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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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The Payoff Pitch: Banging Ballot Boxes w/Dan Connolly

The Payoff Pitch logo.

In this first episode of The Payoff Pitch of 2020, I go over the recent Hall of Fame honorees, then get into the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and the fallout from that report.

The Payoff Pitch logo.

After that, I of course talks Orioles, including their jettisoning of Jonathan Villar, some prospects to get excited about, & more. Dan Connolly of The Athletic joins me to talk about his HoF ballot, Adley Rutschman being invited to big-league camp this spring, other young Birds that will be competing for spots, and more.

Thanks for listening! Follow Paul at @PaulValle & Dan at @danconnolly2016.

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Would You Trade Places with the Astros?

The Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles couldn’t be more different. Both are major league baseball franchises, and up until very recently, that’s about where the similarities ended. The Astros have appeared in two of the last three World Series, winning one (in 2017), and losing another in seven games (last year, to the Washington Nationals). The Orioles, of course, haven’t appeared in a Fall Classic since 1983.

Houston has won an average of 96 games per season over the past five years, topping 100 each of the last three. The O’s, meanwhile, have lost 100+ games in two straight seasons, and haven’t played in a playoff series since 2014 (they played in the Wild Card game in 2016). The Astros have been on the cutting edge of the baseball analytics revolution, putting together a front office that was the envy of the rest of the league. The Orioles, until hiring Mike Elias & Sig Mejdal away from said Astros just over a year ago, were the laughingstock of baseball in this regard, barely having an analytics department at all.

So, it would seem a no-brainer that Orioles fans would have been happy to trade places with Astros fans here over the last half-decade or so. We’d have jumped at the chance.

However, all of that changed recently, with the Astros being found guilty of using technology to steal signs during their recent run of success. The ‘Stros were fined $5 million; their manager, A.J. Hinch, and GM, Jeff Luhnow, were both suspended for the entire 2020 season (and subsequently fired by the team); they were stripped of their 2020 and 2021 first-round draft picks; Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, members of Houston in 2017, both lost their jobs, as manager of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, respectively.

As a result of all this, Houston’s entire legacy is in question.

It’s a brutal episode for MLB, and for baseball fans everywhere, regardless of whether you cheer for the Astros, feel that your team was wronged by them on their way to all those wins, or just love the game in general. It’s the steroid scandal all over again, in some ways.

That black cloud that will hang over baseball will be explored exhaustively over the next few weeks, months, and years. What I was curious about, was whether or not Birdland would still trade places with Houston, given the chance.

My informal Twitter poll, that got 516 votes (presumably near all from O’s fans) found that 41% of O’s fans would still trade places. Here’s a sampling of some of the responses folks wrote:

Honestly, the voting went about as I’d expected. It’s a tough question, and I’m fascinated by the responses, on both sides. I think that, if you asked fans of a team that hasn’t been as long-suffering as we O’s fans have, you’d get a lot more people saying “No!” They don’t know the struggle, man.

I should also point out that I took the poll before the most recent allegations, that players actually had buzzers taped to their bodies to alert them what pitch was coming. Would that affect the results, I wonder?

So what about you? If a fairy could wave a magic wand and make the 2015-2019 Orioles and Astros trade places – the good and the bad – would you sign up for that?

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Baseball is Around the Bend

Ed Smith Stadium at night.

Just when we thought that Baltimore was going to be the proud new owner of a new Trophy (the Lombardi) the unthinkable happens, the Ravens collapse and lose to the Titans. It seemed like a sure thing … Lamar Jackson and Purple Reign looked unbeatable. But the sports gods can be fickle creatures. So, bring on the MLB season!

When we check the MLB Picks at SBR, we see the Baltimore Orioles are super long-shots at +100,000 to win the World Series in 2020. Now, I must say, even though those seem like impossible odds, it’s better than playing the lottery. A $10 bet would net you $10,000.00 if the Orioles made it through the postseason and won it all. I mean, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, the Washington Nationals just won the whole thing from the NL wild card seat!

Credit: sportsbookreview.com

A Look at the AL East

Well, the New York Yankees are the favorites to win the AL East and the World Series in 2020. They have continued to load up their roster because well … they can. They are the Evil Empire and the have the money to do so.

The Yanks have strengthened their starting rotation with a 9-year 324 million dollar signing of Gerrit Cole. So why is this scary? Because the Yanks had the third-best record in the Bigs last season and they just added a guy who had a 2.50 ERA with 326 strikeouts on 212 innings pitched. The Yanks managed their 103-59 record even without Giancarlo Stanton for most of the season and Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez missing 96 games together as well.

If the Yankees stay healthy, they could prove to be Bird-Bane for the Orioles in 2020. I hate to wish ill-will on anyone, but we need to hope for another injury-riddled season on the part of the Yanks if the Os want a chance of competing against this ridiculously stacked roster.

The Rays have been sitting on their highly-rated farm players for a while, but they just unloaded to add some depth to their MLB roster. They haven’t loaded up like the Yanks, but the Rays have been pretty busy over the offseason. They picked up Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for their top-rated pitching and catching prospects.

Tampa Bay had a solid season, just seven games behind the Yanks last year. And they are hoping that a bit of extra depth in the dugout will close the depth between the Rays and the AL East winners.

The Blue Jays have made moves as well. They paid big to steal Hyun-Jin Ryu and also added Chase Anderson in November. So, the Jays have worked pretty hard to garner an elite pitching staff on top of all their other moves.

The Red Sox are a full 20 million dollars over the luxury tax line … so there are a handful of stars on their roster that could hit the bricks in trade. This would not exclude David Price, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chris Sale. But because of this, there are some prospects such as Josh Ockimey who might get their shot in 2020. That said, the Sox are going to have to unload, and this will cause a massive dynamic shift. I do not think they will be an 80-win team in 2020.

So, where does this leave the Orioles? Are they still going to be on the bottom of the division?

Well, unfortunately, it may be. But there could be a three-way race between the Os, the Jays, and the Sox for the middle of the division. The Orioles are starting to look pretty good defensively, as far as their infield is concerned. Jose Iglesias rounds out a solid infield and if Chris Davis can finally shake the gremlins off his bat, they might not only be good on defense but productive at the plate as well.

We’ll have to wait and see how the rest of the offseason shakes out, and who ends up where. But the O’s have a good shot to climb off the bottom of the AL East in 2020.

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A Look Back, A Look Ahead

Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore

Looking back over the last decade, and how the Orioles can improve in the 20s

What a long, strange trip the last 10 years have been for the Baltimore Orioles. They started badly, and they ended even worse; but in between, we saw a brief turnaround in Baltimore’s fortunes that many hoped would be a permanent renaissance. You won’t find the Fox bet sportsbook PA offering good odds on the Orioles making a strong comeback in 2020 either. However, the Birds are looking at the long game, and it’s entirely possible that the team in 2025 or 2030 will be unrecognizable from the sorry state we see right now.

Tough times

The noughties had been a dire decade for the once-proud Orioles, their golden years in the 1970s a lifetime past. April 12th, 2010 saw the lowest ever paid attendance in Camden Yards history, when just 9,129 fans turned out to see the Orioles go up against the Tampa Bay Rays.

It was time for a change, and Dave Trembley was replaced as manager by Buck Showalter (after third-base coach Juan Samuel stood in for a few weeks over the summer). Things started to improve straight away, and the Orioles finished out the season with a 66-96 record – by no means impressive, but marginally better than 64-98 in 2009, and seeming to buck what had been a five-year downward trend.

Moving forward

2011 saw the Orioles sign Vladimir Guerrero as designated hitter, and they finished the season 69-93. A highlight was the 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox on September 28th, one of the most dramatic games in MLB history thanks to the amazing performances of Nolan Reimold and Robert Andino.

Things really started to change for the better in 2012 with the Orioles’ first winning season since 1997. The Birds finished the regular season with a 93-69 record, second place in the American League East, won a playoff berth and went on to the American League Division Series. They lost in five games, but things were definitely looking up.

In 2013, Chris Davis set a new MLB record, with 16 RBIs during his first four games. He was also only the fourth player in league history to hit home runs in all of those first four games, including a grand slam in the fourth one. He finished the season with 53 home runs, the most in the Orioles’ history. The Orioles played 119 games without an error and finished the season with a very decent 85-77 record.

Doing well

Everything was set up for 2014, when a regular-season record of 96-66 saw them go through to the Division Series. They won for the first time since 1997, going on to the American League Championship Series, where they were defeated by the Kansas City Royals.

2015 should have been the Orioles’ year, but instead it found them treading water, stalling with an 81-81 record at the end of the season. Davis won the MLB home run championship with 47 home runs, the third consecutive year in which the title was won by an Oriole, but the team was eliminated from the division race early on.

Downhill

In 2016, an 89-73 record saw the Orioles advance to the playoffs on the last day of the season, where they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the Wild Card game. Unfortunately, 2017 saw them back on a losing streak with a 75-87 record, their worst since 2011. After finishing 2018 47-115, the worst season record in the history of the franchise, they decided to let both Showalter and GM Dan Duquette go.

Looking ahead

With new manager Brandon Hyde at the helm, 2019 was all about rebuilding. On paper, it may not have been much of an improvement on the previous season, with a 54-108 record, but the difference was that in 2019, the Orioles’ focus wasn’t on winning. The season was all about breaking in a new, untested roster of young players and setting down solid foundations for the future.

It was painful to watch, however. The Orioles lost over 100 games in two consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history, and they were the first team ever to allow 300 home runs in one season. They watched as regional rivals the Washington Nationals won the World Series, and the final irony was that they didn’t even end up with first draft pick in 2020. That went to the Detroit Tigers, who had the dubious honor of an even worse season than the Orioles, ending with a 47-114 record.

It may get worse before it gets better. However, Hanser Alberto and Rio Ruiz have shored up the Orioles’ defense, while Anthony Santander, John Means and Hunter Harvey look to be key players for several seasons to come. With plenty of new, untried talent coming on board, the Orioles have hopefully turned a corner. The best is yet to come.

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The Payoff Pitch – Warming Up Winter w/Luke Siler

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In this offseason episode, I discuss the O’s Winter Warmup event, the recent trades of Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Villar, and more. After the break, I’m joined by Orioles Hangout’s prospect analyst Luke Siler (@The_Luke_Siler) to discuss the players the Birds got in those aforementioned trades, plus the guys they picked up in the Rule V draft.

Thanks for listening!

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Villar Situation Tough to Swallow, but Makes Sense

Jonathan Villar in the batter's box.

On Wednesday night, the Orioles made a move that shocked a lot of the Baltimore baseball community when they decided to make an outright waiver request on Jonathan Villar. My understanding is that this means the Orioles could not find a trade partner for the middle-infielder and rather than taking the chance of having to pay parts, or all, of the $10.4 million contract he is due to receive through arbitration, the team decided non-tendering Villar was the best course of action.

Jonathan Villar in the batter's box.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Dan Connolly of The Athletic did his best to explain the situation in his most recent article, and speculated the Orioles could hope to re-sign Villar to a smaller deal if no other team puts in a waiver claim, though he thinks a simple non-tender and parting of ways is the most likely scenario. Making the former scenario possible is that any claiming team would have to go to arbitration with Villar, and there doesn’t seem to be teams champing at the bit to pay him upwards of $10 million.

In Baltimore, many fans and analysts–myself included–were left scratching their heads after the most recent turn of events.

For Villar, 2019 was an All-Star caliber campaign, even if the accolades weren’t awarded in-season. The 28-year-old switch hitter had a career year, playing in all 162 games while slashing .274/.339/.453 with 24 HR, 73 RBI, 111 runs, and 40 stolen bases (second most in the American League).

Pundits and analysts alike seemed to think tendering Villar a contract and then trading him later was the most likely scenario, and the Orioles did shop Villar at the trade deadline last season, during which time talks with the Cubs picked up some traction, but never intensified. The Orioles simply did not like what the Cubs were offering and weren’t willing to make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. All of this, of course, was before the monster second half Villar put up that could have made him an enticing trade target for fringe playoff contenders looking to be put over the top this offseason.

The question is, if the Orioles rid themselves of Villar, who do they replace him with?

Richie Martin has shed his rule V status and will almost assuredly be ticketed for Norfolk next spring. Mason McCoy is likely headed to Norfolk also, and profiles more as a utility man rather than an everyday player.

Of the Orioles’ top middle infield prospects, former first-round pick, Cadyn Grenier (almost by default) is the closest to making his big-league debut. He topped out at High-A Frederick in 2019 and ended his season on the injured list. Baltimore doesn’t have many answers for the middle of the diamond and robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t make much sense.

The Orioles could certainly do worse than a $10 million infielder with pop, on-base capabilities, and a propensity for the stolen base who plays every single day. With Villar, my position has always been that the club should take the same stance as they do with Trey Mancini. You must have recognizable players, even on a last place team. Fans who have gotten on-board with a full-scale rebuild still want a reason to come to the ballpark, and Villar is as good a reason as any.

Still, the waiver request does make sense, even if it is hard to swallow. The fact remains that Villar, while at times electric, doesn’t put this team over the top. Not when the rotation currently has four members (perhaps three if the Dylan Bundy trade rumors are true), the bullpen is as unproven as any in the game, and the lineup still features holes all over the diamond.

The Orioles are almost certainly headed for their third straight 100-loss, last-place finish, and Villar doesn’t change that. It may be difficult to fathom, but we all knew this stretch was coming. We signed up for a full-scale rebuild, and this it what that entails. In five years, we’ll probably look back on this and think, “Worth it.”

But until then, there’s no getting around it: This. Sucks.

Trust me, I get it.

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The Beauty of Bench-Clearing Brawls

Jose Bautista and Rougned Odor fight.

For the most part, mass brawls are often a bit hard to watch and the sooner they come to an end the better. There is one exception though, and that is when they take place on the sports field, mainly because everyone knows there is only so much they can get away with if they care at all about not being banned for life from the sport they play. So you are at liberty to encourage the unfolding melee to step it up a notch and get stuck in, safe in the knowledge that most of the punches being thrown are for the cameras.

No sport quite does a bench-clearing brawl like baseball though. It is part of the sport’s long list of unwritten rules that dictates should one of your team members become entangled in a fight, you drop everything you’re doing and follow the rest of your team into the trenches to fight. It’s this instinctive behavior that makes of the most popular sports in the USA.

Infographic credit: Betway

How are mass brawls started?

Well, you don’t have to try that hard to spark a row, in actual fact. Just put one foot wrong and a pitcher or batter will happily charge the wrongdoer and deliver a sporting uppercut on arrival. These things often escalate after repeated offenses but if you want to go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye, then flip your bat after hitting a home run. Even better, throw the ball at a batter’s head, that will have the opposition bench running at you at approximately the same speed at which Puma’s golden boy Usain Bolt runs the 100-metre sprint.

Lesser offenses that are likely to have someone warn you – one more of those and you will be collecting your teeth off the ground – include bunting to break up a perfect game, walking over the pitcher’s mound, and stealing a base late in a blowout win.

You may as well have just insulted the mothers of all the opposition players if you’re brave enough to do any of the above. A full list of the dos and don’ts are dissected in Betway’s article on the evolution of baseball’s unwritten rules; however, it must be pointed out, group fights seem to have been around since baseball started with possibly the only evolution being the numbers of players invited to join in.

Bench-clearing is part of baseball’s DNA

Major League Baseball makes no attempt to hide mass brawls in their sport and has even dedicated a piece on their official website to the notable brawls in baseball history. The standout incident being when Rangers took on the Blue Jays in 2015, where a powerful slide by Jose Bautista on Rougned Odor was followed up with Odor punching Bautista with a connection that Muhammad Ali would have been proud of.

It was enough for Bautista’s helmet and glasses to take off like a 747, which prompted many to ask whether the fight was acceptable and actually a bridge too far in the sport? As way of comparison, that type of offense in soccer would have a player banned for life.

In the end, MLB handed Odor an eight-game suspension and a fine of $5,000 after going all Mike Tyson on Bautista.

Nothing more than a slap on the wrist. It’s not like Odor was about to join a list of the top five prosecuted athletes in the history of sport. In fact, the police weren’t even interested in taking it further and it doesn’t seem like baseball’s disciplinary committee were too put out by Odor’s reaction.

Why we love baseball’s mass brawls

A bit of a scuffle never killed anyone and a release of pent up emotion is always quality viewing for any sports fan. No, the fact that mass brawls are still allowed in baseball is one of the last standing beacons of hope in a world where more rules and regulations are beginning to permeate most sports’ skin. Let the boys rumble and sort it out amongst themselves.

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The Payoff Pitch: Restless & FanFest-less w/Jon Meoli

The Payoff Pitch logo.

In this offseason edition of The Payoff Pitch, I congratulate the team down 95 on their World Series win, goes over the Orioles’ moves to date, and previews the owners meetings. The Baltimore Sun’s O’s beat writer Jon Meoli then joins me to discuss the O’s puzzling decision to cancel FanFest, Chris Holt’s role, those aforementioned moves, and more.

Thanks for listening!

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Can a Poker Mindset Help the O’s Stay Focused?

Mancini’s second season saw him lose focus

Photo credit: Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Now, you may think that this sounds a bit odd and, truth be told, we completely understand why. How on earth can poker or anything related to cards help the Orioles remain focused? Well, the thing is that there are quite a few aspects of poker that could be just the ticket for keeping players in the right frame of mind leading up to a game.

Studies by leading neuroscientists discovered that poker continuously builds new pathways in the brain, which in turn leads to a healthy brain with functioning cells. And that means more brain power. Poker can actually improve mental capacity in a number of ways.

Let’s see, shall we?

Improved decision-making

If you’ve ever played poker regularly, then this is probably something that you take for granted – poker players can make the right decision in a split second. It’s a skill that’s acquired over time and that becomes second nature to regular players.

This decision-making ability comes about as a result of constantly working out odds and determining the chances of success throughout the game. The poker player’s mind is always on point, remaining fully focused at all times, but we’ll get to that later. It’s this decision-making skill that could be of huge benefit to the players. Less deliberation, more decisiveness on the field to echo the success of GM Mike Elias’ first year in charge. Perhaps Elias is a poker shark in his spare time – who knows?

While this year has without a doubt been a huge success (feels strange to type that), there’s always room for improvement, as Elias has proven in the boardroom.

Learning how to lose

What the what now? Yes, we’re talking about losing and we’re guessing that you think losing is a pretty easy thing to do right? Well, it’s not the actual losing we’re really talking about. Confused yet?

As you may have guessed, nobody wants to lose, but it’s inevitable that throughout a season, with so many games, the team are going to lose at some point. How they react to that loss is where the lessons of poker can be a significant benefit. You see, according to poker coach and sports psychologist Jared Tendler, one of the most important aspects of poker psychology is learning how to lose.

He maintains that any successful player he coaches has no problem with losing. They play their game and when they lose, they look on it not as a loss but as an opportunity to learn. They analyze their performance and the decisions they made throughout the game and use this information to improve their efforts the next time around.

Of course, baseball teams have been using analytics for years to help players look back on their effectiveness in the game. But this goes deeper than simple analytics. Learning to accept defeat as a learning opportunity takes a complete shift in mindset. And yes, you guessed it, poker teaches you how to make that shift.

Poker and baseball are alike in that players have many opportunities to have another crack at their opponents. 162 games for professional baseball players, and as many hands as a poker player can sit through.

Staying focused

 Bringing the team closer together can only be a positive thing?

(Photo credit: Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

And now we get to the real meat of the whole poker approach – remaining focused. Staying in the game and remaining focused on what’s happening might seem like an easy thing to do, but all you need to do is take a look at the likes of Trey Mancini, who in 2018 had a nightmare first half of the season. He then followed up with an adequate second half of the season, before then hitting the best form of his career in 2019.

Mancini’s problem in that poor first half of the 2018 season had nothing to do with ability. After all, he’s a supremely talented athlete. It’s more likely that the weight of expectation after such a great rookie year weighed too heavy on his shoulders. In all probability, he wasn’t mentally prepared for 2018 and it affected his performances.

So what does this have to do with focus and poker? It all has to do with removing emotional influence from the game. No, we’re not expecting the entire roster to function like robots, but learning to control emotions such as frustration, anger, and anxiety can only have a positive effect.

And once again, this is something that comes as second nature to a seasoned poker player. They think logically and make decisions based on the information laid out before them and not on the emotions that control their heart.

Heavy stuff, right? Well, it’s not really because as we said, poker simply teaches you to approach everything with a logical and analytical mind. You stop thinking with your emotions and start thinking with your game intelligence and before you know it, you’re making logical decisions despite the abuse of opposing fans and players.

We know one or two players who’d benefit from a slightly less emotional state of mind. We’ll mention no names though.

So, are we suggesting that Elias funds weekly trips to the local casino? Hell no. What we have in mind is something a little friendlier and a lot more controlled. Bring in a poker coach and sports psychologist like that guy Jared Tendler, and have him work on the basics of poker with all the players. Get him to focus on the mental preparation required to get into a poker mindset and then organize friendly players-only tournaments, with players playing for chips instead of actual cash.

Not only will this work as a great way to pick up those skills we mentioned earlier, but it will also bring the roster closer together. And that, in a nutshell is why poker could be exactly what the O’s need to stay focused and take us to the playoffs.

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Learning Experience for “Fall Stars” Kremer & McCoy

Dean Kremer prepares to pitch.

After strong starts to the Arizona Fall League season, RHP Dean Kremer and INF Mason McCoy have been selected to represent the Baltimore Orioles at this year’s Fall Stars Game.

McCoy, the Orioles’ 24th ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline, has a .417 on-base percentage across 36 plate appearances. Though not displaying much power aside from a line-drive triple to deep right-center field the other night, he’s hit the ball well, including nine hits in 21 at bats against right-handed pitching.

Dean Kremer prepares to pitch.

Kremer, ranked 8th in the Orioles’ system, has started three games this fall, striking out 10 across nine innings, surrendering just five hits and pitching to a 2.00 ERA. Much of his success has arisen from holding opponents to just one hit with runners on base. Left-handed batters have especially struggled against Kremer, a trend that holds true to his regular season numbers.

I had a chance to talk to each of them about their experiences in the Fall League thus far. Both are clearly embracing the opportunity to improve their skills, especially playing against top-notch competition from across all of baseball.

“Having pitchers like this helps expose your weaknesses and flaws in your swing, which I feel will make me a better player in the future,” said McCoy.

On the transition to playing for different coaches and with different teammates than he’s used to, McCoy told me, “they start giving you their input on certain things and all of a sudden you’re gathering more information from more coaches and players and you’re really just trying to do anything to better your game, to add more tricks to your trade.”

Kremer echoed those sentiments.

“The competition here is probably the best it’s gonna be,” he said. “Everyone is really young, really good and so getting to hammer down some things I want to work on and even just talking with other guys and seeing how they go about their business is a great opportunity.”

He went on to talk about how much fun it is to interact with new teammates, saying, “all the guys are really cool, it’s nice getting to meet the guys from the other teams and see who’s the up and coming talent, and everybody in our clubhouse is just awesome.”

“It’s awesome getting to intermingle with the other players from other teams and getting to know them a little bit,” said McCoy. “You’ve got top players in every organization competing and showing what they can do on the baseball field.”

McCoy recognizes that while the objective is always to win games, this is an opportunity for players to refine their skills.

“Guys are here to work on things,” he said. “I feel like there aren’t a lot of guys here that need to work on their fastball, but there are a lot of guys here that are trying to develop a third or a fourth pitch, so I need to take that into my at bats, too.”

I talked to Kremer about what I’ve seen from him personally this fall and his ability to mix in all four of his pitches. I asked what, specifically, he’s trying to work on when he’s on the mound.

“I’m really hammering away at the slider,” Kremer explained, “trying to get it in consistent shape, being able to throw it in the zone and out of the zone when I want to and so far I’ve been OK, slowly but surely getting better. I’ve had a limited number of outings but I’ve been throwing a lot of bullpens in between.”

On his selection to the Fall Stars Game, he told me, “yeah, definitely an honor to get recognized for that.”

For McCoy, it’s his second All-Star selection of the season, as he was also a member of the Eastern League’s mid-season All-Star team earlier this summer. “It was definitely one of my goals going in and I’m very grateful to get the honor,” said the infielder. “I feel like every time I come out here, I have something to prove to somebody. There’s always going to be doubters but being able to come out here and show to the best of my ability that I feel like I can get there and that I’m trying to make strides to be the best player I can be.”

The “Fall Stars Game” will take place on Saturday, October 12, at 8:00 EST. The game can be streamed online at MLB.com/AFL if you want to catch a piece of the action, which will include Kremer, McCoy, and other talented prospects from all across baseball.

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An Offseason Blueprint for the Birds

Austin Hays running bases.

Griesser’s Suggested Changes of the Offseason

Finally, after a long hiatus, I’m back with a brand new installment of my Suggested Change of the Week, and considering the 54-108 record that the Orioles are carrying into the offseason, there are a good number of adjustments and additions to make.

As I’ve written before, this first year of the rebuild hasn’t really been all that bad, despite the team’s win/loss record. The Orioles uncovered a few players who could be hidden gems, like Anthony Santander, Hanser Alberto, John Means, and Pedro Severino, while welcoming young studs like Hunter Harvey and Austin Hays to the bigs. As this multi-year process unfolds, more and more players like the six I just named should begin to sprout up, making their way to Camden Yards with greater frequency each year.

Austin Hays running bases.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Now that the first year is complete, Elias and Hyde having the luxury of a full offseason together offers a chance to shorten the rebuild, if the right steps are taken. In this article, I’ll attempt to outline the best ways to handle that in the winter of 2019/2020, leading up to next season.

Without further ado, these are my Suggested Changes of the Offseason!

After the final game ended, Elias began the first piece of Baltimore’s winter work, continuing the necessary changes in the front office. One of the more important removals was that of Brady Anderson, who’d had a cloudy role with the Orioles for a while, but seemed to get in the way of past GMs. Smartly, Elias made sure that he’d be the sole signal-caller in the warehouse by relieving Anderson of his duties. I think that was a great first step.

Now, it’s up to Elias, Mejdal, Hyde, or anyone else involved to find the best fits to advance the various departments in which the O’s have been lacking traditionally. For me, the most important of these will be scouting, player development, and analytics. Because of Elias and Mejdal, who have a great background in that area, I find analytics to be the least worrisome of these. Whether they get the right people from Houston or elsewhere, they should have connections to smart analytics people to help the Orioles further their players’ success. At the same time, scouting both domestically and internationally has been an issue that needs to be resolved, and player development in the minor leagues has plagued the birds over the last two decades.

Meanwhile, there are also some vacancies on Brandon Hyde’s major league staff, as a number of the contracts were for one year. I don’t think this will see a huge shake-up, to be honest, as I think Hyde and his crew did a phenomenal job managing the 58 players on the O’s this year. That’s a huge number, and all of them deserve to be rewarded by being brought back (we now know that Howie Clark, Arnie Beyeler, & John Wasdin will not be).

Once everything with the front office and team management are sorted, the overhaul of the 40-man roster will begin. I think this will be an incredibly intriguing offseason, where we should see a ton of changes to this team, which is exciting.

The first order of business will be protecting players from the Rule-5 Draft before the November 20 deadline. This year, the players eligible for realistic protection are Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Ryan McKenna, Cody Sedlock, and Gray Fenter. The first three names are absolutely going to be protected – honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if each were on the opening day roster. Beyond that, I think Sedlock is the only deserving protection. When you consider the fact that keeping each of these players will create more of a crunch with the 40-man roster, Sedlock’s age and projectability as a 2020 contributor makes him work protecting. McKenna and Fenter don’t have as strong an argument.

If any players are needed to be let go from the 40-man in order to make room for these four prospects, I think a few candidates are OF Mason Williams, P Josh Rogers, P Luis Ortiz, and P Richard Bleier.

Heading into the Rule-5 Draft, I think the Orioles are once again in position to bring a player in. I don’t expect them to draft two, like they did last year with Richie Martin and Drew Jackson, but I do think another middle infielder or starter/long-reliever would make sense.

Looking at free agency, I think the Orioles will be a bit more active heading into this season, as again, Elias will have a full offseason to get work done. This year, with the team still rebuilding, I’d like to see the Birds bring in players who lack a legitimate market but could pay off come the trade deadline if the Orioles take a chance.

Without any background knowledge on who the team actually might be interested in, names that come to mind include: INF/OF Chris Owings, INF/OF Brock Holt, SP Alex Wood, and perhaps less realistically, SP Dallas Keuchel.

Again, each of these players may go into the offseason expecting to land a big deal with a winning club, but could find difficulty getting what they want. Keuchel went through it last year, and I thought the O’s might pounce. This year, it might make more sense.

Finally, one of the priorities I’d have if I were Elias is trade Jonathan Villar. It’s not pressing, as Villar would be valuable to have around next year, but with his conclusion to the season, I’m not sure his value will ever be higher. Now’s the time to pounce and get a deal done to bolster the organization’s minor league talent.

This offseason will need multi-faceted action throughout, which will make it entertaining as ever. It won’t be easy and it won’t make the Orioles contenders next year, but it should be fun to watch. This has been my first crack at righting the ship.

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