After several months of negotiating a new CBA and seeing the start of the season pushed back a week, the national holiday (or what should be a national holiday) of Opening Day is upon us. There is a lot of excitement around the sport right now, especially with the call ups of so many promising young players, led by Bobby Witt Jr, Julio Rodriguez and Spencer Torkelson. Despite the CBA issues, the game appears to be a good spot now and going forward.
In Baltimore, we are on the eve of starting another season where the team is far more likely to battle for the first pick than first place. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be excited about though.
I have been a very loud voice that this whole rebuilding thing has been taken too far. The organization should have made much more of an effort to field a good team in 2022. The argument that they need to build the system up and have a foundation before spending is over. We have some good pieces at the major-league level, led by Cedric Mullins, John Means and Ryan Mountcastle. Adley Rutschman, arguably the best prospect in baseball, will be by in Baltimore by early May. Putting some better players around these guys is something the team should have done. This team should be fighting for 75+ wins while also staying the course of looking long term. In other words, no poor middling signings or trading top prospects for veteran players just to win a few games now. They should have gone out and gotten difference-making talent.
That being said, there are reasons to be excited for the 2022 season. In the last few years, the Orioles have been trotting out a lot of really bad MLB players. Guys that just make the team irrelevant and barely competitive on a nightly basis. We shouldn’t really seeing much of that in 2022. I felt the left side of the infield and the pitching staff were the areas that the team should have addressed. While they didn’t do as much as I wanted them to, at least there are some upside guys being used there.
I am not a fan of Kelvin Gutierrez as a hitter, and his minor league production was always pretty underwhelming but he does play good defense and if he can get his OPS up to around .700 (which is doable), he will be a passable player. I am a big Ramon Urias fan but I do not think he should be at shortstop every day. Maybe if he has to fill in at times, but the signs are that he may be the primary shortstop, at least as of right now. The problem on the infield is the insistence to have Rougned Odor on the team. I do not know why Mike Elias was so hell bent on having him here because outside of some empty homers, he provides very little value. He hasn’t been good for years and we have other players we could have on the roster besides him.
The infield lineup, with the way the team is, should have Urias at second, Jorge Mateo at SS and Gutierrez at 3rd. That’s not a great left side but the arm strength and range is good and there is at least some potential for offense over there. I don’t think Mateo should ever be an everyday player but for this team, they should try it and then he can eventually settle into a super utility role, if he proves to be a good player.
Obviously, once Rutschman comes up, we are in great shape at catcher and, as long as he is here, Trey Mancini should be a productive hitter at DH, while also getting time at first base on occasion.
I feel pretty good about the outfield. Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander certainly represent a lot of upside with the bat and glove. The issue is consistency and health. We will see how that goes as the season moves along, but everyone seems to be healthy and ready to go for the start of the season. It’s also going to be interesting to see how Mullins does in 2022. He was an MVP-level player in 2021 but that was out of nowhere. Can he repeat it? Can he come close? Will the Orioles keep him?
The pitching is going to be the issue but unlike in years past, we should at least see more youth on the mound. Gone are (or should be) the days of needing to give several starts to players like Spenser Watkins. With the crop of the age 27-and-under arms we have seen over the last few years, we should finish this year knowing if these guys will work out or not and that is important to know. Players like Bruce Zimmermann, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Alex Wells, Zac Lowther and Michael Baumann should get enough time to determine if they are players you cut, players you start, or players that belong in the pen.
Tyler Wells is a player the Orioles are excited about and after having him finish the year as the closer in 2021, the Orioles have decided to stretch him back out to be a starter, something he hasn’t done for several years. Whether this will work or not obviously remains to be seen but it’s worth the shot. I wish they had stretched him out more in 2021 though. I am not sure why they would decrease his innings as the season went on if they were going to stretch him out in 2022, but maybe the shoulder was that much of an issue.
The bullpen, which has recently seen Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser traded (a good move by Elias, despite the hand-wringing over it), has some intriguing arms in it. Again, we aren’t seeing many of the over the hill vets out there like we have recently seen. The Orioles will be able to bring in a lot of power arms out of the pen and it will be interesting to see which players can establish themselves as long term options in the bullpen.
However, the most exciting part of this season will be the idea that we will finally see some of our top prospects in Baltimore. As I mentioned, Rutschman should be up soon (as soon as he recovers from and rehabs his triceps strain) but we should also be treated to baseball’s best pitching prospect, Grayson Rodriguez, by early June. Mike Elias has already dropped the hint that he feels DL Hall could be up here and I don’t see why not. If he is healthy and pitching well, there’s no reason that he isn’t up by early July. I can see wanting to build him up more in the minors and continue to work on his command but by early July, he should be good to go. Also, to help the pitching staff, Kyle Bradish should see time and could be the first call up. I felt he should have made the Opening Day rotation. He is more likely to end up in the bullpen long-term, but he should be given the chance to show that he can be a starter at this level.
It’s not just the pitching that has a chance to see an influx of our better prospects, but we should also start to see some hitters as well. In addition to Adley, Kyle Stowers has a chance to be up soon. He did get hit by a pitch on his hand a few days ago but he appears to be fine. His AAA OF running mate, Yusniel Diaz, also could get an early look. He is a prospect most people have written off (and rightfully so) but if he can stay healthy (big if), he still has upside and could potentially become something.
As the season goes on, it’s also possible we see players like Jordan Westburg (I was personally impressed by his spring outings, even if it was a small sample size) and Gunnar Henderson force their way into the conversation up here. There should certainly be infield at bats available for these guys and if they are playing well in the upper minors, bring them up.
On top of this, seeing the progress of our minor-league talent is something that will be well worth some attention. We should finally see Heston Kjerstad on the baseball field sometime in May. Colton Cowser should end the season in line for an 2023 Opening Day outfield position in Baltimore. We will see if Coby Mayo (my #3 prospect in the organization) can continue to look like the next Troy Glaus or if rising in the minors exposing his swing-and-miss tendencies.
There are also some other intriguing arms to watch for and we may start to finally see some return on the international signings Elias has done since getting here. Some of these guys are now out of the DSL and GCL leagues and are more in our view at places like Delmarva and Aberdeen.
So, there are definitely some exciting times ahead for this organization. It may not come to fruition with wins in 2022 but hopefully we look back on the 2022 season as the season that started the comeback for this organization. With ownership and the front office not trying to do the best it can to win games in 2022, we have to look at development as the reason to pay attention and that development will lay the foundation for the future of this franchise.