Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series! OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter. It’s Playing Pepper! Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season. I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole. So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!
Baltimore has been creeping their way back up from the depths the last couple of years. In 2019 they weren’t the worst team in the American League. Last year, they weren’t even the worst team in the AL East. Are they making progress or is this more illusionary than anything? Let’s see what those that follow the team have to say.
|Domenic Vadala||Birdland Crush||DomenicVadala|
|Paul Valle||The Bat Around||PaulValleIII|
|Tony Pente||Orioles Hangout||OriolesHangout|
C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?
Domenic: Well as you said, it was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. I think most people (myself included) were just happy to have baseball in some form. It wasn’t what we were used to seeing, but it was something. I personally did not like the rule changes, especially the runner on second in extra innings. That isn’t baseball. Seven inning doubleheaders isn’t baseball either. Obviously both of those things are coming back in 2021, so I guess fans need to get used to them. Other than the obvious, actually following the games was pretty much the same short of not being at the park. Between the lines baseball is still baseball.
Paul: Baseball was strange in 2020. From a 60-game season to expanded playoffs to two sub-.500 teams making the playoffs, it certainly was a frantic sprint from beginning to end. Overall, baseball is baseball, and I love baseball. Opening Day is my Christmas, so having to wait an extra four months to get to it made it exciting despite the oddities that it involved. The rule changes were okay. The three-batter minimum was nowhere near as bad as I anticipated it being, and the runner on second base to start extra innings was actually fun, made things exciting, and shortened games. The biggest issue I had was seven inning doubleheaders. Often, it felt like the game had just started and it was already over. How does Gerrit Cole lead the league in complete games yet never pitched 9 innings in any start? The late inning dramatics that only the eighth and ninth innings can provide were completely wiped away and I can’t believe its a rule this is sticking around this year. As for following baseball, it was the same in that I could sit down, watch a game, and feel the same as I always have. The main difficulties were in the broadcast team having to watch the same feed as the fans, so they couldn’t give the in-person perspective that makes a call more dramatic. I am looking forward to that getting back to normal at some point this season.
Tony: It was a strange year for sure but honestly, some of the rule changes I enjoyed. First, Universal DH is long overdue and I hope MLB goes back to that in the next collective bargaining agreement. I thought I would hate it, but I kinda liked the runner starting on second base in extra innings. Puts a lot of pressure and excitement into these games and limits those long extra innings affairs that do nothing but blowouts bullpens and end late in the morning. I really missed minor league baseball but did enjoy once the MLB started up and followed it as close as ever, despite the short season.
Matt: I think if we’re all being honest, we didn’t need to have baseball (or any other sport) in 2020. I still watched plenty of baseball last year, but I also tried to spend as much time as possible outside with my family while trying to take our minds off all the things we couldn’t do. It did feel nice to have baseball – just less meaningful. How could it possibly have been the same?
Most of the rule changes were just fine with me. I’m a fan of the universal DH, so that was a welcome change, and the three-batter minimum rule didn’t seem like much of a factor. I was skeptical about seven-inning double-headers and starting a runner on second base in extra innings, but considering the circumstances, they were kind of fun and something new to experience. I’d prefer that they don’t become permanent changes, though.
C70: The Orioles didn’t finish in last place last year. Is that the step they needed to start building something or was it more of a fluke of the schedule?
Domenic: In theory, yes that’s what they needed to build something. However keep in mind that a sixty-game schedule is in essence two spring trainings. Furthermore, the competition wasn’t what we normally see. The schedule was limited to the AL East and NL East. So I’d lean more towards a fluke of the schedule, although end of the day as you said they didn’t finish last.
Paul: The Orioles didn’t finish in last place because Boston had the worst starting pitching I have ever seen. That’s saying something coming from a lifelong Orioles fan who has never seen a World Series championship. But Boston gets back Eduardo Rodriguez to start the year, acquired Garrett Richards, and will get Chris Sale back at some point. While it was nice to see competitive baseball in 2020, I don’t think it means the Orioles are further ahead in their rebuild. This team plays 94 games against the AL and NL East in 2021, the two best divisions top to bottom in the league. On top of that, they play 32 more games against teams outside of those divisions that made the playoffs in 2020. I think we could see a drop in winning percentage despite a better overall team talent-wise in Baltimore. And keep in mind, a 25-35 is still a 95-loss team in a full season. This team is improving, and could be only a year or two away from playing winning baseball again, but they aren’t there yet.
Tony: It was a step because we saw the first wave of the prospects starting to make their way onto the major league scene. Ryan Mountcasle may have been the rookie of the year had the Orioles promoted him earlier, and the rotation saw Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and even Bruce Zimmermann get starts. Add in good years by Anthony Santander, Tanner Scott, Austin Hays, and a little more of Hunter Harvey, and there are guys that could be part of a winning future now on the team. Now saying that, 2021 looks like another tough rebuilding year, but RHP Michael Baumann, LHP Zac Lowther, and outfielder Yusniel Diaz ready to make debuts in 2021, there could be a nice young core on the team by the end of the season.
Matt: I’d say neither. The O’s finished only one game better than the Red Sox, but Boston was outscored by nearly 40 more runs. They were really bad! The O’s were surprisingly competent at times, but a full schedule most likely would have had both teams duking it out for the fifth spot in the East.
It’s tempting to view a rebuilding team and expect gradual improvement each season in terms of winning, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen in 2021.
C70: There’s a lot of young talent on the Baltimore roster. Who are you most excited to watch in 2021?
Domenic: RHP John Means. He appears to be the guy gunning to be their next ace.
Paul: There are so many storylines this season. How will Trey Mancini look after beating cancer? Will Ryan Mountcastle take that next step and contend for Rookie of the Year? Will Austin Hays finally stay healthy and show why he was the player from the 2016 draft to reach the majors? Will Adley Rutschman make his debut? Will the Orioles crop of young pitchers show they belong? But for me, I am most interested in a breakout campaign from DJ Stewart. He was the 25th overall pick in 2015 and he has yet to leave his mark. The power and plate discipline are there. He just needs to put it all together. The Orioles don’t have a true 2-hole hitter in their lineup. Guys like Mancini and Anthony Santander could wind up there by default. But even a full season at .250 from Stewart means an OBP near .400 and 20-25 HRs. A productive DJ Stewart puts Mancini, Santander, and Mountcastle in the heart of the order where they belong, and that is formidable for any team. Big things from Stewart means big things from this offense.
Tony: Well the previous answer I went into them a little bit, but clearly watching Mountcastle over a full season and how the pitchers do in the rotation pitching in a tough hitting Division like the AL East should be interesting to watch. Does Tanner Scott take the next jump and become a dominant reliever over a whole 162 game schedule? Can Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey stay healthy? Will Cedric Mullins force more playing time now with his left-handed only swing?
Obviously the minors is where the real interest is for Orioles fans this year as the system is brimming with true impact potential prospects in Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Heston Kjerstad, Gannar Henderson and DL Hall. Baumann may not be too far behind that group either.
Matt: When it comes to the step needed referenced in the previous question, the young talent is really the key. Who debuts, when do they debut, and how quickly can they produce? I could name a handful of different young players who I’m excited to see next season. But if I had to pick one that’s assured to play a bunch, I’d go with Ryan Mountcastle. His debut last season (.333/.386/.492, 141 wRC+, average LF defense) went better than even the most optimistic fan could have anticipated. I’m curious to see if he can stick in a corner outfield spot while also continuing to be a force in the middle of the order.
C70: What’s the rotation look like for this season? Who takes the ball on Opening Day?
Domenic: The rotation is in flux, but that’s been the case for the past few years. The aforementioned John Means will be the Opening Day starter. After that is anyone’s guess. Alex Cobb was traded to the Angels, and it appears we’ll see an open competition in camp.
Paul: John Means, assuming health, will pitch on Opening Day for the Orioles. And I fully expect him to be followed by (in a six-man rotation to start the year) in no particular order, Feliz Hernandez, Wade Le Blanc, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and Matt Harvey. Matt Harvey is the long shot for me. Seeing is believing, and I just don’t see it. But I don’t think he or King Felix signed here to pitch in the minors, despite signing minor league deals. Now, by July/August, we’ll see the likes of Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, and Alexander Wells make their way to the big league roster. Another name to keep an eye on is Bruce Zimmermann. He’s a local kid who came over in the Kevin Gausman/Darren O’Day trade with Atlanta. He has a big league curveball that he is learning to control and has added some velo in the offseason. He sparkled in his spring debut and has an outside shot to make some noise for this team in either the rotation or as a swingman. But to start the year, it’s those six I mentioned at the top.
Tony: It’s still in flux as of this writing and Mike Elias has brought on some old veterans to see if they have more in the tank to try and fill out the rotation. John Means is the ace and Akin and Kremer would need to totally implode this spring or get injured not to have rotation spots. That leaves open two spots with Zimmermann being the only other rookie in real contention for one of those spots. Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey have been brought in along with Wade LeBlanc to compete for those two spots as well. None of them have had much success over the last few years so we’ll see what they can do. Jorge Lopez and Tom Eshelman also return and could be given looks if the vets fail to impress. If I had to take a guess here in early March, I’d say:
1. John Means
2. Dean Kremer
3. Keegan Akin
4. Felix Hernandez
5. Bruce Zimmermann
Harvey or LeBlanc could make it as a long reliever swingman if they don’t claim a rotation spot.
Matt: Barring injury, John Means will get the ball on Opening Day. After him, it’s a combination of young starters (Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann), past-their-prime veterans (Félix Hernández, Matt Harvey, Wade LeBlanc), swingmen types (César Valdez, Jorge López, Ashton Goudeau, Thomas Eshelman), and Rule 5 picks (Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler). Young hurlers like Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Kevin Smith, and more could all end up making starts in 2021.
Like most teams, the O’s are going to do whatever it takes to get through a full season while protecting their young arms. That could mean deploying a six-man rotation and using a ton of long relievers. It won’t be pretty, but that’s the plan.
C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?
Domenic: I would expect them to have their struggles, but the consensus the past two seasons under Brandon Hyde is that they’ve been fun to watch. They play hard every game. So I suspect they’ll be in a lot of games and probably find ways to lose most of them. They’ll leave a lot on the table, but at least they’ll have been at the table.
Paul: It’s so hard to put into words how this team will do. As I said earlier, I think they’ll be improved, but I don’t think we’ll see that in the standings. The schedule is too tough and the pitching is too unproven at this point. If all goes well, I think they can maybe win 70 games. But that’s if John Means looks like he did in his final four starts of 2020, if the bullpen does what it did in a small sample size last year, if Trey Mancini proves he’s still a 30 homer, 30 double guy, and if Ryan Mountcastle becomes a 30 homer, 30 double guy. Baltimore will keep it competitive this season, but they’ll still finish among baseball’s worst.
Tony: I think this team is probably a 65 win team though I could see them surprising some and ending up around 70. It all depends on how the young players continue to develop and if the vets they signed, including Freedy Galvis at SS and Yolmer Sanchez for 2nd base, can hold their own in the AL East.
Matt: Pretty similar to 2020 – probably a little worse. The organization’s two best pitching prospects – Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall – aren’t ready for the majors yet, and there’s no guarantee that the much-hyped Adley Rutschman debuts in 2021. But following that same theme, what matters more than anything else is that young players who are going to be a part of the next competitive Orioles team progress and find success at the major league level. As good as Rutschman is projected to be, this team will need much more talent than him alone to return to the playoffs.
C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?
Domenic: I’d give them an incomplete. They’ve traded a veteran or two away, and while it comes off as a salary dump, odds are they have a plan. So for now, I’d give then an incomplete.
Paul: What are we grading them on? On the field? They’re a D+/C- team. They play hard and Brandon Hyde gets the most out of these guys. But they’re young and still hold a roster spot for Chris Davis. As a whole, the organization get a solid B. Look, everybody knows they’re not emphasizing wins right now. And maybe that’s bad for baseball. I think the alternative, which is signing a few mid-level free agents every year just to win 75 games, is worse for the fans of this team. Look at teams like Seattle, Detroit, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. Seattle hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2001. Detroit has eight winning seasons since 1995. Kansas City has four since 1993. Pittsburgh has three since 1992. But nobody talks about those teams like they do the Orioles. The fact is, the Orioles farm system has risen from near the bottom of the league in 2018 to no. 7 in 2021. They have begun spending and spending big in the international market, and in Matt Harvey’s case, are attracting players because of their commitment to analytics that was non-existent and virtually ignored prior to this regime. This team may well lose 100 games in 2021, but if you have known this organization inside and out like those of us who have thoroughly paid attention, they have made a complete 180 and are on the right path. Baseball is not that far away from being exciting again in Baltimore, and we’re going to see a glimpse of that in 2021.
Tony: As an Organization, Mike Elias is doing everything right to rebuild this organization by bringing in technology, analytics, and new coaching to help understand it all. He’s put a new emphasis on the international signings that saw the Organization spend over a million dollars each on two Latin American American players and they’re rumored to be in on several more during this year’s signing period. I give Elias an A- for his rebuild under some tough circumstances, especially last year due to COVID.
Matt: This sort of question is something I’ve struggled with as the Orioles brought in Mike Elias and shifted to a full rebuild mode. For me, there’s two ways of looking at this. First, the average fan perspective, where someone is just looking to tune in and watch a decently competitive baseball game. The second is the deeply invested fan who follows every part of the rebuild and lives and dies with every prospect ranking.
That first fan? They would probably give the O’s a C- or D for the last two seasons. The Orioles only won 54 games in 2019 and were understandably terrible after 2018’s fire sale, but the truncated 2020 season was relatively fun until the last few weeks.
But that second fan? Things aren’t projected to be better just yet in 2021, but it’s hard to argue against what the Orioles are building as an organization. There are high-ceiling prospects, farm system rankings are improving, and players and analysts are discussing how the O’s are going outside the box in incorporating the latest technology and looking for any kind of edge. That’s what many fans have wanted to see for decades. If it all ends up being for nothing, that’ll lead to an entirely different discussion; for now, it’s hard to rank what the Elias regime has brewing lower than a B+.