremely slim…unlike Davis himself. Dude is cut.

3. While Davis isn’t a candidate to be traded this season, there will be a number of players that could be. Alex Cobb comes to mind for me, merely because there’s potential for a bounce back this season from him. Cobb made his spring debut last week and it doesn’t feel like he has a major chip on his shoulder or anything to prove. He obviously had an injury-riddled year in 2019, but he’s signed through next season and can really only give the Orioles positives going forward.

They aren’t relying on him for any kind of success.

If he ends up being good and can be traded, that’d be great. If not, they’ll be getting just about what they did out of him last year.

A number of players out of the bullpen will be trade candidates if they present any kind of value. But it’s also important to remember that the Orioles can continue their rebuild without pushing out trade chips. They can continue to build through the draft and make free agent signings here and there to fill the gaps. It doesn’t all have to come through trades, especially from well-known players.

I’ve heard from a number of people that the O’s should be in the market for players like Yasiel Puig, but none of that makes much sense to me. You don’t sign a player just hoping that he will gain trade value to be able to flip him. The risk is too high for the potential reward. If a team is going to give up anything for a player five months from now, why wouldn’t they just sign that player now?

This all continues to go back to this rebuild being a long and slow process, but don’t come at me with what you believe will be quick solutions or ways to get exciting players onto the field. A player like Puig would be fun for a minute, but it doesn’t fit into the whole scheme of what the O’s are trying to do long term.

I want to see growth over time, even if it’s going to take time.

And trust me, it’s definitely going to take some time.

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Reasons to Be Excited: O’s in the Outfield

Trey Mancini swinging his bat.

It could be another long season for the Orioles, as a franchise that had only lost 100 games in a season twice during its first 64 seasons in Baltimore is staring its third consecutive 100-loss season squarely in the face. PECOTA seems to think the team will at least avoid the feat, predicting a 63-99 finish, but still finishing with the worst record in baseball. 

Don’t Miss Parts 1 and 2 of my Reasons to Be Excited

Young Pitching

Hays & Mountcastle

Last Tuesday, the Orioles did their best to squash whatever optimism there may have been in Birdland by losing a pair of split-squad games by a combined score of the 27-6. The pitching was obviously atrocious, especially in the game against the Tampa Bay Rays where Baltimore pitching walked nine batters.

However, they rebounded nicely over the weekend:

No matter what happens in Grapefruit League action, there’s no masking the fact that there is still a long way to go before this rebuild bears fruit. Yet, despite that, we in Birdland do have plenty to be excited for.

This week we’ll take a look at an Orioles outfield that could have a serious impact on a night-to-night basis during the 2020 season.  

 

Orioles in the Outfield 

In 2019, the Orioles outfield had its share of ups and downs. While the unit combined to hit 75 home runs and drive in 241 runs, the outfield as a whole was in state of flux for much of the first half.  

Trey Mancini, a natural first baseman with a suspect outfield glove, made more starts than anybody in right field. Stevie Wilkerson, a utility infielder who had never played centerfield at any professional level, led the team in games played at the position. Dwight Smith, Jr., meanwhile, played more games than any Oriole in left field and made even the most routine of flyballs look like an adventure.  

All told, eleven different players saw action in left field, eight different players in center, and nine different players in right. No other non-pitcher position featured more than six players throughout the season. Yet, by the end of September, the outfield picture began to clear. 

Anthony Santander

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Anthony Santander burst onto the scene in 2019, batting .261 with 20 home runs in just 93 games. For the Orioles, it was the kind of performance they envisioned when selecting the outfielder in the Rule V draft prior to the 2017 season.  

By June 7th, Santander was a mainstay in the lineupsplitting most of his time between right and left field with the occasional appearance in center. Offensively, his average reached a season-high .310 after a 3-for-4 performance on August 12th, and was still hovering around the .290 mark before fatigue and what was later found to be labrum soreness caused a sharp decline in production.  

September was a struggle for the now 25-year-old as he batted just .155 in the season’s final month, dropping his average from .293 on September 1st to .261 by September 23rd. The outfielder’s season ended with him on the bench for the team’s final five games.  

While the season ended unfavorably for Santander, his first three months simply cannot be ignored. It was a breakout season, and the future bodes well for the former Rule V pick. If his shoulder holds up – and there’s no structural damage and therefore no reason it shouldn’t – Santander may have cemented himself in the top third of the Orioles lineup in 2020 and a 30-homer, 100 RBI season could be on the horizon with the potential for 600 at-bats. 

Austin Hays

Austin Hays running bases.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

In part one of this serious, I profiled Austin Hays as one of the two players Orioles fans were most excited to see in 2020, along with Ryan Mountcastle, who could also see his fair share of games in the outfield by season’s end.  

Hays provided a spark in September for a club that nobody would have blamed for losing intensity during a grueling season that saw the team lose 108 games. Yet, with the help of Hays’ hair-on-fire style of play, the Orioles played hard to the final pitch, posting their second highest winning percentage of the season for a full month (I won’t post the number, because it still wasn’t good).  

Overall, the former 2017 Minor League Player of the Year finalist slashed .309/.373/.574 over 21 games while solidifying centerfield in Baltimore, potentially for years to come. Finally healthy, Hays proved what he can do on both sides of the ball and has Orioles fans excited for a prospect not named Adley Rutschman.

A healthy offseason and a full spring in Major League camp could pay huge dividends for both Hays and the Orioles.  

 

Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini swinging his bat.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

After a solid rookie campaign, Trey Mancini took a step back in 2018 and had many questioning whether he was the player that finished third in 2017 Rookie of the Year voting, or the player that hit .242 in 2018 while posting an on-base percentage below .300. All Mancini did in 2019 was silence his critics in a major way. 

The 27-year-old slashed .291/.364/.535 while blasting 35 homers, 38 doubles, and driving in 97 runs. On baseball’s secondworst team, Mancini stood out from the crowd and would have been a no-doubt All-Star had his team been even middling in the standings. Unfortunately for Mancini, 108-loss teams generally don’t have more than the requisite lone All-Star representative, so he missed out due to John Means’ standout rookie season. 

Mancini should get most of his starts in right field to begin the season as Chris Davis, who is off to a strong start in Spring Training, is still in the fold at first base. The better Davis plays, the more time Mancini will spend in the outfield, and the more time Mountcastle will spend in the minors.  

Still, if Mancini produces at the same level in 2020, and Hays/Santander realize the potential they showed in 2019, the Orioles could boast a formidable outfield, offensively speaking. And if they don’t, there are plenty of players waiting at the upper levels of the Orioles minor league system. 

Yusniel Diaz, who made his spring debut last weekend, is a former top prospect with five tool potential who performs best in the spotlight. Injuries seem to be the main obstacle standing in Diaz’s way as the centerpiece coming back in the Manny Machado trade missed nearly half of his team’s games in 2019 due to quad and hamstring injuries. A sore shoulder sidelined the outfielder in Sarasota, though reports are that it was all just a precaution.

Another top-30 prospect is Ryan McKenna, who might be the best defensive outfielder in the Orioles system. The speedster played six years of varsity baseball—that’s right, he was on his varsity baseball team in seventh grade—and grades out as a plus-plus defender who could move Hays to a corner outfield spot in the future.  

McKenna had a big year for the Frederick Keys in 2018, batting .377 with 18 doubles in 67 games before earning a promotion to Double-A Bowie. His average has suffered in the International League, batting just .234 in parts of two seasons for the Eastern League runner-up Baysox, but he tied for the league lead in runs scored in 2019 while lacing 26 doubles. The Orioles could start McKenna at either Bowie or Norfolk, but no matter where he starts the year, he could very well end the year in Baltimore. It’s up to him to make that happen. 

All-in-all, the Orioles have a budding outfield that could turn into a strength for the organization, and they even have some prospects at the lower levels of the minors in Kyle Stowers, Zach Watson, and Johnny Rizer that could make waves in the next couple of seasons.  

Next up in part four of my “Reasons to be Excited series, I’ll dive into the Orioles bullpen as the unit could be ready to take a leap forward in 2020 and beyond.  

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Affordable Speed Sensor For Playing Baseball

In many countries around the world, baseball is a popular sport played by all ages and skill levels. As kids, they start playing T-ball, it’s a variation of baseball where instead of throwing the ball, it is placed on a Tee, so it’ll be easier to hit). T-ball is good for children aged 4 to 5. They then progress on to having the coach pitch the ball, then to player-pitch. Kids then start having their own tournaments like the little league, and as they grow up they’ll have the high school and college league. When a person goes pro, they’ll have to destinations the minor and the major league. The Minor League is a place where they further develop their skills as players before moving on to the major league. This also allows a town to have their own team to support and keep baseball an integral part of their community. The Major League is the pinnacle of baseball competition, it is where professionals compete to be the best team in the country. 

This sport is a combination of various physical and mental aptitudes. There are players who are specialists, here you have the pitcher, who is good at throwing the ball to the hitter accurately at the same time making it hard to hit it. There are also players who are good at hitting the ball, they have a knack of hitting home runs, giving their team a boost in points. Then there are those who are good field players. This combination of player skill category makes it a complicated and fun game to play.

Pitching

Pitching is one of the main parts of the game. It is the act of throwing the ball to the home plate to initiate the play. The change in velocity, ball movement, the position of the hand, and trajectory of the pitch are the things that the pitcher does from when they throw the ball. This allows them to do fastballs and curveballs to make it difficult for the hitter. Measuring the effectiveness of the pitch is not as straightforward as throwing fastballs all the time. To achieve a curveball you must get the right velocity.

High-quality baseball radar to get an image of the ball’s motion is necessary to measure the pitch’s effectiveness. In order to make the necessary improvements on your throw, you will data which only high-quality radar guns can provide. By taking advantage of the reviews and tips about radar guns on Bat Sleeves, you get a better understanding of which type of gun is right for you. These gadgets utilize the technology of Doppler Radar to measure the speed of the object which makes a better measurement of the speed as well as the position of the ball. The device emits radio waves in a narrow beam, which bounces off the target object. It then measures the time the waves that bounce off the target.

Affordable Radar Guns

1. Bushnell Velocity Speed Gun

This is designed to be a more general-purpose device than the higher tier counterparts, but it is still primarily for baseball. It is also good for softball and tennis and can measure up to a decent 90 feet in distance. The range of the speed is from a good 10 to 110 miles per hour. Above that speed, it may have difficulties in registering the data. The claim is that it has an error range of 1 mph, which makes it accurate for its grade, provided the consistency. The price right now online is in the north of $90 which makes it an inexpensive device for this purpose.

2.Bushnell Speedster III

The Bushnell Speedster III like the one above is one of the highest caliber devices with a less pricey price tag. It claims a +/-1 mph accuracy which makes a decent measuring device for a moving object traveling at high speed. It has an LCD Screen that receives data wirelessly. It weighs 2.1 lbs and which makes it handy and lightweight. If your budget is limited then this is a suitable device to start with. It’s price online is around $125 which makes it an attractive choice for those who are looking for an accurate device without emptying your wallet.

3. Sports Sensors Glove Radar

It is an inexpensive radar gun that is small and can be placed on the back of a baseball glove. It can measure the speed of the ball with an accuracy of +/- 1 mph. It is able to capture readings of speed from 20 to a solid 120 mph. This is a good training device for both pitchers and catchers to develop their throwing aptitude. It works with a small Lithium battery that can last over 30 hours of uninterrupted use, which translates to 5,000 cycles of transmission. Did I mention it’s very affordable? With an online price of about $80, you can have a reliable measuring device that you can confidently use to improve your game.

4. NET PLAYZ Multi-Sports Radar Gun

With its unique design, this affordable measuring gadget has a price tag of under $90 which is why it makes it to our list. Although it can’t be used by multiple players, this device’s main purpose is to measure the speed of the target to the radar. From 3 to 150 mph it provides consistent readings with a +/- 1 mph accuracy. It also has a large LED display and a voice feature that announces the readings.

5. Sports Radar Tracer SRA3000

This is maybe the most expensive on this list, but it’s still an affordable radar gun and its features are well worth the price. This tracker can measure the speed of any moving objects like baseball, bats, or even cars. The accuracy and functionality of this device is being utilized by the police force to read the speed of cars. The 3-digit display will tell you how fast the object is moving with an effective range of 10 to 199 mph. The state-of-art technology that allows you to point and shoot to get a reading of moving objects in continuous or trigger modes. It’s priced at above $160 which is a good price for its value.

It is important to note that the items in the list above are decent radar guns at an attractive price, but for higher competition coaching you’ll need to invest in more comprehensive devices (also, more complicated to set-up). Having said that, they are of good provided that you’ll do the research on how to use them properly. You can’t get the right improvement on your throw if you don’t have accurate data. So for passionate players looking to improve their game, these devices will help you measure your pitch without shelling out too much cash.

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Who Will Make Up the O’s “Starting Five?”

Alex Cobb pitching

Before the first game of the Spring Training season gets underway on Saturday, I think a fun experiment would be a sort of projection for the Orioles’ biggest question mark this year: the rotation. In this article, I will outline the players I feel will crack the Opening Day roster as the prototypical ‘starting five’ (yes, for the purpose of the piece I will assume that Brandon Hyde won’t use openers at the onset of the season).

There are a lot of holes in the rotation this year, and that’s seemed to be the case for the past decade or longer. If this rebuild is going to work, those holes will have to be filled. This year, General Manager Mike Elias has gathered a variety of candidates, prospects and veterans alike. I withhold all right to change my opinions at the end of Spring Training, but here’s how I believe it will shake out right now:

John Means

There’s not too much to write about here. John Means is coming off an incredible rookie season with Baltimore, becoming the team’s ace and All-Star representative. I do believe there’s room for an unfortunate drop-off, but either way, he will enter the season as the team’s Opening Day starter.

 

Alex Cobb

For me, Alex Cobb is actually the biggest question mark for the Orioles this year. He could bounce back and have a healthy, strong 2020 – in which case he’ll be traded. Or, he could fall off a cliff again and stink up the joint – in which case he should be designated for assignment and replaced with a prospect. Regardless, Elias will be sure to see what he has in Cobb from the start.

 

Kohl Stewart

In all honesty, I don’t know this Kohl Stewart guy whatsoever, so I’m excited to see what he does in Sarasota. At the same time, the Orioles invested in him to a certain degree, probably slightly more than most of their signings this offseason. With that in mind, I think he’ll slot in behind Means and Cobb in the Opening Day rotation.

[Related: Be Excited About the O’s Young Pitching]

 

Wade LeBlanc

This is where things get really interesting in terms of the names involved. The final two spots of the rotation could be a competition between the likes of Wade LeBlanc, David Hess, Keegan Akin, and the Rule 5 Selections, among others. With the most experience and a left-handed arm, I believe LeBlanc makes it out of camp alive.

 

Michael Rucker

Finding himself in a competition with fellow Rule-5 Selection Brandon Bailey, I feel Michael Rucker is better prepared to break camp with the team. Elias should be compelled to keep at least one of these names until they completely prove themselves incapable of finding success at the Major League level. To that point, I believe one of them will travel back to Baltimore with the team, and considering the need at the back-end of the rotation, it’ll be Rucker.

You might be asking, “Hey Aidan, what about Woj-Bomb?” Well, reader, trust me when I say he’s still relevant, and I haven’t forgotten my excitement for his success. He’ll be in the bullpen and – especially if Hyde brings out openers – he’ll start numerous games on the bump for the O’s in 2020.

Let me know what you think in the comments section or on Twitter (@aidan_griesser). I can’t wait for Saturday.

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Reasons to be Excited: Young Pitching

Hunter Harvey pitching.

When pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in Sarasota, FL on Feb. 11th, excitement was in the air around one of the Grapefruit League’s finest facilities in the Ed Smith Stadium Complex. Yet despite the unbridled enthusiasm that usually surrounds the start of a new baseball season, some people think the Orioles have nothing at all to be excited about. And by some people, I mean David Schoenfield, who in a recent article for ESPN put the level of excitement around the team at zero.

For people in Baltimore, and Sarasota for that matter, that is simply not the case. Last week, in part one of this series based off readers’ Twitter responses, I profiled Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle, two young rookies who could be dark-horse Rookie of the Year candidates if their 2019 seasons are any indication.

[Related: Reasons to Be Excited: Hays & Mountcastle]

This week, I focus on the young pitching that has either already has reached the Orioles, or could do so in 2020.

 

Young Pitching

Hunter Harvey, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and John Means were all mentioned between four and six times each in tweets from Orioles fans.

 

Hunter Harvey

Harvey, a former first round pick whose father, Bryan, was a two-time All-Star closer, was supposed to be an ace in the making when he was drafted out of high school in 2013. Injuries altered those plans, however, and Harvey had changed roles from starter to reliever by mid-June in 2019.

Hunter Harvey tosses from the mound.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Harvey made 11 starts for Bowie last season and was ineffective, posting a 6.12 ERA and allowing 14 HR in just 50 innings. On June 14th, Harvey made his debut as a reliever and never looked back, striking out 11 batters while allowing just one hit in three games covering nine innings before earning a promotion to Norfolk, where he proceeded to register scoreless outings in nine of 11 appearances.

Though his ERA at Norfolk was 4.32, a blowup outing on July 13th where he allowed five runs in 1.1 IP really inflated those numbers. His ERA in the other 10 appearances was just 1.76, and that success continued once promoted to the Orioles on August 17th. Harvey pitched to a 1.42 ERA in seven games with the big-league club and featured a fastball that touched 100 MPH.

2019 was all about staying healthy and finding success for Harvey, and a switch to the bullpen helped him achieve the latter. His health, which has been a problematic almost since he was drafted, is another question, and while Harvey did pitch into September, he was shut down at season’s end as a precaution when he experienced lingering soreness after his last two outings. The soreness was nothing serious and sources reported that it was due to a career high in appearances and his most innings since 2014.

Heading into the 2020 season, Harvey is expected to be a mainstay in the Orioles bullpen and has the inside track to the closer’s role.

 

Keegan Akin

Akin, a second round pick out of Western Michigan University in the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft, entered 2019 sporting a 3.34 ERA in his professional career over 280 innings. Having spent 2018 with the Bowie Baysox, Akin moved up to Norfolk with the hopes of pitching well enough to make the jump to the majors at some point in the season.

Keegan Akin pitches.

photo: Norfolk Tides/MiLB.com

While his numbers don’t jump off the page, Akin did pitch to the sixth best ERA in the International League (4.73) while leading the league in strikeouts and setting a career-best 10.5 K/9 mark. It was an explosive season for Triple-A offenses as only seven full-season starters posted an ERA below 5.00.

The problem for Akin was that he also set a career-high mark with 4.9 BB/9, though it has been reported that he was focusing more on honing in on his secondary pitches to go along with a heavy fastball that gets a lot of ground balls.

Akin was seriously considered for a September call-up, but the Orioles decided against it and let the former Organizational Minor League Pitcher of the Year (2018) begin his offseason a little earlier.

Entering 2020, Akin has a shot at making the Orioles rotation out of spring training, though how great the chances are remain to be seen. The Orioles have several pitchers—by my count at least nine—vying for three open slots in the starting rotation.

For Akin, this spring represents a huge step in his career. Having already spent a full season at the Orioles’ highest affiliate, a strong spring could go a long way towards the soon-to-be 25-year-old’s MLB debut. Baltimore is the land of opportunity for starting pitchers, and a spot is ripe for the taking. It’s up to Akin to seize it.

 

Dean Kremer

Kremer is another candidate for the starting rotation. In fact, I did a write-up on the young hurler earlier in spring training regarding his status as a piece of the Manny Machado trade that you can find here.

Dean Kremer prepares to pitch.

Kremer’s stock has been on the rise since joining the Orioles organization. The 2018 MiLB strikeout king has pitched to a 2.84 ERA in 130 IP for the Bowie Baysox the last two seasons, a number that got him promoted to Norfolk for four starts at the end of 2019, and while Kremer struggled a bit after his promotion, he did put up solid numbers in the Arizona Fall League and is primed to take a big step or two in 2020.

The 24-year-old righty features a five-pitch arsenal and has touched 96 mph with his fastball after sitting in the low-90s with the pitch early in his career. Though he has an outside chance to make the Opening Day roster, Kremer is likely to begin his season with the Tides, but could be a call-up later this summer should he pitch the way he did in Bowie.

One thing is for sure, and that is that Norfolk could have a stellar starting rotation in 2020 with Alex Wells, Bruce Zimmermann, Zac Lowther, Akin, and Kremer.

 

John Means

Means was the biggest highlight of the 2019 Baltimore Orioles. Not even ranked among the top 30 prospects in the organization heading into the season, Means was the last addition to the Opening Day roster last spring, a move that more than worked out for both the team and the pitcher.

John Means pitches.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

All John Means did in 2019 was finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting while being the lone Orioles representative in the All-Star game. He led all AL rookies with 12 wins and his 3.60 ERA would have ranked seventh in the AL had he thrown enough innings to qualify (he was seven innings short). He also finished ninth in the AL in WAR for a starting pitcher.

A devastating change-up plus a few ticks added to his fastball propelled Means from a fringe-starter to the ace of the Baltimore staff seemingly overnight. In fact, Means’ 3.60 ERA was the lowest of any full season in his major or minor league career. The question is, can he sustain it?

There is tape on Means now, and we’ve seen a number of pitchers get figured out in this league. We’ve also seen pitchers come out of seemingly nowhere to become dominant in the majors. Dallas Keuchel is one of those pitchers, and a solid blueprint for Means to follow.

Keuchel was never dominant or over-powering in the minors, was never a highly touted prospect, and his MLB career got off to a slow start as he posted ERAs above 5.00 in each of his first two seasons in 2012 and 2013. In the six seasons since, Keuchel has pitched to a sub-4.00 ERA five times, and a sub-3.00 three times while winning at least 12 games four times, including an MLB-best 20 en route to the AL Cy Young award in 2015.

A comparison like that is sure to get fans excited about John Means’ potential, but it’s up to him to avoid a sophomore slump in 2020. If he can, the Orioles could have a staff anchor, if not ace, under team control for years to come.

In the next installment of my “Things to Be Excited for as an Orioles Fan” series, we’ll look at the young outfield the Orioles could boast throughout the 2020 season, including Anthony Santander’s breakout campaign and the potential debut of Yusniel Diaz.

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Who I’m Watching Closely this Spring

D.J. Stewart positioned in the outfield.

Spring has sprung in the baseball world, and for what it’s worth, I couldn’t be more excited for the O’s season to get underway. After such a heartbreaking playoff loss for the Ravens, it’ll be refreshing to watch a team I expect to lose. Even though the Birds might not be garnering much attention because of their status as a rebuilding team, I think that’s reason to find Spring Training even more intriguing.

The emergence of players like John Means, Pedro Severino and Anthony Santander have set the precedent for rather unknown players finding their feet in Baltimore. Sarasota is where those kinds of seasons get underway. Here’s a few guys I believe will either perform well enough to break camp with the club or put themselves at the top of the list in the minors.

 

Keegan Akin

Here’s an arm who’s been a strong, consistent member of the O’s minor league pitching staffs over the last few years. Keegan Akin is due for a shot at a place with the Orioles, but he’ll need an impressive Grapefruit League campaign to solidify his spot at Camden Yards. Given his experience in the minors and the openings available on the major league staff, I feel Akin will put together a great Spring Training and show that he could be a cog at the back-end of the rotation for the next few years.

DJ Stewart watches a pitch.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

DJ Stewart*

Talk about a guy who’s had a hard time sticking around in the big leagues. Whether it’s been his performance or his struggles with injuries, DJ Stewart simply hasn’t had much opportunity with the O’s. In reality, given the presence of other young outfielders like Cedric Mullins, Ryan McKenna and Yusniel Diaz, this might just be Stewart’s last chance. With that in mind, *were he not currently injured I’d be looking for him to flash his on-base skills and provide some pop, winning one of the last outfield spots on the team. As it stands, his return timetable is up in the air.

Hunter Harvey pitching.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Hunter Harvey

One of the prized prospects of the last half-decade in the Orioles organization, Hunter Harvey finally found success and made his mark on the major league team. Though it isn’t as a front-end starter, as many fans would have hoped, but rather as a late-game reliever. He is all-but-certain to take on a similar role in 2020, and with a fast start to the year in Sarasota, he could make his claim on the set-up man’s role (with an inside track to the closer’s spot, should Mychal Givens falter). I think Harvey has all the tools to be an incredible closer, and I think he’ll prove that this spring.

 

Ryan Mountcastle

Yes, I know this guy is someone who may not have a chance at breaking camp with the Orioles even if he has a phenomenal month. Hell, he might not even stick with the big leaguers for the entirety of Spring Training. However, I fully expect Ryan Mountcastle to remove any doubt that he is ready, if there’s any doubt that remains. I think he’ll hit the ball better than most players on the diamond and show that he can man first base if needed. In doing so, he’ll make it tough for Mike Elias to wait much longer and defer to reserving the stud’s service time.

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Reasons to be Excited: Hays & Mountcastle

Austin Hays running bases.

Spring Training is a time for excitement and optimism for fans of every MLB team, even if your team will more than likely lose its 400th game since 2017 sometime this summer. Yes, even Orioles fans have reason to be excited in 2020. Though David Schoenfield, a senior writer for ESPN, seems to think differently.

Schoenfield wrote an article on Monday, the day before pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, highlighting what to watch for from all 30 teams, and the level of excitement for each team. For the Orioles, Schoenfield said to watch for Adley Rutschman, the number one pick in the draft from 2019 who probably won’t make his MLB debut until late 2021. For the level of excitement towards the team, he gave them a big fat ZERO on his scale of 1-5, a rating he gave to only one other team (the Pittsburgh Pirates).

Look, I get it. From the outside looking in, the Orioles have little to hang their hat on these days. This is a team that lost 108 games in 2019 after losing 115 in 2018 and just traded away their best offensive player (Jonathan Villar) and their second-best pitcher (Dylan Bundy) in the offseason. Fans also tend to overvalue their team’s commodities when assessing the ballclub, as is wont to happen.

But just because some guy over at ESPN says fans shouldn’t be excited doesn’t mean that fans shouldn’t be excited, right? A few weeks back as a prelude to Spring Training, I asked my twitter followers what they were excited for heading into this season. The responses were mostly positive, and quite plentiful, though there was some negativity (one fan said he expected no more than 35 wins).

I have categorized this series of articles based on the popularity of the responses. In other words, the articles are in order from most mentions to least. Today’s article focuses on a pair of young sluggers who should both play significant roles with the Orioles in 2020.

 

Hays and Mountcastle

Austin Hays, the Orioles’ young centerfielder who burst onto the scene as a September call-up, was mentioned more than any other player as he garnered 12 mentions in the responses I received. Ryan Mountcastle, the O’s fourth overall prospect and the 2019 International League MVP, was mentioned nine times.

Austin Hays follows through on his swing.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

It’s no surprise that Hays and Mountcastle are at the forefront of most fans’ thoughts when it comes to the 2020 season. Hays made several highlight reel plays in his short stint in the majors, and his bat equaled his defensive prowess.

Back in 2017, Hays finished as a finalist for Minor League Player of the Year nationally after posting a .329/.365/.593 slash-line with 32 HR and 95 RBI across two different levels for Orioles’ affiliates. He played so well that he received a September call-up that season, becoming the first player drafted in 2016 (third round) to debut in the Major Leagues.

Injuries in 2018 and early 2019 derailed Hays, but a strong second half last summer prompted the Orioles to give him a shot in September rather than send him to the Arizona Fall League, which was the original plan.

Hays rewarded the Orioles by slashing .309/.373/.574 with 10 XBH in 21 games, all while playing errorless defense in centerfield. Hays has now positioned himself as the everyday centerfielder for the ballclub, and if he can stay healthy, should be a fixture in the top third of the Orioles lineup for years to come.

Ryan Mountcastle swings

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

As for Ryan Mountcastle, the Orioles drafted him in the first round of 2015 for his bat, which has gained national attention. At 22 years old, Mountcastle received MVP honors in the International League (Triple-A) after slashing .312/.344/.527 with 25 HR and 83 RBI. He led the league in hits as the youngest player in the IL. Two years prior to that, Mountcastle slammed 48 doubles in 127 games between Frederick and Bowie, an absolutely absurd number. In his MiLB career, Mountcastle is a .295 career hitter with power potential that could see him consistently hit 30 HR in the majors.

Offensively, aside from being a little more selective at the plate (just 105 walks in five MiLB seasons), there isn’t much else to prove for Mountcastle at the minor league level, but he is all but assured of beginning the 2020 season with the Norfolk Tides.

Barring an astronomical Grapefruit League showing, Mountcastle is likely headed back to the International League because has no true position. Drafted as a shortstop out of high school, he has played shortstop, third base, first base, and left field in his professional career. This spring, the Orioles intend to work him out at both corner outfield and both corner infield spots as well as second base in the hopes that something sticks for the young slugger.

[Related: Another Position Change for Mountcastle?]

The Orioles also receive, essentially, a seventh year of service time by not calling Mountcastle up during the season’s first month. That, combined with his lack of a position, means that we might not see him in an Orioles uniform until May at the earliest, if not later. Still, it’s a matter of when, not if with Mountcastle. His bat is major league-ready and when he gets his shot, it won’t be long until he takes his place alongside Hays in the heart of the Orioles lineup.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, which focuses on some young Orioles pitchers that have either already debuted or are knocking on the door of the big-league squad.

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Thursday Thoughts: Who the Heck Are These Guys?

1. Spring training is here and for the Orioles, it’s really a game of “who is he?” that will be played for the next six weeks. We always knew this would be the case, but it has never been more evident than through watching the team’s social media and realizing that the pitchers and catchers reporting this week really are a bunch of nobodies. Even players like All-Star John Means and top draft pick Adley Rutschman are included in that category. Means might have made the roster for last season’s Midsummer Classic and Rutschman may carry a lot of expectation with him as the #1 pick, but neither has really proven anything.

We all know this season is expected to be another long one, but I think what I’m most looking forward to is seeing actual players that are brought in by Mike Elias and his crew and how they start to formulate a roster. Sure, there are holdovers from the Dan Duquette/Buck Showalter era. But when Brandon Hyde breaks camp in six weeks and brings the team north to Baltimore, most of the players on that roster will be very unknown. They will be players mostly chosen by Elias and Hyde to help start guiding this team forward.

It’s also likely that very few if any of them will still be part of the team once (if) they start to win again in a few years. This is the nature of a rebuild.

2. Entering their time down in Sarasota, perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding the team is how it improves its pitching staff. That’s really the story in any season for the past decade-plus with the Orioles, but this season it really is anyone’s guess who ends up getting innings. Means is the only real sure bet to be a rotation mainstay after finishing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting last season. Whether he’s a significant piece of the rotation for years to come is up to him.

Beyond Means, there’s veteran Alex Cobb, who is coming off hip surgery after making just three starts last season. Cobb is heading into his third year of a four-year deal with the O’s. You can pretty much throw a bunch of names in a hat from there and find three to four other pitchers to make up a rotation. I’d venture a guess that Asher Wojciechowski will get a good look after posting somewhat decent numbers in the second half last year. David Hess didn’t put up great numbers last season (then again no one really did outside of Means), but made 14 starts and could be in line for more action this year. There are also two Rule 5 picks in Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker to consider, as well as free agents Wade LeBlanc and Kohl Stewart.

While the rotation is an extreme mystery, the bullpen is perhaps an even bigger one. There are four names familiar to most fans – Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Hunter Harvey and Miguel Castro – who are going to form some type of back end of the ‘pen. It’s likely that we’ll see all of them in late inning situations and it’s also likely that none of them will have a defined “closer” role, for however few games there are for this team to actually have to close this season. All of that is fine and well, but it’s where you find the other four bullpen spots that is pretty up in the air. And they aren’t going to be guys anyone is used to seeing. It’ll look much like last year in terms of players trying to emerge. But that’s also not all bad. After all, Harvey was the player that really emerged late last season with his plus fastball and ability to get strikeouts late in games.

If the Orioles can get two more players to emerge out of a bullpen full of mystery names, it will be very good news.

3. There are tons of storylines around baseball that will dominate the early part of spring training. There’s the fallout from the Astros cheating scandal and the way it has reached other clubs like the Red Sox and Mets. Speaking of the Red Sox, they finally pushed across a deal to trade noted Oriole killer Mookie Betts away to the Dodgers in what is a completely befuddling move that will rub everyone in Boston the wrong way (I’m not that upset for them).

But the big topic that dropped earlier this week has to do with the postseason and how it will look in the coming years. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported the bombshell story this week about MLB looking to move from five playoff teams in each league to seven. If you haven’t heard about this new proposal by now, I urge you to look into it. But the big takeaway for me wasn’t some big baseball purist feeling. I grew up in the Wild Card era and have always known at least four teams from each league make the playoffs, which of course moved to five several years ago. If it were up to me, and it most certainly is not, the regular season would mean more. This would mean the game would go backwards to fewer teams making the playoffs and just having a league championship series and then World Series. Give me an East and West division in each league and go from there. To me, that’s part of why baseball is so great with so many games, it’s because the regular season really and truly does determine who the best teams are.

But that’s never going to happen. We’re so far removed that the toothpaste is never going back in the tube. Many believe this new-look postseason with a total of 14 out of the 30 teams would help prevent tanking teams. I don’t see it this way. The only thing that truly prevents taking is consequences. And I’m not talking consequences like forfeiting draft picks, I’m talking consequences like relegation.

MLB is not turning into European soccer either, so that is out. Tanking is always going to occur to an extent, because teams see it as the best way to turn things around.

It’s what the Orioles are doing right now, and it’s what the Astros and Cubs had some success with in years past. But it’s also not that simple. The Astros and Cubs still had to spend money, and a good bit of it, to complete their projects. That’s always going to be the case in baseball. Teams with more money, win more often. In that way, baseball IS similar to European soccer. The lack of a salary cap or salary floor will do that.

To me, these postseason changes (which likely will happen eventually) are more about Rob Manfred trying to appease his television partners rather than prevent tanking (or improve the game, even). More postseason games, and more elimination games, means more lucrative television deals. Manfred is looking out for the league’s bottom line, not the quality of the game or the smaller markets with tanking teams. He’d rather see the Dodgers and Yankees in the World Series every year for ratings. The idea overall of getting more important games down the stretch in September and even into early October is wonderful, but don’t pretend for a second that this is the real reason for the move.

If Turner Sports, ESPN and Fox Sports are all in a bidding war for more potential elimination games (and you can probably throw in a few new networks into that mix as well), then it means dollar signs for the industry of baseball. It doesn’t necessarily mean great things for the game of baseball.

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Hope Springs Eternal: The Spring is Bright for the O’s

empty baseball field with sun rising

submitted by Adam Mann

empty baseball field with sun rising

Kristen Hudak

Baseball is right around the corner. If you’re like me, the thought of turning on the TV night after night to watch the O’s can bring about mixed emotions.

It’s fun to watch the prospects develop and imagine what the team might be like in a few years. But man, it can be hard to imagine that future sometimes when the team gets knocked around game after game. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t turn a few games off last season when the score kept running up. And I’d be lying if I said I won’t do it again this year.

But the good thing is in Spring Training there’s little chance of the scores getting run up on a frequent basis. Everyone is trying out new things and seeing who they’ve got in the pipeline.

Fans of teams that hope to compete for a title are going to be frustrated during Spring Training because they want to get a feel for the team they’ll be trotting out onto the field all year (think back to watching O’s Grapefruit league games in say, 2015). But every other player is someone that won’t be on the big-league roster come April. Furthermore, when you’re trying to check out your newest additions how much can you take away from a hit or a home run against minor league competition?

This is where O’s fans have a leg up. When 2016 second-round pick Keegan Akin strikes out a big leaguer it’s something you can get excited about. O’s fans are going to get to see 23-year-old Zac Lowther take his first crack in an Orioles uniform. Hunter Harvey showed last year that he belongs at the MLB level, and he will almost certainly break camp with the squad. That’s big news in Birdland.

For Orioles fans in 2020 there’s likely to be no better time than Spring. People gripe and complain about preseason football. In years past when the Orioles had the chance at making the postseason you might’ve had the same feeling about Spring Training: just ready to get it over with and get to the games that matter.

But no one has any delusions about the Orioles making a postseason run in 2020. Even the most optimistic fans are projecting a season with 100 losses. So, for the Orioles in 2020… none of the games really matter. At least not as far as the final scores go.

This year is all about player development and prospects. And what’s the biggest draw for Spring Training year after year? You get to see the prospects.

That’s what makes this Spring Training one of the most exciting the Orioles have had in years. With 22 non-roster invitees coming along with everyone on the 40-man roster, there are going to be prospects everywhere.

And not just any prospects. Really good prospects. The Orioles have already announced that the first-round pick from last June, Adley Rutschman, will be there. The biggest name the Orioles got in the Manny Machado trade, Yusniel Diaz will be there as well.

Ryan McKenna, Zac Lowther, and Ryan Mountcastle are three more standout names that will be showing up in Sarasota. Spring Training might just be the most exciting time of the year for Orioles fans this year.

These aren’t guys that you’ll be seeing come Opening Day 2020. It’s a glimpse of the Orioles of the future. A glimpse you get to see today.

They are the guys that will be on the Major League roster sooner or later. It’s the one time in 2020 you’ll get to see the players that have a chance of bringing a World Series to Baltimore in an Orioles uniform.

So, crack open a beer, turn on the games, sit back and enjoy. There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a long season for the Orioles, but the Spring, at least, is bright.

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O’s Place 4 on FanGraphs’ Top Prospects List

Four Orioles farmhands find themselves on FanGraphs’ Top 120 prospects list to begin the 2020 season. Adley Rutschman (#5), Grayson Rodriguez (29), DL Hall (86), and Ryan Mountcastle (108) represent Birdland’s best hopes for the future, according to the amateur scouting team over at FG (full list here). Immediately jumping out at me were the omissions of Dean Kremer, who I think deserved to jump onto some lists this year (yet hasn’t, at least that I’ve seen) and Yusniel Diaz (who understandably dropped off some lists this year after his injury-plagued 2019).

As for the guys that are on there though, here’s a snippet of what Eric Longenhagen had to say about each.

@MLBPipeline/Twitter

Rutschman

It’s rare for ambidextrous swingers to have polished swings from both sides of the plate, even more so to have two nearly identical, rhythmic swings that produce power.

It’s more atypical still for that type of hitter to be a great defender at a premium position. Rutschman has a pickpocket’s sleight of hand and absolutely cons umpires into calling strikes on the edge of the zone. Resolute umpires end up hearing it from biased fans who are easier marks. Aside from two instances, all of my Rustchman pop times over three years of looks are between 1.86 and 1.95 seconds, comfortably plus timed throws often right on the bag. Rutschman has the physical tools to become the best catcher in baseball, provided he stays healthy (he had some shoulder/back stuff in college). He’s also an ultra-competitive, attentive, and vocal team leader who shepherds pitchers with measured, but intense encouragement.

Hey Rob Manfred, could we push off those robot umpires for at least another, oh, 10 years or so? Thanks. Signed, Birdland.

Grayson Rodriguez waves to the OPACY crowd.

@Orioles/Twitter

Rodriguez

Rodriguez’s changeup, which was an afterthought back in high school, has screwball action and has become very good, very quickly. He’s now tracking to have a four-pitch mix full of above-average pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a lateral, mid-80s slider, a two-plane upper-70s curveball, and the low-80s change…Rodriguez has a No. 2/3 starter ceiling.

The worst thing you can say about GrayRod is that we probably still have three more years to wait before we see in in Baltimore. A lot can happen to a pitcher in three years…here’s to Grayson’s upward momentum only getting stronger.

DL Hall pitches.

Delmarva Shorebirds

Hall

Ultra-competitive, athletic southpaws with this kind of stuff are very rare. Here’s the list of lefty big league starters who throw harder than Hall, who averaged 94.9 mph on his fastball in 2019: Blake Snell. That’s it.

Because Hall’s release is inconsistent, not only did his walk rate regress in 2019, but the quality of his secondary stuff was also less consistent than it was during his very dominant mid-summer stretch in 2018, when Hall’s changeup clearly took a leap.

All eyes will be on Hall this year, as he looks to regain that mid-2018 form. The command was concerning last season, but the bet here is that he is much higher on this list a year from now.

Ryan Mountcastle prepares to field.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Mountcastle

The eerie shadow of the LF/DH projection (he’s had issues throwing to first base) has loomed around Mountcastle’s profile for a while now, but he keeps hitting enough for me to like him anyway.

Mountcastle’s timing is sublime, and he has one of the more picturesque righty swings in all of pro baseball, featuring a big, slow leg kick that eventually ignites his deft, explosive hands. He has great plate coverage and hits with power to all fields. Mountcastle swings a lot: He has a 4.5% career walk rate, and it’s rare for DH/LF sorts to walk that little and be star-level performers. DH types with OBPs in the .310-.320 range typically max out in the 2-3 WAR range, which is where I expect Mountcastle to peak.

When will we see Mountcastle in Baltimore? With not much to look forward to as far as the big league club goes in 2020 (unless you’re a die-hard, of course), fans will be clamoring for that “picturesque righty swing” to begin making appearances at OPACY sooner rather than later.

 

See the entire (sortable!) FanGraphs list here.

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O’s Have an Under-the-Radar Speedster

Mason Janvrin swings.

So, I was listening to the MLB Pipeline Podcast and they gave praise to an Orioles prospect. No, it wasn’t Adley Rutschman, or Grayson Rodriguez, or even DL Hall. They were discussing 2019 14th Round pick Mason Janvrin out of Division II Central Missouri. Janvrin isn’t even on an Orioles Top 30 Prospects List in any publication.

“Why would they talk about a no-name Orioles prospect,” you may ask yourself. Two words: Blazing Speed.

The discussion topic was brought up: Who are the fastest players in each organization? For the Orioles, my mind immediately goes to Ryan McKenna or even Zach Watson (Drafted out of LSU last year, scouting grade of a 70 for the run tool). But no, Mason Janvrin, the son of Kip Janvrin, ranks atop the list. Kip was an Olympic athlete, competing in the 2000 Decathlon in Sydney. Kip would go on to coach his son and coached the Central Missouri Track & Field team. Speed runs through Mason’s blood.

As the legend has it, scouts once clocked Mason at 3.6 seconds from home plate to first base on a bunt. That number is mind-blowingly absurd. For context, scouts say four seconds flat for that same distance would give a player an 80-run tool (the highest possible) and Mason is have said to beat that mark by four tenths of a second.

Janvrin compiled 76 steals in his three-year career at Central Missouri in just 139 games, putting him on nearly an 89-steal pace if you were to extend that out to a full 162-game season. Not bad for a 14th Round draft pick. While at Central Missouri, Janvrin stole five bases in a game TWICE and broke the single season record for steals with 36. Janvrin wasn’t a slouch at the plate either, accumulating 112 hits in his Junior season, also good for most in a single season in Central Missouri history. Janvrin slashed an impressive .424/.469/.564 line in his final collegiate season and got a Second-Team All-American honor.

Janvrin spent time with the GCL Orioles last year, before moving up to Aberdeen. In his pro debut, Janvrin stole 17 bags and was able to hit over .300. His lack of extra base hits reflects poorly on his slugging percentage, nonetheless an impressive showing after a long summer where his college team made the NCAA Tournament. Janvrin is about to turn 22, so I could see him starting in either Delmarva or Frederick if the organization feels he is up to the task.

I don’t know if Janvrin will ever be a big leaguer, but he most certainly has the athletic pedigree and having at least one elite tool doesn’t hurt your chances. To me, the willingness of the Orioles to take fliers on guys like Janvrin and Toby Welk (Division III draftee) shows how much this new Front Office will think outside the box. Division I is undoubtedly where the majority of the talent lies, but that isn’t where all the talent lies. I root for the Mason Janvrin’s of the world and I hope one day he does get his shot. But I know this: Janvrin will be fascinating to watch no matter where he ends up.

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Reflecting on the Manny Machado Trade

Dean Kremer prepares to pitch.

With Mookie Betts having just been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects and budding star Alex Verdugo, I was reminded of a similar trade just a couple of seasons ago. A young, hot-shot superstar unlikely to re-sign with the team that developed him being traded before inevitably losing him for nothing more than compensation picks. Sound familiar?

When the Orioles traded Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the summer of 2018, it signaled the end of the winningest era of Baltimore baseball since the mid-80s. The return (four prospects and Breyvic Valera) was blasted within baseball circles, as the haul the Orioles received netted just one high-level prospect at the time in Yusniel Diaz, who immediately became the team’s top prospect.

When the trade went down, Keith Law of ESPN said, “the Orioles did not get the Dodgers’ best prospect, or their second-best one, instead getting a quantity return that might yield four or five big leaguers but seems unlikely to give them back a star.”

Law went on to say that “it’s unlikely — not impossible, of course, baseball being what it is — that the Orioles got a future star or even above-average regular in return for a player who, by Baseball-Reference.com, ranks 15th in franchise history in WAR for position players, despite playing just 860 games in orange and black.”

A year and a half removed from the trade, Manny Machado is now a $300 million mega-star for the San Diego Padres and the Dodgers have yet to win a World Series, while the Orioles, tied with Detroit as baseball’s losingest franchise of the last three seasons (310 losses), have three of those prospects knocking on the door in Baltimore.

Yusniel Diaz

The highlight of the return from the Dodgers, Diaz got off to a slow start in his limited time at Bowie, the Orioles Double-A affiliate. In his first experience in the organization, Diaz struggled to find consistency, batting just .239 with 11 XBH in 38 games after arriving in 2018. Still, he was invited to big league camp last spring in Sarasota and turned heads with the bat that was expected when the deal was struck.

In 15 games of Grapefruit League action, Diaz batted .306 and drove in seven runs, though he was an early cut and reassigned to minor league camp. In the early going at Bowie, Diaz got off to a slow start and slashed just .225/.313/.338 before a hamstring injury sideline the outfielder for more than a month just 20 games into the season.

Upon returning from the Injured List, Diaz performed much better, slashing .270/.340/.488 with 9 HR, 15 2B, and 46 RBI in 55 games before another injury sidelined him for three more weeks, this time an injury to his quadriceps.

Though he managed just 85 games for the season, Diaz seemed to improve as the season progressed and managed to bat .314 over his final 10 games before entering the playoffs with the Baysox. His hot hitting continued in the postseason as Diaz notched four straight multi-hit games in leading Bowie to the Eastern League Championship Series, though they came up short in their efforts for a Double-A title.

It has been reported that Diaz performs better under pressure and enjoys playing in the spotlight, as evidenced by his Grapefruit League success and his postseason performance with Bowie. If things go according to plan, Diaz should start his 2020 campaign playing everyday in Norfolk and with success, he could find himself in Baltimore by September, if not sooner.

Dean Kremer

When Kremer made his way to the Baltimore organization, he was leading all of Minor League Baseball in strikeouts, and nothing changed as the season progressed. Kremer finished his 2018 season 10-5 with a 2.88 ERA and a MiLB-leading 178 Ks between three different Dodgers and Orioles affiliates.

Heading into 2019, Kremer was poised to further solidify himself as a top Orioles prospect, but he first had to overcome an oblique injury he sustained during the previous offseason. Kremer missed all of big-league camp that year and reported to extended spring training in April. It wasn’t until May 9th that he made his season debut with the Frederick Keys, and after two shutout appearances coving 9.2 IP, Kremer was promoted to the Bowie Baysox, where the results were less than desirable.

In his first five starts after returning to Bowie, Kremer went 1-4 and pitched to a 5.02 ERA, clearly needing to shed some rust before returning to his dominant form. Then, on June 22nd, everything seemed to click as Kremer went out and pitched five shutout innings vs. the Harrisburg Senators and got his season back on track.

Over his last 10 outings for Bowie, Kremer went 8-0 with a 1.93 ERA and struck out 57 batters in 56 IP. Half of those 10 outings were scoreless for the young hurler, prompting a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk.

Though Kremer didn’t find the success at Norfolk that he had at Bowie (0-2, 8.84 ERA in four starts), he is ticketed for the International League to start 2020 and should improve upon those numbers. Kremer has found success at every level, and even pitched to a 2.37 ERA in the Arizona Fall League over six outings.

Featuring a five-pitch mix, Kremer seemed to be a potential backend starter coming out of college, but his fastball, which sat in the 90-91 MPH range at the beginning of his career, has gained velocity and touched 96 MPH in a bullpen session back in January. Kremer looks better and better with each outing and could project as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher eventually.

Rylan Bannon on deck

Rylan Bannon

Bannon won back-to-back Big East Conference tournament championships and appeared in back-to-back NCAA tournaments at Xavier in 2016 and 2017. Drafted in the 8th round of the 2017 First Year Player Draft after batting .339 his senior season, Bannon showed no signed of being overmatched in his pro debut. Short in stature, the 5’7” third baseman played much bigger for the rookie level Ogden Raptors, slashing .336/.425/.591 with 10 HR in his first 40 professional games.

In his first full season of professional baseball in 2018, Bannon started out at High-A Rancho Cucamonga where he batted .275 and mashed 20 HR for the Dodgers affiliate before being packaged as part of the trade for Machado. Rather than assign him to the Frederick Keys, the Orioles decided to challenge Bannon, immediately promoting him to Double-A Bowie. The challenge was met with a bit of a thud as Bannon batted just .204 with 2 HR in 32 games for the Baysox.

Still, Bannon rose to the occasion in 2019 as he started his year in Bowie and slashed a respectable .255/.345/.394 in 110 games before being promoted to Norfolk. The International League was an explosively offensive league in 2019, and Bannon fit right in, batting .314 while slugging .549 in 20 games for the Orioles Triple-A affiliate.

With a small sample size of success at Norfolk, Rylan Bannon will be the everyday third baseman for the Tides to start 2020. The Orioles are weak at third base with Rio Ruiz yet to find consistency and Renato Nunez’s defensive struggles. Considering the latter will almost assuredly be the everyday DH in Baltimore, the phone could ring early for Bannon if Ruiz falters out of the gate. A steady spring and fast start at Norfolk could have Bannon in Baltimore ahead of any prospect acquired in the trade two summers ago.

Another prospect acquired in the trade is reliever Zach Pop. Pop had a stellar season for both organizations in 2018, pitching to a 1.53 ERA while allowing just one home run in 44 games covering 64.2 innings. He was off to an even better start in 2019, allowing just one run in 10.2 innings with 11 Ks at Bowie before Tommy John Surgery ended his season.

It’s hard to imagine Pop pitching anywhere competitively before the end of 2020, but he could be thrust into the bullpen competition sometime in 2021. The book is still out on Pop, and everybody’s recovery from such an invasive surgery is different, but his body of work cannot be ignored.

For the Orioles, highlights have to be found in silver linings and prospects these days as the big-league club begins year two of their rebuild. Another 100-loss season could be on the horizon, but players like Diaz, Kremer, and Bannon could soften the blow of another lost season. Right now, that’s more than even Keith Law could have envisioned.

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Thursday Thoughts: Showalter Shunned in Houston

It’s still cold and the Super Bowl has yet to be played, but Spring Training is right around the corner. Now I’m peeking out from around a different corner to see if this thing still works the way it used to. It’s been a while since I’ve written in this space. It’s probably been even longer since you’ve read any of it. Toward the end of last baseball season, interest in the Orioles seemed to dwindle. Losing 108 games will do that to a fanbase. But the O’s are still a thing and they’ll continue to be throughout the summer. While 2020 surely won’t bring a lot of wins, it will hopefully provide a clearer vision into what is to come for the franchise in the next few seasons.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Let’s touch on a few things that are tangentially related to the Orioles, as I do regularly in this column.

1. Firstly, the Houston Astros have shunned former O’s skipper Buck Showalter for their open managerial role, instead choosing to hire Dusty Baker. This isn’t all that shocking of a decision to me. While those of us who are Baltimore fans would love to see Showalter get another shot at leading a ballclub, especially one with as much talent as Houston, he’s probably not their type.

It seems the Astros, when they aren’t banging on trash cans to tip pitches, are still way more analytically inclined than many other teams. While Baker isn’t the most analytical manager out there, neither is Showalter. My hunch is that the Astros are also a team that likes things to run from the top down, meaning the front office makes a lot of the calls and the manager has to deal with it. That’s also not Showalter’s style. Baker seems more like the type of manager, now 70 years old, who is willing to sit back and focus on managing from the dugout rather than from the front office.

Showalter always had his hand in a lot of decisions while in Baltimore, which is likely the source of many of his reported run-ins with executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.

2. Separate from the Astros’ managerial search is the scandal that led to it in the first place. As the whole thing unfolded this winter, eventually touching the Red Sox and Mets, I couldn’t help but think where else it might reach as it evolves.

Like, perhaps if the Astros had some members of their front office leave a few years ago and join a different team to take over a rebuilding project.

Maybe perhaps, in Baltimore?

No, it’s not like I think Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal were directly involved in this large scale scheme to steal signs in Houston. But I can’t prove they weren’t at least in the know. The revelations that continued to develop over the last few months weren’t shocking, but they did continue to unmask a program that is likely deeper within the game than we realize.

Jokes can be had about how the Orioles weren’t doing any of this sign stealing over the last two seasons, but don’t think these things aren’t thought about throughout the game. The Elias-Mejdal connection to the Astros is one that we all embraced when they were both brought to Baltimore. Has that changed now? Certainly there is still faith in what they are trying to build at Camden Yards, but does it ding your confidence at all? It’s something I don’t really have a great gauge for as of yet.

We’ll know our feelings more as results either come or don’t over the next few seasons.

3. The Orioles did not have their annual FanFest this month, and have instead planned a “caravan” for early February. These caravans are pretty common throughout the game, even if they aren’t familiar in Baltimore. Many teams do them prior to Spring Training. Some even call them the “Winter Warmup” or some other cute alliterative name (which the O’s had their own version of on Eutaw Street in December).

The caravan will run February 7-9 and hit 12 different cities and towns in the region, including York, Pennsylvania. York has long been Orioles territory in the same way that Washington, DC down into Northern Virginia once was. Things have changed. But the Orioles are doing their best to maintain their regional foothold, and a caravan is one way to do it.

I wonder if eliminating FanFest in favor of this caravan is an effort by the franchise to reach out and allow fans shorter distances to travel to see players and get a taste of baseball in the winter months. It could also be a concession that getting into downtown Baltimore to the convention center is not appealing to many. Parking is difficult and costly. It’s a one day thing. And for many reasons that are well above my knowledge and pay grade, there isn’t much desire for people to go into Baltimore City when they don’t have to.

As for the caravan itself, the team is bringing a good mix of players, prospects, coaches and legends along for the events. There seems to be a real embrace of getting prospects out into the community and recognizing that during this rebuild, fans are going to be super focused on those players. Might as well get them out in front of the public as much as possible. It’s also unclear, and likely extremely undecided, as to whether or not this caravan will be a long-term thing.

FanFest may eventually return, or the caravan could replace it in the long run. Feedback from the fans will likely determine the future of all such events.

4. The big signing for the Orioles this offseason was…Jose Iglesias? The 30-year-old Cuban was an All-Star back in 2015, but let’s not pretend this signing was a big deal. Let’s also not pretend that it was important for the Birds to make a big signing. This is going to be a very bad season, and a very long one. I think it’s important to keep reminding fans that this is Year 2 of what is likely a five-year rebuild.

It didn’t start in 2018 when the team went in the tank and traded the likes of Manny Machado and others. It started when they brought in a new regime last winter and came up with a plan. If the Orioles are still losing 90+ games in 2022 or 2023, we’ve got issues. Until then, embrace the suck. Enjoy the free agents like Iglesias, who I hope does wonderful things in the black and orange this season. I’ll root for him to be incredible. But let’s not pretend that we are ready for this team to call up it’s prospects and start winning games any time soon.

Iglesias likely won’t even be around when that happens.

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Yet Another Position Change for Ryan Mountcastle?

When it comes to change, prospect Ryan Mountcastle has experienced it often as a professional.

The soon-to-be 23-year old was drafted 36th overall by the Orioles in 2015. He finished that year with 53 professional games under his belt from time with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles and the short-season Single-A Aberdeen Ironbirds. He played 39 games at shortstop while also logging three games at third base.

Mountcastle played the entire 2016 season with Single-A Delmarva, recording all of his defensive innings at shortstop. He earned a promotion to High-A Frederick in 2017, where he once again played only shortstop. Midway through the 2017 campaign, the Orioles promoted Mountcastle to Double-A Bowie, but this time they switched his primary position from shortstop to third base. From that moment through the end of the 2018 season, the only position he trotted out to was the hot corner.

Another position change occurred in 2019, as the Orioles — under new leadership in the organization — began giving Mountcastle reps across the diamond at first base. They didn’t completely eliminate the position he had been playing for the previous two years, as he made nine starts at third in Triple-A Norfolk, but 83 of his starts came at first base.

Then, midway through the 2019 season, Mountcastle started alternating between first base and left field. Before the season came to an end, he started in the latter 26 times.

As a professional, he has now seen time at shortstop, third base, first base and left field. What could be next?

Back in December, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias revealed that Mountcastle will be learning right field in addition to left field and the infield corners, but the second-year general manager also noted that the club could get a look at the slugging prospect at another position: second base.

At first blush, I felt that him playing second base would be a stretch. Even Elias said in December he doesn’t feel anyone in the organization thinks Mountcastle projects as an everyday second baseman, but it was something they could look into just to see if he could play in a pinch.

But the more I read and think about it, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Now I know what you’re thinking. The ideal image of your prototypical second baseman is a plus defender, puts the ball in play with some on-base capabilities and maybe provides a little bit of speed on the basepaths. Mountcastle doesn’t exactly fit that bill. But what if this is a new era of second basemen we’re seeing?

ESPN’s Buster Olney released his top ten second basemen earlier this month (subscription required), including opinions from around the league on how the view of the position has changed over the years. Former Tigers and Angels manager Brad Ausmus believes the change has occurred in part by the semi-recent rule changes on baserunners sliding into second base.

“The focus on offense combined with the slide rule has definitely lessened the defensive importance of second basemen. The art and nuance to turning a double play has basically disappeared. It’s much easier to put an inexperienced position player — who probably adds offense to the lineup — and teach him to turn two,” Ausmus told Olney.

It makes sense to a degree. We still see plenty of defensively savvy second basemen around the league like Kolten Wong, Yolmer Sanchez and Ozzie Albies, among others. But ballclubs are now also thinking about acquiring or developing a big bat to play second base.

In the four years since the slide rule at second base was implemented, all major league second basemen combined to average 716 home runs per season with a .151 ISO (Isolated Power). What about the annual average of the four years prior to the slide rule change? Just 461 home runs and a .121 ISO.

Nowadays, if you can hit a ton, field the routine grounders and make throws to first base, major league clubs will consider you at second base.

This is where Mountcastle falls and could potentially land.

Mountcastle was named the International League Most Valuable Player in 2019 after slashing .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs and 117 wRC+ in Triple-A Norfolk. However, despite the impressive numbers, the young prospect still didn’t earn a promotion to Baltimore. This could be for a number of reasons.

First, it’s not outlandish to suggest the Orioles — who are in full rebuild mode — had no interest in starting Mountcastle’s service clock before it’s necessary. Pure strategy, whether it’s deemed ethical or not, to attempt to gain club control of his services for an extra season.

Another possibility is that Mountcastle still has yet to find his home in the field. He just began learning first base and left field last season, so there’s a case to be made that the O’s just want to determine his primary defensive position before promoting him.

And finally, the last option is that even though he had a great performance at the dish in 2019, the Orioles may still not be satisfied with it. Although the above numbers were quite impressive, his on base capabilities and plate discipline were not, as he posted a 4.3-percent walk rate and 23.5-percent strikeout rate.

Compare those numbers to MLB first basemen from the 2019 season. Mountcastle’s walk rate would’ve ranked the worst among qualified major league first basemen, and his strikeout rate would’ve ranked 11th-lowest. His 117 wRC+ would be tied for the 11th-highest.

Keep in mind that the jump from Triple-A to the majors is a big one, so it’s possible that Mountcastle’s numbers would not be repeated nor get better, but actually be worse. If he develops better plate discipline in the coming years, he could be just fine as a producing first baseman at the big league level. But if this is who he is as a hitter going forward, the bat may not profile well as a first baseman.

If this is the case, maybe this is why the Orioles are experimenting with him in the corner outfield spots. Mountcastle is certainly a good hitter, but the club may be trying to protect themselves in case he doesn’t take that next offensive step that is needed to become a prototypical first baseman in the major leagues.

Ryan Mountcastle swings

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

These are the same reasons why it makes sense for the Orioles to at least work with him at second base a bit. Over the last few seasons, as I wrote earlier, defense has become less of a “want” from MLB clubs when it comes to second basemen. They all want the bats.

One of Mountcastle’s biggest flaws on defense is his lack of arm strength, which is a big indicator as to why he was moved from shortstop to third base and now from third across the diamond to first. There is much less concern over arm strength when positioned on the right side of the infield. If Mountcastle can prove to be at least serviceable at second base, the Orioles may find his position of the future without having to stress over whether or not he can make the proper offensive adjustments to be an archetypal first baseman at the plate.

There’s a chance that second base actually isn’t a fit for Mountcastle and that his real defensive home is confirmed to be first base or one of the corner outfield spots. But with how he has already been accustomed to defensive change multiple times this early in his professional career, I don’t think it’ll hurt for the Orioles to put him through just one additional trial. The results may be worth it.

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