If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
Baltimore should be one of the jewels of baseball, in my opinion. It’s got a great history, it’s got a wonderful park, and it plays on the East Coast in a market that should get eyes focused on it. Yet the fortunes for the Orioles over the last few years have been more laughingstock than luxury. They moved out of the overall cellar last year, but can they continue to make some strides in a division dominated by heavyweights? We’ve got a few writers here today to give us their thoughts.
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C70: The Orioles weren’t the worst team in the American League last year, but it was another tough year in Baltimore. Were there any positive moments that stood out about the season?
Domenic: Well one of my parameters for a “successful season” for the Birds last year was to win more games than they won in 2018 (which was 47). They did that, so that was good. In terms of a big moment or play, they defeated the Houston Astros with a dramatic walk-off home run in August, which was a great moment. However in August and September the team also seemed to come together. They somehow got more comfortable with one another, a trend which Orioles fans hope continues into Spring Training and the 2020 season.
Tony: Last year was the first year of the rebuild under new GM Mike Elias so we knew this was going to be long year when it came to wins and losses. Everything was about finding out if anyone on the roster can be part of a winning future in Baltimore and there were a few brights spots. Left-handed starter John Means ended up an All-Star after developing his change up into a plus pitch this offseason and Trey Mancini solidified himself as an All-Star caliber hitter. Outside of those two developments, the highlights on the field were the fact the team played hard despite being out manned on most nights. Off the field, the fact that Elias is developing a world class analytics team and using cutting edge devices to help the development of their players are huge plusses. Add in a serious investment in the international market, a market the Orioles have basically ignored for years, and you can have hope for a brighter future as an Orioles fan.
Paul: The back-to-back 13-0 shutouts of the Indians in late June to set a Major League record was definitely a highlight for a team that didn’t pitch or hit very well most of the season. Austin Hays‘ call-up and phenomenal play in September was also a significant moment because it gave fans a glimpse of the future and a sliver of hope that maybe this whole rebuild thing is on the right track. Watching prospects not only make it to Baltimore, but also succeed, is something anybody should be excited about regarding this team.
Matt: Yes! Even though Jon Heyman would disagree, the 2019 Orioles had some redeeming moments. Here are several that come to mind:
- John Means’s random success and All-Star bid
- Hanser Alberto destroying left-handed pitching (151 wRC+)
- Stevie Wilkerson’s save against the Angels, and his amazing catch in Boston
- Austin Hays’s late-season promotion and strong all-around play
- Pedro Severino’s 3-HR game
- Jonathan Villar’s 4-WAR season
- Trey Mancini’s bounce-back season (132 wRC+)
- Hunter Harvey’s major-league debut
C70: What or who would you tell someone who wasn’t an Orioles fan to watch for if they casually turned on a game?
Domenic: Pay attention to pitcher John Means and OF/IB Trey Mancini. Means came out of nowhere to have a superb season, and represented the Orioles at the ASG. Mancini was a draft pick who began only his third big league season, and immediately became a team leader. These two guys could well be cornerstones to the next era of Orioles baseball.
Tony: They should be ready to watch a lot of losses, but to pay particular attention to the young players who could be part of winning future and the players who could be traded for prospects. The Orioles’ pitching will be pretty bad, but the lineup might be pretty decent overall and their defense got a boost by signing SS Jose Iglesias.
Paul: As far as on the field, players like Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, and Hunter Harvey are certainly worth watching for. These guys have a chance to make up part of the core of the next wave of winning baseball in Baltimore and each did their part in infusing some enthusiasm and youth into a franchise desperate for something to cling to. Other than that, Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne together in the booth have become must-see-TV for Orioles fans. They commiserate with their audience in a way that brings some humor and light-heartedness to the telecast, but also lets fans know they’re not alone during these down years.
Matt: The Orioles are still a very bad team, but there are gradually becoming more things to like as prospects make their debuts and the roster gets more talented. I’d tell a new fan to watch Trey Mancini at the plate, Austin Hays or José Iglesias in the field, and John Means on the mound.
C70: Which Orioles prospect will make the biggest splash and when will they make it to Baltimore?
Domenic: Pay attention to OFer Austin Hays. He had a cup of coffee in the majors last year and depending on how he looks in spring training could well make it to the bigs full time in 2020. He’s a hustler, he does whatever’s asked of him, and plays hard. He also has the skill to back all of that up.
Tony: This year there will be several rookies who should become everyday players or pitchers for the Orioles. Austin Hays will certainly be the starting center fielder barring an injury, and one of the system’s best prospects Ryan Mountcastle should be up once the Orioles gain the extra year of controlability. Hays showed the promise at the end of he season last year that once made him a top 100 prospect and Mountcastle brings the best to come out of the system since Trey Mancini. On the mound, Keegan Akin will probably see significant amount of starts this year and could break camp in the rotation with a good spring.
Paul: The popular response here if you asked most of Baltimore would be Hays and Ryan Mountcastle, the latter of whom should be here to stay by June, considering both are expected to eventually hit in the heart of that Orioles lineup. Having said that, Dean Kremer is a young pitcher to keep an eye on. He has been the model of consistency since coming over in the Manny Machado trade, has a five-pitch arsenal, and has added a few mph to his fastball since being drafted and now touches the mid-90s routinely. He has a solid makeup and a smooth delivery that puts his ceiling as a strong middle-of-the-rotation candidate. He had a bit of a hiccup at Triple-A Norfolk after a late-season promotion, but I would expect him to take that next step for the Tides this spring and make his Baltimore debut sometime after July 1, though injuries or ineffectiveness to rotation members could move that timeline up.
Matt: The most straightforward pick is Ryan Mountcastle, who should make his debut by the summer (at the latest). His bat seems like it’ll play, but where he ends up playing (first base? left field? DH?) is a question mark along with how much time he can actually see at first base and/or DH if Chris Davis, Trey Mancini, and Renato Núñez are all still on the roster.
Pitching wise, I’m most intrigued by Dean Kremer. There’s no guarantee he’ll earn a promotion in 2020, but I think he’s the most interesting pitching prospect who’s near the majors and has the highest upside of the group who could realistically make their debuts this season.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Domenic: Usually I don’t make predictions on the season before the final roster’s set. But I’m going to go out on a limb with a shocking prediction. While the Birds won’t come close to the post season race, my prediction is that they won’t finish in last place. Toronto’s lost some of their firepower, and they didn’t have much to begin with. But Boston is going to be in flux due to the pending cheating scandal. They’re going to have obstacles that might not make it so easy for them to win games. There are five teams in the AL East. I predict that the Orioles find a way to finish fourth.
Tony: The Orioles are staring a 100+ loss season for the 3rd consecutive year, but if some of the rookies break out and they can catch a few breaks with a few of the holdover players, they might be able to end up with just under 100 losses. Unfortunately this team is heading for its 3rd consecutive last place finish.
Paul: The short answers here are “not high,” and “last place.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The defense will be better with Iglesias and Hays playing up the middle everyday, which will help the pitching improve, and let’s be honest, it can’t get much worse than last year. The lineup should be a bit more consistent, but this team will live and die with the pitching. The bullpen has talent, but that talent lies in potential, not reality. Guys like Tanner Scott, Miguel Castro, and Dillon Tate have electric stuff but struggle to find any kind of consistency. And the rotation, led by Alex Cobb and John Means, leaves much to be desired, though it should pave the way for prospects like Kremer, Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, Alex Wells, Zac Lowther, and Michael Baumann sometime this season. It’s going to be a long year in Baltimore, but this rebuild should start to bear fruit by the second half of the season.
Matt: The Orioles seemingly got worse when they traded Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy this winter, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see them finish marginally better than their brutal 54-108 record last season. That’ll depend on if some younger players produce while earning more playing time, and if a likely-improved defense aids a pitching staff that could use a helping hand of any kind.
In the division, though? Yeah, they’ll finish last.
C70: What’s the main topic Orioles fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Domenic: There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this franchise right now. Between the MASN television deal with the Washington Nationals and the team’s lease at Camden Yards expiring in the next few years, there’s some very muted angst that the team could leave at some point. Last summer there was a report out to the effect that the league actually wanted the Orioles to be sold and leave Baltimore. A lot of things get said that aren’t true or have no merit, however after losing the NFL’s Colts to Indianapolis, this isn’t exactly a fan base that’s immune to worry about this sort of thing. And again, there are points of concern out there – including ownership. Owner Peter Angelos has always said on numerous occasions that so long as he owned the team they would be the Baltimore Orioles.
However while still the owner on paper, Angelos is in failing health and reportedly turned over control of operations to his sons John and Lou approximately two years ago. John and Lou Angelos appear to be just as committed to the city as their father is. However dating back to 1994 (when Peter took sides with the players against the league during the strike), the Peter Angelos family has been less-than-popular with the league. The aforementioned MASN deal furthers that point. When the old man passes on, it’s believed that his sons John and Lou are in line to inherit the franchise. HOWEVER, they would still need to be approved by a majority of the league’s owners to take full control of the team. If that doesn’t happen, it would have to be sold. John Angelos came out in October and said that there was no plan to move the franchise. However the chatter persists. My personal opinion is that either the Angelos brothers will continue running the team (thus keeping it in Baltimore), or it’ll be sold to a new owner who’s either local or just as dedicated to the city of Baltimore. However that’s something causing Orioles’ fans some angst right now.
Tony: It’s all about the development of the organization from how it scouts talent to then developing that talent once it’s in the system. The most fun Orioles fans will have is following the minor leagues and the developments of their prospects like Adley Rutchsman, Grayson Rodriqguez and DL Hall.
Paul: So many people think this team is Adley Rutschman and not much else. But surprisingly, Chris Davis has come into camp in great shape having added 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason and has yet to be retired this spring, at least at the time of my answering these questions, including an opposite field home run on an 0-2 pitch in his second game. The enthusiasm is obviously tempered, and a bit sarcastic at times, but the quick start for Davis has people opining about a possible resurgence, which is more than we can say during the past two seasons. Its been a nice respite from the usual brutality that people sling his way.
Matt: I’d go with two things. The first is that many Orioles fans are terrified that Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal will somehow get caught up in the Astros’ cheating scandal. Elias’s comments haven’t exactly inspired confidence, but there’s also nothing that’s been reported of him or Mejdal being involved.
The second thing is that it’s baffling to many fans that the Orioles have become the face of tanking. Yes, the Orioles are very bad and are certainly tanking now, but much of that is the result of them refusing to face the music earlier and deal with impending issues. Former GM Dan Duquette had a chance to trade Manny Machado and other players before 2018. Instead, the Orioles doubled down, signed Alex Cobb, and tried to win (which so many sports writers are begging teams to do these days). It didn’t work, at all: The O’s were insanely terrible in 2018 (47-115) and didn’t trade off many of their pieces until there was no other choice. It doesn’t feel like the O’s got any love when they went for it, and now it feels like they’re facing the brunt of the tanking blowback when they’re working to make sure nothing like 2018 or 2019 happens again. Even if you hate tanking with a passion, you can see why the Orioles are doing what they’re doing.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Domenic: Seeing the core group of guys that was with the team last year hopefully take another step in their progression.
Tony: On the major league side I’m mostly looking forward to seeing how players like Hays, Mountcastle, Means, and Akin do along with continual improvements to Trey Mancini and Renato Nunez. In the minors, I’m looking forward to scouting the many prospects the Orioles have in their newly solid minor league system that should have prospects at every level of the system in 2020.
Paul: Aside from the prospects like Hays, Mountcastle, Kremer and Akin, I’m really anxious to see what the Orioles bullpen could look like. It was an historically bad unit in 2019, but the emergence of Hunter Harvey was a nice treat and should move Mychal Givens back to his more comfortable setup role in innings six through eight. Again, potential and reality are not the same thing right now, but the ‘pen could turn into a strong point for the team if guys like Castro and Scott can be effectively wild, and some unknowns like Cody Carroll and Cole Sulser continue to progress. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of the bullpen as a whole putting it all together.
Matt: I want to see how good John Means can be. He came out of nowhere to become the O’s best starting pitcher, and I’m curious to see if it’s for real or if he can perform even better. He’s hard on himself and went to work once again this offseason to improve specific parts of his game. Means surprising everyone and making an All-Star appearance is a great story. Him continuing to get better and even potentially becoming a true ace would be an even better one.