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The Payoff Pitch – That’s a Wrap w/Dan Connolly

The Payoff Pitch logo.

In the final episode of the 2019 season, I am joined by Dan Connolly of The Athletic to put a bow on the Baltimore Orioles’ 2019 campaign. Which players made a case to be back in 2020? Who will be non-tendered? Who will be traded? And what can fans look forward to this offseason and into 2020?

Thanks for listening this season!

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Will the Real Trey Mancini Please Stand Up?

Trey Mancini watches the ball after making contact.

The 2019 Major League Baseball season has reached its conclusion and it’s time to look forward to the offseason and 2020. But looking back on this past season, there were a number of Orioles who produced impressive campaigns: John Means, Jonathan Villar, Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez and Trey Mancini.

Let’s talk about the last name on the list.

We’ve seen quite a crazy start to the career of the Orioles’ first baseman/outfielder. Mancini wasn’t known as a top prospect of any sorts while coming up through Batimore’s farm system. He broke onto the scene in Sept. 2016 with three home runs in five games, cementing the “Boom Boom” call for many longballs to come.

Trey Mancini watches the ball after making contact.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

In his first full season at the big-league level in 2017, Mancini batted .293/.338/.488 with 24 home runs, 116 wRC+, .349 wOBA and 1.6 WAR (per FanGraphs). He finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting behind the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (first) and Red Sox’s Andrew Benintendi (second).

Mancini’s first full season sparked a lot of hope from O’s fans of what was to come.

In 2018, Mancini matched his previous total of 24 home runs. However, he slashed just .242/.299/.416 with 91 wRC+, .308 wOBA and -0.3 fWAR. His first half was abysmal, hitting .216/.292/.363 with 78 wRC+ and .289 wOBA. He had a much better second half of the season though, slashing .276/.307/.484 with 109 wRC+ and .334 wOBA. That’s a drastic improvement, but his second-half numbers still weren’t close to as good as his results from his rookie campaign in 2017.

This left many O’s fans wondering what to expect from Mancini in 2019, his age-27 season and third year in the majors.

What did he end up doing? He put up the best numbers of his career and was named Most Valuable Oriole. Mancini batted .291/.364/.535 with 35 homers, 132 wRC+, .373 wOBA and 3.5 fWAR in 2019.

Which season do we believe is the true Mancini?

Well, before we determine that, let’s take a look at what he has done differently this season from his previous years.

First off, he used the entire field more frequently in 2019 than he ever has before. In general, we saw Mancini driving the ball up the middle quite often this year, reluctant to sell out and fly open to attempt to pull off-speed pitches on the outside part of the plate.

As you can see in the table above, these aren’t drastic differences, but they are worth mentioning. In Mancini’s best season, he posted the lowest percentage of batted balls pulled to left field, as well as his highest percentage of batted balls hit up the middle. If you sell yourself out to pull the ball often, pitchers can counter that and find ways to get you out, which is exactly what happened in 2018.

However, in 2019, the season that Mancini put up his highest homer total, he hit the fewest of them to left field, his pull side.

From 2016-2018, 43.1 percent of Mancini’s home runs were pulled. In 2019? That frequency dropped to 28.6 percent.

Mancini showed his desire to stay in the middle of the field, whether it be for base knocks or hitting the longball. If you don’t show your plan to pull the ball often and early, it makes it much harder for pitchers to know what to do to get you out.

Speaking of longballs, Mancini reached a career-high season total in them this season, mashing 35 of them this year, compared to his former-highest total of 24. What happened to spark this power stroke?

If your initial thought is the fact that the baseballs in 2019 were juiced, I won’t argue with you there. There have been many balls hit this year, including a couple from Mancini, that probably had no business leaving the ballpark. Some even looked like they may have been bloopers off the bat. But I think there’s more to his homer spike than just the change in baseballs.

Heading into this season, Mancini had been hitting quite a lot of balls on the ground. In 2019, he lifted the ball much more often.

In 2018, the worst season of his three-year career, Mancini produced his lowest line drive rate, lowest fly ball rate and highest groundball rate. How did he change things this season? He posted a 3.3 percent increase in his line drive rate, a 5.4 percent increase in his fly ball rate and an 8.7 percent decrease in his groundball rate.

As Joe Trezza of MLB.com wrote last week, Mancini hasn’t bought into the launch angle era.

“Not trying to lift the ball, just getting pitches he can drive,” manager Brandon Hyde told Trezza.

However, I think it’s possible Mancini has begun to slowly adopt the launch-angle approach without even realizing it. His average launch angle in 2018 was 5.4 degrees, but in 2019 he gave it a slight boost to 7.8 degrees. This still isn’t a large launch angle, but there is some sort of change of which to take note.

Steve Melewski of MASNsports.com wrote that the club has provided Mancini with information to take his offensive output to an even higher level going forward, possibly to even reach 40 longballs.

“It’s something we’ve talked about the last month or two with him,” Hyde told Melewski. “Good things happen when he hits the ball in the air. I just think it’s an approach thing more than anything. … Especially early (in the year) for me the two-seamer or the left-handed cutter, he would swing at and hit ground balls to short and third. Now you are starting to see him elevate the baseball more and lay off those pitches he can’t really drive and wait for something he can stay behind and hit the ball in the air.”

If the Orioles are providing even more information to Mancini, we could see another uptick in home runs and launch angle in 2020.

But what was Hyde talking about saying Mancini is laying off pitchers’ pitches?

Oh yeah, that brings me to my final point.

In 2019, Mancini posted his highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate. He has shown a greater discipline against sliders and curveballs in a year that he saw the most of those pitches.

In 2019, Mancini saw fewer fastballs and more breaking balls, yet his swing rate went down on breaking balls but up on fastballs. He’s made an adjustment at the plate to stop chasing the sliders and curveballs breaking away from him, those that he can’t barrel up, to put himself in a better position to get a fastball in his zone.

In spring training in 2018, Mancini said to the MASN booth that he had been working on mechanical adjustments to keep his head still, noting that he formerly had a lot of head movement in years’ past that may have hurt his production. He said he had “wasted movement” in his approach so he wanted to focus on changing that. Well, we see how his 2018 season went. Not good.

However, in spring training prior to this season, Mancini told the MASN booth that his new focus was strictly on seeing the baseball, and that worrying about his mechanics in the box actually made things worse for him. Could this have had an impact on his breakout 2019 campaign? Maybe, maybe not. But there’s something to be said about something we can’t always see with our eyes and critique, and that’s a player’s mental approach.

Over his three-year career, we’ve seen three completely different versions of Mancini. If the new information provided to him was the reason for his 2019 outbreak, this is something we could look forward to for years to come. Whether that’s in an Orioles uniform or not is a conversation for another day.

But if these differences in his approach, ball lifting and pitch selection didn’t mean a darn thing, then we don’t really know what to expect from Mancini heading into his age-28 season.

There are reasons, like I’ve provided above, that may give you enough to believe Mancini’s 2019 numbers are the ones we should trust. But with his inconsistencies from year to year, there’s also enough reason to have some doubt that he can repeat this production.

Therefore, I ask: Will the real Mancini please stand up?

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Payoff Pitch Prospect Report: AFL Update

In this edition of The Payoff Pitch Prospect Report, I check in on some Orioles playing in the Arizona Fall League, including Rylan Bannon, David Lebron, Dean Kremer, and others.

Thanks for watching, and stay tuned for this week’s full Payoff Pitch episode!

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A Look at Arbitration-Eligible O’s

Jonathan Villar in the batter's box.

As the first season under the new regime begins to wind down, it’s time to take a look at what’s in store for the second offseason under Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias.

We’ve seen that, from the beginning of this rebuild, the club has no plans to add more salary than what’s necessary for the time being. They’re trying to shed payroll in any possible way.

Designated hitter Mark Trumbo will become a free agent at the end of the season, and I’m sure Elias is looking forward to taking his salary off the books. But there are still a couple Orioles under contract. First baseman Chris Davis has three years remaining on his seven-year, $161 million deal, and right-handed starter Alex Cobb has two years left on his four-year, $57 million contract.

With two hefty contracts still on the books and a need to shed salary, don’t expect the Orioles to dive head-first into the free-agent market this offseason. The Orioles’ biggest signing last winter was a one-year, $800,000 deal for right-hander Nate Karns. I don’t anticipate the Orioles to do much more than that this upcoming winter.

But what also comes with shedding salary? Tough arbitration decisions. The Orioles have seven arbitration-eligible players this offseason. It’s possible all seven may return, but there’s also a chance that one or more of these players are either non-tendered or traded away to decrease payroll and/or add to the talent in the farm system.

Let’s take a crack at these seven, shall we? All statistics are up to date through Sunday, Sept. 22. The first few will be some of the most talked about Orioles in the coming months.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

2B/SS Jonathan Villar

2019 salary: $4.83 million

Under control through 2020

From the start of the season through the end of July, Jonathan Villar slashed .265/.328/.422 with 13 homers, 23 stolen bases, a .320 wOBA, 96 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR (per FanGraphs). He was a valuable asset, but at the time nothing special. The Orioles shopped him prior to the trade deadline but no teams bit. Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com noted the day of the deadline that the Orioles spoke with the Cubs about Villar, but there wasn’t enough interest to get a deal done.

Kubatko also wrote that Villar could be considered a “serious non-tender candidate” this upcoming offseason.

Since then, Villar has been scorching hot at the plate. He’s now batting .274/.341/.456 with 23 homers, 38 stolen bases, a .337 wOBA, 108 wRC+ and 3.7 fWAR on the season. If his production doesn’t drop off considerably in the year’s final six games, he may finish 2019 with the first 4-WAR season of his career.

If Villar was a non-tender candidate prior to his August and September outburst, I imagine the Orioles feel a little bit better about paying his potential salary increase, but not by much. I think they try shopping Villar again this winter, hoping a team will pull the trigger and trade for the switch-hitting infielder coming off a career year. His great season could both help and hurt the chances of a trade this offseason, though. It could help because teams will definitely be interested in a 4-WAR player, but it could hurt if teams think his stellar 2019 is a fluke.

The Orioles’ priority option with Villar this offseason should be to trade Villar to whichever club has the best offer. If no team bites – once again – I’d tender him for 2020. I wouldn’t be surprised if they non-tender him to shed salary, but I don’t think they want to let him go for nothing in return, and he would probably become the most sought-after non-tender on the open market. So either try to trade him this offseason, or bring him back with a pay increase and try to trade him in July.

Third time’s the charm, right?

Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles pitches.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

RHP Dylan Bundy

2019 salary: $2.8 million

Under control through 2021

Dylan Bundy is another interesting case for 2020. The once top prospect will be entering his age-27 season with two years remaining under club control, and he is a shell of his former self. His numbers – both velocity and results – are down.

In 2018, Bundy had his worst season, recording a 5.45 ERA and 5.17 FIP with 2.15 home runs allowed per nine innings in 31 starts. That year accumulated to 1.0 fWAR for Bundy, which typically isn’t going to cut it.

This year, he hasn’t been impressive but he has certainly put up better numbers. In 29 starts he has a 4.89 ERA, 4.76 FIP and has allowed 1.63 homers per nine innings. He has 2.4 fWAR, his second-best in his career. That’ll play for a back end starting pitcher.

The new regime has worked with Bundy on finding new ways to attack hitters now that he no longer has a high-velocity fastball. A lot of guys have to reinvent themselves as different pitchers to continue to have success, like CC Sabathia did a few years back. But unlike Sabathia, Bundy has to do this much earlier in his career than he, or anybody, probably anticipated.

In Bundy’s first 23 starts this season, he had a 5.25 ERA, 5.07 FIP and 1.88 home runs allowed per nine innings. In that span, per BrooksBaseball.net, this was his pitch usage: 44.89 percent four-seam fastballs, 22.56 percent sliders, 17.60 percent change-ups, 9.37 percent curveballs and 5.58 percent two-seam fastballs. In the six starts he’s had since then, he owns a 3.63 ERA, 3.68 FIP and 0.78 home runs allowed per nine innings. His pitch usage has altered quite a bit in these last six starts: 34.32 percent four-seam fastballs, 23.4 percent sliders, 16.29 percent chang-eups, 14.04 percent two-seam fastballs and 11.96 percent curveballs. He has drastically reduced the amount of four-seams he’s throwing and, in return, dialing up the usage on his two-seam and curveball. Something to keep an eye on going forward.

Some on social media have wondered if Bundy is a non-tender candidate. It’s possible, but I don’t think it happens. He has made strides this season, and I think the front office would like to see if these adjustments can show even better results in 2020. If you have hope for Bundy to return to a potential top of the rotation starter, I’d urge you to give that up. But if the O’s can turn Bundy into a solid middle-to-back of the rotation arm, I think they’ll take that as a win.

Mychal Givens on the mound looking in.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

RHP Mychal Givens

2019 salary: $2.15 million

Under control through 2021

I’ll start with this: I don’t think the Orioles will even consider non-tendering right-handed reliever Mychal Givens. He’ll be tendered a contract for 2020; the only question may be with what team.

Givens has had quite the odd year for the Orioles. This season for the right-hander has featured career worsts in ERA (4.77), FIP (4.66), home runs allowed per nine innings (1.94) and fWAR (0.4). However, his 12.38 strikeouts per nine innings is by far the best in his career. His previous best was 11.57 in 2016.

He has had some very inconsistent stretches, posting a 4.50 ERA in April, 6.39 ERA in May, 3.68 ERA in June, 2.79 ERA in July, 2.70 ERA in August and 8.31 ERA in September.

Givens recorded a 3.12 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 0.73 homers allowed per nine innings and 10.42 strikeouts per nine from 2015-2018. It’s worth noting that 2019 is the first season that Givens has been asked to handle closing duties, mostly in an unconventional way.

Manager Brandon Hyde, with a thin bullpen, has used Givens multiple times this season in which the right-hander would need to get outs in both the eighth and ninth innings to lock down saves. A lot of those occasions began on track in the eighth and turned into disasters in the ninth. Givens has a 2.11 ERA in the eighth inning this season, holding batters to a .153/.218/.278 slash line, while posting a 6.69 ERA in the ninth with hitters batting .252/.344/.526 off him. Either closing isn’t for Givens, or multiple-inning appearances aren’t for him.

I’m sure the Orioles still see the Givens from 2015-2018. They’ll either tender him a contract and try to get him back to form to make him a valuable trade asset in July, or they’ll try to gauge the trade market for him this offseason.

I can’t see Givens being non-tendered. I can, however, see him with another club next season, whether it’s on opening day or in July/August.

Hanser Alberto and Renato Nunez high five.

2B/3B Hanser Alberto

2019 salary: $578,000

Under control through 2022

Infielder Hanser Alberto has to be one of the biggest surprises of the Orioles’ 2019 season. He is slashing .310/.333/.431 with 12 longballs, a .323 wOBA, 99 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR.

The batting average is impressive, but the on-base percentage and wOBA are average at best. This is because Alberto basically refuses to walk. His 3.0 percent walk rate is the third-lowest in Major League Baseball. However, Alberto also refuses to strike out. His 9.0 percent strikeout rate is the lowest among qualified hitters in 2019.

His ability to constantly put the ball in play carries an underrated value. He sprays the ball around the field and finds ways to get many hits, even on softly hit balls. Usually collecting many of these types of base knocks is a recipe for regression. But with Alberto’s ability to constantly put the ball in play without striking out, the regression may not hit as hard as some may think.

He also plays more than capable defense at both second and third base, the former featuring his best glovework.

This one is a no-brainer, especially given that the pay increase through arbitration shouldn’t be too much. Alberto will be back.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

1B Trey Mancini

2019 salary: $575,500

Under control through 2022

Voted 2019 Most Valuable Oriole, first baseman/right fielder Trey Mancini has had a career year. He’s batting .286/.356/.532 with 34 home runs, a .368 wOBA, 129 wRC+ and 3.1 fWAR. This year also features his highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of any season in his career.

There’s no question as to whether or not he’ll be tendered a contract. There is no non-tendering Mancini. However, with rumors swirling around him in July, one has to wonder if the team tendering him a contract will be someone other than the Orioles. Mancini is possibly the Orioles’ best trade chip right now in order to continue to build a strong farm system.

The only problem with that though, is that no contending team really sticks out with a need for a first baseman or designated hitter. The Orioles have used Mancini in the outfield, but it’s not an ideal situation. So as long as the National League stays away from adopting the designated hitter, there are very limited options for teams that need Mancini’s services. That doesn’t play well into the Orioles’ favor when trying to seek a large return for the MVO.

I fully expect Mancini to be back with the Orioles next season.

Richard Bleier of the Orioles pitches.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

LHP Richard Bleier

2019 salary: $572,500

Under control through 2022

Left-handed reliever Richard Bleier has never been flashy. He has a slow fastball and he doesn’t strike people out, but pounds the strike zone and he generates a ton of ground balls. This season, he has been a bit disappointing, owning a 5.54 ERA and 4.41 FIP over 52 innings pitched. The prior three seasons, he posted a 1.96 ERA in 2016, 1.99 ERA in 2017 and 1.93 ERA in 2018.

One could argue that the southpaw’s shoulder surgery from last season is a reason for this drop off. Others may say they could see it coming just based on fastball velocity and the amount of balls he allows to be put in play. And the rest could debate that it could be because of both of the previous reasons, but also because he’s 32 years old.

Bleier is affordable, has a history of success and is left-handed, which provides the case for him to return to the Orioles in 2020. However, heading into your age-33 season gives me some doubt. I’ll say he’s on the roster bubble this offseason. Whether Bleier is non-tendered, tendered or even traded this winter, nothing will be surprising to me.

Miguel Castro throws in Sarasota.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

RHP Miguel Castro

2019 salary: $569,000

Under control through 2022

The 24-year-old flamethrower is tough to read, just like I wrote earlier regarding Givens. Miguel Castro has the “stuff” to pitch in the back end of a bullpen, but the command needs to tighten up, shown by the 5.10 walks per nine innings on the season. Overall he has a 4.73 ERA, 4.78 FIP, 8.71 strikeouts per nine innings and a 49.5 percent groundball rate in 72 1/3 innings this season.

In his last outing against the Blue Jays on Sept. 18, Castro allowed six runs (five earned) over two-thirds of an inning. But prior to that, he had posted a 2.30 ERA since the All-Star break.

There are reasons to be frustrated with Castro, and the majority of those reasons trace back to his poor command. The stuff is nasty, but finding his release point and hitting his spots better is going to be the key.

There’s plenty of potential in the young right-hander. Being a relatively cheap arm with filthy stuff should earn him a spot in the Orioles’ bullpen next year. He’ll be entering his age-25 season, so this should be a no-brainer for the O’s and their youth movement.

Wrapping this up

I don’t see any situation where Alberto, Mancini and Castro aren’t wearing Orioles uniforms in 2020. I expect Bundy and Givens to return as well, although it’s possible they could be shopped this winter. With Villar ready for a pay increase after arguably the best year of his career, I think the Orioles’ No. 1 priority being to try to maximize on that value by dealing him and wiping out his salary. Bleier could very well be on the roster bubble this winter, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him stay.

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The Payoff Pitch – M.V.O. with Jon Meoli

The Payoff Pitch logo.

This week, we are again honored to be joined by Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun. Jon and I talk about the Most Valuable Oriole award, the logjam at first base (including Ryan Mountcastle), Chris Davis, Alex Wells, Adley Rutschman, and plenty more!

Thanks for listening! Stay tuned for The Payoff Pitch Prospect Report.

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Arizona Fall League Preview

Dean Kremer prepares to pitch.

Tonight begins the Arizona Fall League, MLB’s annual offseason instructional league, comprised of some of baseball’s most elite Minor League talent from all 30 teams. Each year, MLB clubs send a minimum of seven prospects to Arizona for a bit of additional offseason work.

The Orioles are not known for sending their best prospects to the desert; the last notable O’s duo to participate was Dylan Bundy and Chance Sisco in 2015. However, in its 27-year history, the Fall League has included 19 future Most Valuable Players and 29 future Rookies of the Year. That’s a pretty impressive track record.

Dean Kremer prepares to pitch.

RHP Dean Kremer and IF Rylan Bannon, both acquired in last July’s Manny Machado trade, highlight this year’s Orioles representatives. Also participating will be SS Mason McCoy, RHP Cody Carroll, RHP David Lebron, and LHP Alex Wells. OF Austin Hays will join them at the conclusion of the MLB regular season.

That group will be part of this year’s Surprise Saguaros, one of six Fall League teams, and will be teammates with prospects from the Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, and Washington Nationals.

Let’s start with the pitchers. Kremer, 23, spent most of this season with the AA Bowie Baysox and is the Orioles’ #8 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. He posted a 2.98 ERA (3.56 FIP) and 1.23 WHIP in 84.2 innings with the Baysox this year, striking out 87 and walking 29. His numbers after his promotion to AAA Norfolk were not pretty, though much of his 8.84 ERA across those four starts can be attributed to a staggering .459 opponent batting average on balls in play. Kremer still struck out 21 in 19.1 innings.

Carroll, 26, is one of the three pitchers the Orioles acquired from the Yankees in the Zack Britton trade. After a short stint in the majors last season during which he walked nearly seven batters per nine innings, Carroll missed most of 2019 with a disc issue in his lower back. He’ll hope to get back on track in the Fall League, pitching in a relief role for the Saguaros.

Lebron, 34, is a former #1 overall pick, 3x NBA Champion and Finals MVP, 4x NBA Most Valuable Player, and 15x All Star. David Lebron, 26, is a former 26th round draft pick who spent the entire 2019 season pitching for the Frederick Keys. In 82.2 innings, mostly as a starter, Lebron struck out 92 but walked 47. He is not currently on the Orioles top-30 prospect list, and at 26 years old, probably will not find himself there.

Wells, 22, pitched 137.1 innings as a starter for Bowie this season, and while his strikeout numbers are nothing special, his ability to force soft contact and limit the home run ball led him to a 2.95 ERA (3.20 FIP). While none of his three pitches are above average, his ability to locate each of them is a big factor in the O’s #20 prospect’s success thus far. If he has a dominant pitch, it’s his change-up, which complements his fastball and curveball very well.

Bannon, 23, is the O’s #23 overall prospect. Like Kremer, he was promoted to Norfolk after spending most of the season with Bowie. His .345 OBP across both levels is respectable, but he doesn’t have the tools to blow anybody away. He knocked 11 home runs and stole eight bases this year, showing a balanced profile, and his sound defense makes him a candidate to stick around as a utility guy at the Major League level if everything works out.

McCoy, 24, is a former sixth-round pick and the O’s #24 prospect, and reminds me of Bannon with a little less power and a little better defense. You may have seen him on twitter a couple weeks ago, thanks to his overhand glove flip that went viral in the baseball world. He’s a very sound defensive shortstop with a mediocre bat, though there’s no lack of that type of player in the Orioles system.

All in all, while it may not be the most exciting group on paper, the Arizona Fall League is a great opportunity for prospects to show off their talent in front of a bevy of scouts and executives. I’m looking forward to covering the Fall League for ESR this season, so keep an eye out for my not-so-expert analysis and hopefully a few player interviews along the way!

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Orioles Season Winding Down

sunset view of oriole park at camden yards

We’re officially into September which means the MLB season is drawing to a close. There’s still plenty of ball left to play with baseball’s biggest prize still up for grabs. The World Series kicks off in October. Brandon Hyde will take his men to Boston at the end of the month where their campaign will finish against the Red Sox.

It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Orioles. They’ve experienced the joy of huge wins and the despair of crushing defeats. The team has learned plenty of valuable lessons along the way which they can use to improve their game next season.

They’ll be desperate to hold on to Jonathan Villar during the winter. The former Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers player has been the standout performer for the O’s this year. He’s scored dozens of runs and was among the best players in MLB rankings during September.

Can he lead his team to a few more victories before the curtain closes on the O’s season at Fenway Park? We’re going to look at Orioles remaining fixtures and highlight the games where we think they can pick up points. If you’re betting on baseball over the next few weeks, check out our analysis before you start.

 

Games to Avoid

Los Angeles Dodgers – According to Bets.com.au, the Dodgers are among the favorites to win the World Series. Many punters and analysts are tipping LA to win their first title since 1988. This is bad news for the O’s who still have to entertain the Dodgers three times at Oriole Park in September. However, if Brandon Hyde can get his key men firing, it might be a respectable score.

Boston Red Sox – The Orioles’ last few games of the season will take place at Fenway Park against the current world champions. What’s more, the O’s met the Red Sox three times in August and lost convincingly on all three occasions. If recent results are anything to go by, we’d avoid this one at all costs.

 

Games to Target

Toronto Blue Jays – Baltimore turned the Blue Jays over a couple of times last month. They also lost two games, but their ability to win twice shows that they can get the job done. There are plenty of games left to play between now and then, but if the O’s can pick up a few wins, they’ll fancy their chances.

Seattle Mariners – The last time these teams met was in June. The Mariners won the mini-series 3-1, but the Orioles managed to snatch an 8-4 victory in the third game. Despite losing three games, they performed well and will back themselves to win when they’re playing on home soil.

Texas Rangers – The Rangers picked up most of the runs when they last met the O’s. However, three of the games were won by just a one-run margin. If Villar maintains his form, we think that Baltimore can pick up the spoils this time around.

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Hot Take Tuesday: Torkelson Shouldn’t be O’s Target in ’20 Draft

Spencer Torkelson swings.

With the 2019 season wrapping up, the Orioles are in a battle for the #1 overall pick, something I wrote about (along with many other O’s fans) this past week. At this point, it’s really a matter of Baltimore and Detroit being in a two-horse race.

However, unlike last season, I don’t think it’s all that important for Mike Elias to snag the top selection. Adley Rutschman was one of the best prospects in recent memory; this year’s class doesn’t seem to have the same disparity in talent at the top.

Of course, having a top-3 selection will be huge because those players are significantly better than the rest, but the others behind the current top-name (Spencer Torkelson) aren’t much far behind him.

In fact, I’ll go as far – Hot Take – to say that Torkelson should not be Elias’ target guy next year.

While Torkelson is absolutely primed to be a unit in any team’s lineup in the big leagues, I’m not certain he’d be the right choice for Baltimore if they were able to get the #1 pick. He’s a major league-caliber hitter, no doubt, but at first base, I’m not sure he’s at an important enough position to justify the top pick. I would have felt the same way had the O’s taken Andrew Vaughn this year.

I completely understand that you don’t draft by position over talent because you can’t guarantee how well those in your system will pan out, but I do think that can slightly change when you have a guy like Ryan Mountcastle. Mountcastle should be one of the best hitters on the Orioles over the next few years, but unfortunately his glove will likely limit him to 1B/DH. Knowing that, I’m not sure it makes sense to take a college-level first baseman with the top pick, especially when other options are available who could be just as good, if not better.

So, who are those options right now?

First, the Orioles could add another top-of-the-rotation arm to their stable by selecting Georgia righty Emerson Hancock. This guy has electric stuff, only allowing eight runs in his first 10 starts last season. If he has another strong season this year, he could challenge Torkelson for that top selection.

Next, Elias could look to shore up the infield, which lacks talented prospects, by drafting Vanderbilt third baseman Austin Martin. Martin led the SEC with a .392 batting average and has good power and a clean glove. Personally, I think he might be the way to go.

Finally, even though the Orioles didn’t execute this option this year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Elias drafted under slot to go grab an elite high school prospect later on. If he were to do this, which could be especially valuable if the O’s get the #2 pick, I’d take either UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell or Texas A&M LHP Asa Lacy.

Regardless of which option the Orioles were to go with, I don’t think they’ll be “Tanking for Torkelson” this year. That might make the race for the top pick less important to them, though I wouldn’t go that far. Still, Elias should have a harder choice to make if the O’s get that top pick, because Torkelson probably shouldn’t be the guy.

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The Payoff Pitch – Roch’in Around the Clock

The Payoff Pitch logo.

On this week’s episode, I am honored and excited to be joined by longtime O’s beat writer Roch Kubatko. Roch talks about covering the two losingest seasons in franchise history, players that need to be moved to the 40-man roster, Jonathan Villar’s future, Austin Hays, and the 2020 first overall pick.

Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for this week’s Payoff Pitch Prospect Report!

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Hot Take Tuesday: Number 1 Overall Pick, Here We Come!

men sitting at draft tables in large open room decorated with sports stuff

In this week’s installment of Hot Take Tuesday, I’m going to have to go back on something I wrote a while back, something I really would rather not do. Normally, when you make a fiery take you stick by it, so please don’t question my credibility – I love the game of the hot take and fully respect it. At the same time, I think this take is just as hot as my prior one was, and with that one being so far out of question at this point, I think I have some justification for my decision.

So, you’re probably now wondering which prior hot take I’ve been referencing. That would be the one where I said the Orioles wouldn’t finish with a top-3 pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. This week, I’m going to assert that they will, in fact, finish with the coveted #1 pick that we all hoped they’d have locked up come October.

With Miami and Kansas City having done good work to get up to 51 and 53 wins, respectively, at the time I’m writing this, the race for the top pick in the draft is really just between the O’s and the lowly Detroit Tigers, whom I’d say most consider the worst team in baseball.

Right now, the Orioles trail the Tigers in this race by 3.5 games, as our birds sit at 46-97 while Detroit is 42-100. If you were a gambling fan, baseball betting against these squads at online sportsbooks like https://www.gamblerock.com could be an attractive option down the stretch.

What makes the last three weeks especially interesting in this chase is the fact that the two teams play each other in a four-game series at Comerica Park from September 13-16. In all likelihood, that series will be the difference. The O’s brass won’t say it, but I think we’ll all be pulling for the Birds to drop it.

With that in mind, though, the race will also depend greatly on how the two teams fare with the rest of their schedule. This is where I think the O’s are at a disadvantage. Outside their series with the Tigers, Baltimore has to battle through series against the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Mariners, Blue Jays (again), and the Red Sox. Overall, this is a pretty tough schedule with a few that could easily prove to be outright sweeps.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have to withstand series with the Yankees, Indians, White Sox, Twins, and White Sox (again). Considering the fact that three of these teams are some of the best in baseball, with the White Sox having superior talent to Detroit, as well, it might be hard for the O’s to contend with this, making their series in Motor City all the more important.

You’re now probably very confused as to how I can possibly make the argument that the Orioles will get the #1 pick. After all, the Tigers may have a tougher schedule against more motivated teams and the O’s have to overcome a deficit in the standings.

The reason simply lies on the fact that the call-ups that the Orioles have made for September make it easier for them to tank (and again, I don’t expect anybody to label it as tanking, even if that’s what it is). While the Orioles are offering players like Mason Williams a chance, the Tigers have had a largely static lineup in recent weeks. This sort of consistency offers them less flexibility when it comes to building the lineup.

That’s right, I’m straight up talking strategy here.

If Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde want to fully commit themselves to snagging that top pick in the draft, they have the ability to move their players around in a way that would cloud their true intentions, while the Tigers really don’t.

As a result of that, Tigers GM Al Avila and coach Ron Gardenhire – who have been around longer than the O’s regime and therefore may have less security in their positions – may find that making massive changes to “give new, inexperienced players a chance” would lead to severe scrutiny from the media.

I really have no doubt that no matter how they pose it, both the Tigers and Orioles will want to tank for the first pick in the 2020 draft. Unfortunately for Detroit, Baltimore has more players to experiment with and thus are in a better position to do it.

So, they will. And so they’ll end up selecting first come June 2020.

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Richie Martin Should Start Every Day for Rest of 2019

Richie Martin playing defense.

Griesser’s Suggested Change of the Week

With so many players having been called up for September roster expansion and the upcoming end of all minor league play, there’s going to be far fewer moves to be made for the remainder of the year. As a result, this will be the last regular installment of the Suggested Change of the Week, at least until the offseason.

Still, I do think there’s one managerial change for the Orioles to make, and that revolves around making a consistent dedication to youth.

This year, the Orioles made an investment in promising shortstop Richie Martin by plucking him from Oakland’s minor league system in the Rule 5 Draft. In doing so, they expected to keep Martin on the roster for the entire year so that he is able to join their system for the foreseeable future.

Martin’s calling card has always been his glove, and he’s made incredibly slick plays at the position from the get-go. However, despite a solid season at the plate in 2018, Martin’s bat does not match his glove at this point in time. The Orioles were hoping his offensive turnaround may continue, but the youngster struggled mightily at the plate this year. As a result of that and the emergence of infielder Hanser Alberto, he hasn’t seen as much playing time as I expected.

At this point in the season, though, I believe Martin’s playing time should increase. The Orioles are bringing up other players who will likely struggle at the major league level, so why not invest the most time in the young prospect/player who probably has the higher potential than anyone else they called to the bigs.

Batting just .195 in 2019, there’s not a whole lot of reasons to have confidence in Martin’s bat, but there’s only one way to find out whether or not he can produce.

I think there’s a very high possibility that Elias decides to start Martin at AAA Norfolk in 2020, but again, if he’s here in the majors now, it’s worth giving him the regular playing time he may need to improve.

For many major leaguers, it’s difficult to generate consistency at the plate when you’re not getting there often; we regularly see this with pinch hitters or backup catchers. With Martin playing so infrequently, I think it’s possible he could show improvement and bump his average over the Mendoza line if he’s playing every day.

Additionally, while a likely argument against starting Martin each time out would be that continued poor performance could harm his confidence and lead to further struggles in the future, I think it also presents an opportunity for his confidence to rise. Considering the rarity of his appearances in the lineup, I have a hard time believing his confidence is particularly high as it is, but if he were to finish the year strong after playing every day, that would prove to him that he is capable and could give him the kick he needs to swing the bat better in future years. The Orioles have to hope that his hitting turns around because if it does, he could man the 6-spot for years to come.

On top of that, even if Martin didn’t see have an offensively successful September, I don’t think his confidence would dip that much. Like I said, Elias and the Orioles organization have shown a willingness to invest in Martin and jumped at the opportunity to bring him into their system. Clearly, they recognize the potential he has and will continue to work with him, despite his tough start to MLB play. Knowing that and taking solace in it, Martin might be more capable of recovering from a poor season than others who aren’t as sure of their spot in the organization would be.

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Ryan Mountcastle Doesn’t Get the Call-Up

Ryan Mountcastle certainly turned heads this year in his debut at AAA. At only age 22, Mountcastle led the International League in hits and total bases, but no other major offensive categories. However, he may have been the most consistent hitter in the league, thus earning him 2019 International League Most Valuable Player honors. Mountcastle is the first Norfolk Tide to win the award since 1997. Many consider this to be a major step forward for the former 1st Rounder, but looking deeper into the numbers, this may not be exactly what it seems. I think a number of factors contributed to Mountcastle not getting the call and it shouldn’t disappoint Oriole fans hoping to see one of the team’s top prospects.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

Mountcastle’s biggest knock as a prospect has always been his lack of a defensive position. Mountcastle started off his career at shortstop, but with a 6-3 frame, moving to another position only seemed natural. Mountcastle then moved to third base, but many considered Mountcastle’s weak throwing arm a hindrance for the position. In 2019, the new Orioles regime decided getting him a look at first base made the most sense for his development. For a defensive liability, Mountcastle only registered four errors at first base. Unfortunately, errors don’t always tell the whole story, and Mountcastle was moved to left field for the remainder of the season. This may have been to get another look at him in the outfield, or with Trey Mancini remaining with the team, Mountcastle may as well get reps somewhere else. Since his move to the outfield, Mountcastle has been making leaping grabs. Yes, it remains to be seen where Mountcastle will end up, but his lack of defensive development certainly plays a role in holding him back until next season.

Like I mentioned, Mountcastle certainly had his breakout season in the Orioles season. As much as I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, he still has some issues at the plate to work out. Mountcastle ranked in the Top 20 in the International League in strikeouts with 130 and rarely walks. Mountcastle’s .312/.344/.527 slashline is somewhat impressive, but considering that AAA numbers this year skyrocketed with the new baseballs, this stat line isn’t exactly a world-beater. With an analytics-based organization, Mountcastle will certainly have to walk more, especially for his profile as a power-hitting, 1B/DH-type. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve more than pleasantly surprised by his output, but I still see holes in his game that he could work on and improve upon. If he would simply walk more and make more consistent contact, Mountcastle would not only be a bona-fide Top 50 prospect (at least offensively), but he could make an immediate impact on a major league ball club that could certainly use a spark next year.

Ryan Mountcastle swings

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

The third and final reason is plain and simple: service time. 1 year of service time = 172 days in the big leagues. MLB seasons now have 187 days, meaning if a team holds back a player until the second week of April, they gain an extra year of control before that player hits free agency. No one really knows when the Orioles will be a winning club again, so it makes the most sense to extend the window of all of your prospects. This has certainly been a common practice recently with the likes of Kris Bryant and Vlad Guerrero Jr. receiving this treatment. With Mountcastle being the first of the top Oriole prospects expected to make his debut under this regime, it seems only natural that the team’s front office would want to squeeze out an extra year. Now, I would be shocked if he makes the Opening Day roster next year, effectively negating the logic of not promoting him now.

Ryan Mountcastle is especially exciting for us fans. He represents more than just another power bat. He represents the first wave of the rebuild. Mountcastle was drafted under Dan Duquette, but even the Astros had several players already in the system from the old regime that would eventually play on the 2017 Championship ball club. Even with my negativity in the past few paragraphs, I think Orioles fans should be elated at the potential ceiling of Ryan Mountcastle. I still remember a couple of fanfests ago, the then prominent Front Office member Brady Anderson touting Mountcastle as ‘different.’ Anderson said, “The sound off his bat is just different.”

Mountcastle hits moonshots at Harbor Park (not considered a hitter’s park). I’m simply saying, Mountcastle isn’t without flaws and I think not calling up Mountcastle is totally justified at this point and we can look forward anticipating his future as a big leaguer.

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Hot Take Tuesday: O’s 2019 Season Has Been a Success

(Ed note: An earlier version of this post attributed it to Derek Arnold. Aidan Griesser is the correct author. We apologize for the error.)

Sitting at 45-92 late on Monday night, there’s no question that the Orioles…well, suck. They’re not easy to watch at all, and quite frankly, I’m about ready for the season to end. It’s only natural that all of our minds are solely focused on the Baltimore Ravens at this point.

However, perhaps because of how awful the summer has been, what’s been going through my mind becomes a legitimate hot take.

Leading up to the campaign and at its beginning, something I stressed alongside many members of the Baltimore media/blogosphere was that everything had to be kept in perspective. As we know, this team is rebuilding. Unfortunately, though, it’s often difficult to remember that.

Yet, as I sit here trying to take a step back and look at the season in the big picture, I can’t help but feel that the 2019 season – under the context of the rebuild – has been an astounding success.

Allow me to explain.

The Orioles were never going to win this year. If you’ve heard any of Brandon Hyde’s press conferences you’d completely understand that was never the goal. I want to shy away from saying the team was tanking, but hey, even if the players weren’t, the organization basically was.

Keeping that in mind, the goals of Orioles brass has to have been to grow the farm system, establish a legitimate pipeline, discover fringe prospects who can become contributors deep into the rebuild, and – whether they admit it or not – secure a top-3 draft pick next year.

According to my internal calculations, each of those has happened, at least as things stand on September 3rd.

First, as was loudly brought to our attention mid-summer, the Orioles minor league system has improved drastically since last year, and it might be the best it’s been in my life (21 years).

In drafting Adley Rutschman, the O’s brought in a cornerstone talent who should be able to lead the team back to relevance and be a true face of the franchise. Beyond Rutschman, though, Elias added other prospects in the draft like Gunnar Henderson and budding star prospect Toby Welk, amongst many others. The Orioles signed the vast majority of their draft picks, too, continuing to add depth, if not major league talent.

[Related: The Payoff Pitch – Welk What Do We Have Here?]

Outside of the draft, the new mindsets brought to the game by Elias, Sig Mejdal and company have clearly paid dividends for a number of players. To name three off the top of my head, I’d say that these improvements are especially evident in Michael Baumann, Cody Sedlock and Mason McCoy, though I’m sure there’s many more you could mention in the comments.

While I would say that the one weakness in this developmental first season of the rebuild was the fact that the Birds weren’t able to shift major leaguers off for additional minor league talent, I think the new faces we’ve seen burst onto the scene offset that in a way, especially when the system is thriving despite down years from players like Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz.

(Luckily, that hasn’t plagued Ryan Mountcastle, who’s truly knocking at the door.)

Second, Mike Elias has done a terrific job getting the international scouting pipeline off the ground, bringing in a huge group of young players on July 2nd and trading for a few more from Boston in exchange for Andrew Cashner.

Clearly, the new regime is committed to bringing international talent into the fold, which is refreshing and should be impactful down the road.

Third, at the major league level, it will continue to be important to uncover diamonds in the rough, and I believe the Orioles have actually had terrific luck in doing that this year.

When the O’s broke camp, Hanser Alberto was a surprising member of the team. All he’s done is impress, batting .323 in total and an incredible .420 against lefties. In July, Alberto was a serious trade candidate, which is shocking if you think about it. He might not be in the long-term plans for Baltimore, but he ‘will certainly play a role in the rebuild.

Similarly, while pitching has been a major issue throughout, John Means was a solid player for the Orioles and looks the part of a back-end starter. I’ve talked about him enough already, but I really think Means has the right demeanor to make a mark and could stick around until the team turns itself around.

Later in the year, Anthony Santander burst onto the scene and might be the Orioles second-best player right now (behind Jonathan Villar, who I wrote about last week). Santander has been something else since returning to Camden Yards, hitting .293 with 16 homers and 47 RBI in just 76 games. If there’s any player for O’s fans to be excited about lasting over the next five years or so, it might just be him.

However, if there’s anyone else to be ecstatic about, it’s Hunter Harvey, who’s finally made his way to the mound in Baltimore. Honestly, even if Harvey isn’t considered a fringe prospect, he’s been nothing short of electric and deserves a spot in this article. It’s a short sample size, for sure, but I have no doubt about the potential here.

In my mind, there’s so much that’s developed this year that makes the season a success in the context of the rebuild. And, perhaps most importantly, because the team is so bad they’ll have another top prospect joining the system and making us even more excited.

Ultimately, bringing in that kind of energizing talent is the biggest piece of the puzzle, but for all they could do in one year, Orioles fans have to be happy.

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Draft Spots on the Line When O’s Meet Royals

Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.

Tonight, your Baltimore Orioles will begin a three-game set in Kansas City. On a grand scale, it may be the most important series the Orioles have left this season.

In full-on rebuild mode, the 2019 Orioles are rubbing some fans the wrong way with their play of late. Ironically, it’s been a little too good.

Despite Wednesday’s demolition at the hands of Max Scherzer and the Nationals, the O’s have won five of eight, including a recent three-game win streak against playoff-caliber teams Washington and Tampa Bay. They also took two of three from the Royals before that.

Now 44-89 on the season, the Orioles’ .331 winning percentage is well ahead of the MLB-worst Tigers (39-91; .300 W%) and just 2.5 games behind Kansas City (47-87; .351 W%).

In other words, they are unlikely to get the first-overall pick in next year’s draft and, if they don’t stop playing so respectably, won’t be picking second either.

Before delving into tonight’s game, a little backdrop about what’s at stake in this series.

Falling down the draft order in 2020 could have bigger repercussions than most years. There’s no such thing as a sure-fire baseball prospect. The #1 pick in the MLB draft is not nearly as valuable as the top pick in the NBA or NFL. But the O’s know where they’re deficient – the rotation – and the top pitcher in 2020, Emerson Hancock (University of Georgia), appears to be a considerably better prospect than any other hurler.

As MLB.com’s Jim Callis wrote, “If Hancock were eligible as a sophomore [in June 2019], he would have been the first pitcher selected.” He’s the only pitcher who rates at a 50 on FanGraphs’ “Future Value” chart.

Falling behind the Tigers isn’t the worst thing. They are in dire need of offense and will likely take a hitter #1 overall. The Royals could go either way, though, and missing out on the best pitcher in 2020 could be something the franchise regrets for years to come.

As for this weekend’s series, KC is trending down, way down, mired in a 4-10 skid. They haven’t won a series since taking two of two from Atlanta in mid July. If Baltimore sweeps the three-game set, they will suddenly be ahead of the Royals in the standings and fall to third in the draft order.

Game 1 on Friday (8:15 PM ET) will see Baltimore’s lone All Star, rookie John Means (3.61 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), take the mound against Eric Skoglund.

That’s bad news for any Baltimore fans who are more interested in future success than present-day wins. Indeed, the Orioles are rare favorites based on the current game odds.

Skoglund sports a 5.90 career ERA and 1.42 WHIP, and will be making just his second start of the season.

Means, meanwhile, has been Baltimore’s best starter all year, and pitched well against the Royals just ten days ago. His final line was five innings, four hits, and two earned runs, but that doesn’t do justice to how well he pitched. He was spotless through five innings (no hits, one walk) before giving up four singles in the top of the sixth while trying to go a third time through the order.

Gabriel Ynoa gave up two seventh-inning homers after that and the O’s fell 5-4. Yet, on the whole, Baltimore’s relievers are performing much better of late. Over the last 14 days, the pen has a 4.35 ERA and miniscule 3.49 FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching), which is fifth-best in the majors.

Compare that to their season-long performance: 6.15 ERA, 5.61 FIP, both dead-last of 30 teams.

The uptick from several individual players on the roster is, of course, a nice omen for the years to come. But it remember that every win now could mean missing out on draft day. So no matter what happens in this series, there’s going to be something to cheer about and something to rue.

Such is life to the O’s in 2019.

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Who Should Get September Call-Ups for the O’s?

Austin Hays looks down to the 3B coach.

Griesser’s Suggested Change of the Week

Given the focus on developing youth this season, this week’s Suggested Change is one of my favorites. It’s finally time for September Call-Ups.

The 2019 season has been a tough one to watch and I’m sure even tougher to play through as a member of the team. But, finally, reinforcements are coming.

On September 1, the Orioles will be able to expand their roster from 25 to 40 players, giving GM Mike Elias the opportunity to bring up anyone who can contribute and provide relief to the players who’ve been ailing in recent weeks (I’m mainly talking about the bullpen).

Considering the lack of position player talent at the top-two levels under the bigs, I think this September’s moves will mostly be dedicated to preserving pitchers in the bullpen and perhaps expanding the rotation of openers to help finish out the year.

The thought process behind that focus should be pretty straightforward: the Orioles have struggled mightily in the bullpen and in the starting rotation, so finishing out the year will be best accomplished by bringing in as many arms as possible to reinforce those respective units.

Getting right into it by predicting the arms that are brought up, I expect there to be 11 pitchers who have their name called: Keegan Akin, Ty Blach, Cody Carroll, Tom Eshelman, David Hess, Brandon Kline, Luis Ortiz, Tanner Scott, Tayler Scott, Chandler Shephard and Bruce Zimmermann.

Two of these players are not currently on the 40-man roster, requiring that Elias let go of two other players. For that, I’ve pegged Richard Bleier and Mark Trumbo as veterans who have to pack their bags.

Honestly, while those cuts might be tough, I think they make sense. As veterans who’ve struggled in their recent time, dealt with injuries, and no longer have a clear role on the team, September seems like the perfect time to cut ties. For Trumbo this was always an easy decision for me, but after Bleier’s dugout outburst, the decision became clear on him, as well.

When it comes to the position players, I think four names make sense: Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Dwight Smith Jr. and Austin Wynns.

Hays and Mullins both deserve an opportunity to show what they have again, and though they won’t play much, each should be given the occasional shift in centerfield.

As for Smith Jr. and Wynns, the two veterans offer further stability and good locker room presences for young players to lean on. With the additional spots available for call-ups, it simply makes sense to have them around.

Without a doubt, this week’s Suggested Change isn’t anything crazy, but it should signal an exciting time for Baltimore as more and more players are given a shot to build a reputation going into next year.

And, at the least, it’ll help us find our way to the season’s close.

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Payoff Pitch Prospect Report: Mountcastle IL MVP!

Ryan Mountcastle was named the International League MVP. Toby Welk is movin’ on up. Adley Rutschman launched his first HR in Delmarva, and Rylan Bannon is getting a taste of AAA ball. That and more in this edition of The Payoff Pitch Prospect Report.

Thanks for watching, and check out this week’s full episode of The Payoff Pitch, as I’m joined again by Eric Arditti, right here!

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