It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Orioles during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
When the lockout lifted, at least one online wag suggested that the Orioles were now officially eliminated from the 2022 playoffs. While things aren’t quite that dire in Charm City, it’s true that it’s been a while since Baltimore felt relevant. They’ve finished last four of the last five years, with only the COVID-shortened 2020 being the outlier. However, there’s hope on the horizon. How much? Let’s find out!
|The Bat Around
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Baltimore’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Domenic: The Orioles didn’t do much in the way of free agency. They signed a few minor league deals, but nothing major. And that had as much to do with the lockout as it did anything else. In the last few days of February there were some rumors linking the O’s to Carlos Correa, but time will tell if he comes to the Birds. Obviously nothing could be done until the lockout ended.
Tony: Obviously there really wasn’t much of an offseason, but as of this writing, they really haven’t made many offseason moves besides signing SP Jordan Lyles and C Robinson Chirinos. But honestly, this is a transition year for the Orioles as their top ranked farm system starts to produce players like C Adley Rustchman and potentially later in the year pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. The Orioles still could make a splash and there are some whispers of them being interested in Carlos Correa, but I think next offseason will be a busy one for the team.
Matt: It’s been somewhat interesting for a team that did very little to add to the roster. The story that received the most attention was a maybe not-so-believable report that the Orioles had interest in Carlos Correa and a potential lucrative offer on the table for him. Some fans bought into it; most just had fun with it. And, of course, Correa is not coming to Baltimore.
To this point, the O’s have signed right-hander Jordan Lyles (their most expensive free agent signing under Mike Elias, at $7 million), added catcher Robinson Chirinos, and made some other low-level moves. They’ve also nearly put the finishing touches on a substantial playing field change: moving back and raising the wall in left/left-center field at Camden Yards.
I’d like to see the Orioles, who have such a low payroll, do more in free agency to improve the team, especially at a time when some of their top young players are set to hit the majors. It’s also true that most of the gains this team makes will need to come from that young talent. Most likely, the conversation will be the same next year.
Paul: The international signing period was huge for Baltimore. Braylin Tavera, a 16-year-old outfielder at the time of his signing, is a five-tool player out of the Dominican Republic who was rated the 18th best International prospect by Baseball America. Tavera’s agreement made him the highest-paid International prospect in franchise history ($1.7 million). They also signed INF Cesar Prieto, 22, out of Cuba who is one of the best hitters in the history of the Cuban National Team. In 608 career at-bats in the Cuban National Series, Prieto owns a .370/.443/.520 slash line with just 41 strikeouts. The Orioles were able to sign him for $650,000 after he was reportedly supposed to sign with the Astros for significantly more money but had issues defecting. He could force his way into Baltimore by mid-season should Rougned Odor struggle at second base.
Speaking of Odor, the Orioles picked him up for the league minimum, with Texas still paying him $12 million. I’m not sure I understand the move, especially after what happened with Mychal Franco last season. I’d be more inclined to play Ramon Urias at second base and see what Jorge Mateo can do at SS, at least to start the year.
C70: Cedric Mullins had an outstanding season in 2021. Can he repeat it?
Domenic: That’s an age old question! If I were a betting man (and I’m not), I’d bet yes – he can replicate or keep up his pace from last year. Much of that success came from ceasing to switch-hit. So unless he goes back to switch-hitting, I think he’ll be in good shape.
Tony: Mullins made the change to being a left-handed only hitter last year and the results were spectacular. His average exit velocity, hard hit and barrel percentages all suggest his improvements were real. He may not be a 5+ WAR player every year, but there’s little to think he’s going to suddenly crash to earth. I expect a .800+ OPS season next year.
Matt: It’s hard to say with a high level of certainty that a player can put up another 30-30 season, which happened to be the first in O’s franchise history. I don’t see Mullins doing that or posting another 5+ fWAR season. But with his combination of speed, defense, on-base skills, and power, he can still be very good and should be one of the O’s best players once again.
Paul: He was absolutely phenomenal last season; one of the lone bright spots in just a dismal season. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it after having 10 inches of his small intestine removed during the previous offseason after learning he has Crohn’s Disease. The surgery caused Cedric to lose 20 pounds, and yet he still went 30/30, won a Silver Slugger, and started in CF in the All-Star Game. A season like that is hard to replicate, and Cedric is off to a slow start this spring, but I have no doubts he’ll get it figured out by Opening Day. Can’t predict a repeat performance, but a 20/20 season is well within reach and should get him back to the Mid-Summer Classic.
C70: Trey Mancini was a great story last year. He’s also a free agent at the end of this season. Does he make it through the whole year in orange?
Domenic: Trey Mancini’s a guy a lot of Orioles fans both love to love and love to say won’t be here much longer. There are people out there who are shocked he’s still an Oriole now. But he’s also a guy who puts people in seats, and unfortunately I think a lot of franchises in general are going to struggle at the box office after this lockout. However the Orioles need to move on from the phrase of the rebuild where they’re acquiring players. They need to start putting players together to form the next set of championship Birds. They don’t need to trade him, but also I don’t think it would be smart to do so.
Tony: Mancini is truly an inspirational story and one of the real good guys in the sport. Saying that, as 30-year old 1B/DH with his value all wrapped up in his bat, he doesn’t have a lot of trade value unless he can get back to the hitter he was in 2019 and a contending team suddenly needs a bat for rent. Even then, it’s doubtful he’s going to fetch a lot in return. With the Orioles having their now and future first baseman on the roster in Ryan Mountcastle, this could very well be his last season with the Orioles.
Matt: No, most likely not. As is pretty obvious, the Orioles are in payroll slashing mode, so they probably aren’t thrilled about paying around $8 million to anyone, let alone a 30-year-old first baseman in his last year of arbitration. Even if that player is a fan favorite and AL Comeback Player of the Year who just beat colon cancer. It’s a shame, really, that the O’s aren’t better now and can’t give Mancini a better chance to win. Other teams could use him, though, and would be lucky to have him.
Paul: I’m not sure he makes it out of Spring Training in orange, unless he’s traded to Houston or San Francisco. Trey’s story is incredible and inspirational, but based on his standards and the numbers alone, it was a down year in 2021 for Trey. Add to that his age (he just turned 30), and his lack of a position, and we could be at the end of the line with Trey in Baltimore. Orioles fans don’t want to hear that, but it’s a likely reality. Simply put, unless he gets back to his 2019 form, there just isn’t much of a fit for Trey Mancini in Baltimore beyond 2022.
C70: I imagine most eyes are on Adley Rutschman, who should make his debut this season. How do you think he’ll do his first time through the league?
Domenic: I suspect he’ll get off to a hot start and then start to struggle a bit. And how he comes out of those struggles will be the tale of his big league career.
Tony: Rutschman is an advanced hitter who will be 24-years old so the expectation is that he should be productive major league hitter in his first major league season. Saying that, he has some miss in an upper cut swing that major league pitchers may try to exploit a bit, but Rutschman has shown the ability to make adjustments when pitchers think they find a whole. I would be surprised if he’s not in the rookie of the year conversation.
Matt: Rutschman is currently recovering from a triceps strain, and it seems unlikely he’ll be ready to start the season on time. But assuming he gets back to full health soon, it shouldn’t be long before he’s on the Orioles and doing his best to live up to the hype. I expect him to be useful from day one, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see him struggle at times, particularly at the plate. It happens to even the most talented players.
Paul: MVP. I kid, I kid. The guy is a sensational talent, but we’ve heard that around these parts before in the form of Matt Wieters. Still, he’s a superior talent to Wieters and I don’t think it’ll take him long to get acclimated to the big leagues. Rutschman is a top five catcher in the game the moment he steps foot on a big league diamond. But first thing’s first, he’s got to get healthy. He strained his right triceps in an intrasquad game a couple of weeks ago and was shutdown. He won’t debut on Opening Day, but Mike Elias hasn’t ruled out Opening Day for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides on April 5th. In reading the tea leaves, it seems like they think he’s just about ready and they will use Norfolk as more of a rehab assignment rather than an opportunity for more seasoning.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Domenic: I’ll preface this by saying it’s tough to give an opinion when we don’t know what the final roster will be. However I do think that they’ll show improvement over last year. This team had several epic losing streaks (including one that reached 19 games), and that doesn’t happen all the time. So I think they were better than last year’s record indicated. I don’t want to predict a win total but I think their win percentage will be higher. That said, the fact that they’re in the best division in baseball is a given.
Tony: As I said earlier, this is a transition year for the organization under Mike Elias as they start to try and win games vs trying to get the first pick in the draft. Saying that, they will need big steps forward from their upper level pitching prospects like Zach Lowther, Bruce Zimmermann, Keegan Akin, and Dean Kremer and hope Kyle Bradish and eventually top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall will be ready to help this season. As of this writing, this team looks like a 68-72 win team if the pitching improves which sets them up to be a .500 ish team the year after.
Matt: They’ll finish in last place in the AL East, and it’ll be an achievement if they don’t lose 100 games. Ending the season with about 55-60 wins seems reasonable.
Paul: It’s going to be another tough year for the Orioles. The division is absolutely stacked. It might be the best in baseball. So naturally, the Orioles will likely finish in dead last barring a miracle. People are up in arms not just throughout Baltimore, but across baseball, about the Orioles $30 million payroll and the fact that 14 players are making more this season then the Orioles are spending on an entire roster. But there’s a reason for that. A fair number of the Orioles top prospects, like Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Kyle Bradish, and Kyle Stowers should debut this season. It’s a big year for evaluation to see what holes the team needs to fill to turn the corner and flip the emphasis of the rebuild towards the on-field product. It’s not fun for the casual fan, and still hard for even the most devoted fan, but that light at the end of the tunnel is growing larger with each passing day. They might still lose 100 games, but that’s more a product of playing 76 games against the AL East. This should be a more competitive team than the ones we’ve watched the last four years.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Orioles Twitter accounts to follow.
Tony: I’m not a huge Twitter guy, but Roch Kubatko covers the team well at @masnRoch.
Paul: @OriolesFanProbz is a superior account, as is @BSLOnTheVerge, especially for minor league content. Also, Connor Newcomb hosts the Locked On Orioles podcast, @LockedOnOrioles. He records daily and has a great baseball mind. All three are just excellent, excellent follows.