Playing Pepper 2019: Baltimore Orioles

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Baltimore Orioles
47-115, fifth in AL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

I’m sure there were some great moments for Orioles fans last year.  I’m sure there were some wins they enjoyed, some impressive performances.  Looking from the outside, though, those moments must have been few and far between.  Even the 1988 team that started off 0-21 had a better record than last year’s squad.  It was the worst record they’d had since they left St. Louis behind.  It would seem there was no place to go but up.  These folks are here to tell us if that’s true.

Writer Site Twitter
Domenic Vadala Birdland Crush DomenicVadala
Tony Pente Orioles Hangout OriolesHangout
Matt Kremnitzer The Athletic mattkremnitzer
Derek Arnold Eutaw Street Report BMoreBirdsNest

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Domenic: The Orioles had about as plain of an off season as you’re going to get. That is, unless you factor in the additions of new GM Mike Elias, and new manager Brandon Hyde. This was always going to be a different type of off season in Baltimore, as the team’s rebuilding. Brandon Hyde’s first job going into Spring Training will be to figure out a lineup. Elias was up front with fans from the beginning in that the Orioles were never going to be going after high priced free agents. He’s said that they might sign a few free agents, but towards the end of the off season. And honestly, that was exactly what the franchise needed to do. They have a large foundation of young players ready to take their spots. The O’s just now have to figure out where they go.

Tony: This off season was huge for the Orioles organization as the Orioles went into full rebuild mode with the hiring of Mike Elias. Part of turning around the Astros, Elias comes with a scouting and analytics background and his hiring of Sig Mejdal showed he was serious about bringing the organization to the forefront of using analytics to make baseball decisions.

Matt: Considering the 2018 Orioles lost 115 games, traded away a bunch of their best players at the trade deadline, and then followed that up by moving on from Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter, I thought the offseason went about as well as it could have. Hiring Mike Elias as general manager seemed to receive near-unanimous praise, as did bringing in Brandon Hyde as manager. The Orioles have so much work to do when it comes to drafting, player development, scouting, international spending, analytics, technology, and more, and even though it’s so early in the rebuilding process, Elias seems like the right choice to get things done.

I would have liked to see the Orioles go after a better alternative at shortstop (maybe Jose Iglesias) and another starting pitcher, but it’s hard to argue with their quiet approach in free agency. They’re going to be bad no matter what, and they have a lot of evaluating to do with their current roster options and eventual, new options they’ll bring in as the roster transformation continues.

Derek: Hiring Mike Elias to lead the front office was a home run in every sense of the word. I’m still shocked that they got this hire so right. Based on just that, the offseason was an overwhelming success. Obviously the Orioles offseason, coming off a historically bad 115-loss campaign, was to be graded much differently than that of your normal MLB franchise. There were some players (and still are) on the market who I wouldn’t have minded seeing them sign in order to perhaps make the 2019 squad a little better, but that would be banging our heads on the trees and saying “we’re not in a forest!”

C70: The front office got a bit of a makeover. How long before it bears fruit?

Domenic: It matters what you consider bearing fruit. If the big league club improves it’s record year-over-year, I would submit that’s bearing some sort of fruit. More realistically however, I feel you have to give a front office two or three years at a minimum for their program to catch fire. That’s two or three seasons, and two or three drafts. 

Tony: That’s a tough question, but with an emphasis on scouting and development including a strong emphasis on international scouting and signings, the team is going to try and build from within. This suggests it will take two, but most likely three seasons before the fruits of these labors start to show at the major league level.

Matt: Either 2021 or 2022. Elias’s number one goal is to improve the overall level of talent in the O’s minor league system, and that is going to take some time. Having the top pick in the upcoming draft clearly helps, but there’s just no way of getting around how much work there is to do.

Derek: I wouldn’t expect to see real on-field results at the MLB level until at least 2021, at least on a macro level. On a micro level though, I’m excited to see what Elias, Sig Mejdal, and the new analytics and data operation can do to help some of the players who have been around Baltimore for years immediately. For instance, look what the Astros did with a Justin Verlander or a Charlie Morton pretty much as soon as they got to Houston. So I’m interested to see if Dylan Bundy‘s spin rates and/or pitch usage change noticably, for instance. 

C70: Chris Davis can’t be any worse than last year, right? What do you expect from him this season?

Domenic: I don’t expect Davis to return to being a home run king. But I do think he’ll have a bounceback season. Maybe see some power return, along with perhaps hitting Mendoza or above.

Tony: There is not much evidence that Chris Davis is still a major league hitter at this point. I expect the team to give him at least two months before his lack of production proves he’s done. If the Orioles needs a major league spot after June 1st, I could see them just biting the bullet and releasing Davis.

Matt: My prediction is that Davis is still below replacement level but not 2018-level bad. But never say never, I guess, and there’s just no way the Orioles should let things get to that point if he’s close to that bad again. No one wants to see Davis put up another -3 WAR season. There are other options. Trey Mancini does not belong in left field. Ryan Mountcastle, one of the O’s top prospects, has also been getting looks at first base and is close to being ready for the majors. The O’s are in no hurry to rush anyone, but eventually using Mountcastle and Trey Mancini in some sort of time-share at first base and DH would be much better than running an overmatched Davis out there every day. Mark Trumbo, who’s a free agent after this season, also should not be blocking anyone.

Derek: He can, unfortunately. I expect nothing at all from him, sadly. The aforementioned data department may suggest some changes, but I think the ship has sailed on Davis’ productive MLB career. I expect a lot of little injuries that land him on the shelf, several benchings, and just more overall malaise. 

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Domenic: I don’t see them finishing out of the cellar. But I think they’ll finish with more wins than last year, and just as importantly they’ll be competitive in more games.

Tony: That’s pretty simple. The Orioles will finish last this year with their only realistic goal is to try and lose less than 100 games, which would be quite a feat.

Matt: They’re going to finish in last place. It sort of feels like defending the team to expect the O’s to be terrible and not criticize them for doing more, but it’s just inevitable at this point. There’s also the advantage of being really bad yet again: another top draft pick in 2020. No fan has to blindly accept everything that goes along with a rebuild, but so far, there isn’t much to complain about.

Derek: Dead last! But that’s ok! Again, it’s still so shocking for Orioles fans that Elias is in charge of things. We know that it will take a few years for him to turn this giant dysfunctional ship around, and in general, we’re ready to see the new captain’s vision start to come into focus. We know we’re miles and miles from shore, but there at least seems to be a map on the table now. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Domenic: Right now the biggest question is who’s playing where? Spring training will play a major role in that. Some positions are known (such as first base and center field), however others are up for grabs.

Tony: How will the new regime develop some of their top prospects and will they be more aggressive in promotions once their Super-2 status is covered around June 1st time frame. It appears early in the spring that the team will develop Ryan Mountcastle as a 1st baseman and Austin Hays as a center fielder which are changes from the last regime. Hunter Harvey is only pitching one inning at a time which could mean a move to the pen. 

Matt: I’d like to see if the new O’s regime is able to get more out of players who struggled last year. Honestly, that was a significant part of the team in 2018; so many players had unproductive years. How much will a more open mind among the coaches to analytics and new technology help? Not only will this affect any holdover players in future years, but it could improve the trade value for a handful of veterans.

Derek: What can they do to start to build their talent pipeline? They need to completely overhaul their International Scouting operations. The development staff, which has been siloed off from the rest of the organization for years, needs to be on the same page with Mejdal’s operation. Where does their minor-league system – now ranked anywhere from 20th to dead last by most outlets – rank at midseason? At the end of the season? This time next year? That will be a mark of progress that many fans are looking to for any sense of increased optimism. 

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Domenic: Knowing the incredible upside represented in the young talent the Orioles have.

Tony: I’m looking forward to watching the young players to see if they are part of a winning future 2-4 years from now. I’ll also be following the minors, and the amateur draft closely since the Orioles have the first overall pick.

Matt: There’s no getting around it: it’s going to be tough at times to watch the 2019 Orioles. But individual positives are out there for every team, even if the collective result is bad. I’m looking forward to seeing if Dylan Bundy and Alex Cobb turn things around next season. The same goes for Trey Mancini. I’m also intrigued by Cedric Mullins as the full-time center fielder, and I want to see what he can do as the team’s likely option atop the lineup. The most exciting event on the horizon is probably the promotion of outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz, who’s been turning heads during spring training. The eventual promotions of Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays will also be intriguing.

Derek: The young guys will be ready to compete. I have no illusions that the O’s wont lose around 100 games again, but the games will be different than we’re used to. We’ve spent years watching an all-or-nothing home run-or-bust offense. We talked about Davis being done. Mark Trumbo isn’t far behind him. Manny Machado is gone. Adam Jones is gone. Jonathan Schoop is gone. This team won’t have nearly the amount of power to which we’ve become accustomed, so how will they score runs? It’ll be very interesting to watch. Almost like a different sport than the one we’ve been seeing for a few years now. I’m also excited to go to more minor-league games (I bought a season package to the AA team for the first time ever) and follow the reports from the farm system. 

My thanks to all these guys for giving us some insight on the Orioles.  It does appear there’s no avoiding a rough season but maybe that’s the first step on a path that leads back to the quality that organization is known for!

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