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.
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.
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.
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.