I used the word intriguing in the headline to duck having to talk about Chris Davis. Seriously, as frustrating as the past four seasons have been since he signed his monster seven-year, $161 million contract, does anyone really believe that this “bulking up” idea will lead him back to greatness? Please.
No, I said intriguing for a reason — there are myriad stories that, if they fall the right way, could have an impact on just how quickly the rebuild could accelerate.
Can Hunter Harvey stay healthy as a relief pitcher?
There is nothing sadder than seeing a rare talent struggle due to injuries that are beyond the player’s control. If there is a poster boy for this, it is the Orioles’ No. 1 pick back in 2013. After a variety of injuries from 2014-2018 and struggling as a starter with Double-A Bowie in 2019, the Orioles tried Harvey in the bullpen. That gave him a chance to walk in the path of his father, Bryan, a longtime closer in the big leagues.
Harvey’s overall numbers at Bowie were not impressive last year. In 14 appearances — just three relief appearances — his ERA was 5.19, but in 59 innings, he did strike out 61 batters. His 1.42 WHIP and 14 home runs allowed were also unimpressive. But he performed better in relief than as a starter, and the organization saw enough to quickly promote him to pitch for manager Gary Kendall at Triple-A Norfolk.
In 12 appearances and 16.2 innings with the Tides, Harvey posted a 4.32 ERA, struck out 22 and allowed just two homers. He also held opposing hitters to a .206 batting average and posted a 1.08 WHIP.
Harvey was then summoned to make his big-league debut Aug. 17. While he only threw 6.1 innings across seven appearances, Harvey’s electric arm and stuff were impressive as he routinely touched 98-99 mph. He posted a 1.42 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, struck out 11 and opponents hit just .136 off him.
Still he never pitched back-to-back days. In fact, it seemed like he’d pitch every third day. And after a Sept. 2 appearance in Tampa Bay where he struck out the one batter he faced, he pitched just one more time: Sept. 13 in Detroit, throwing a goose egg.
Were the Orioles just being careful and wanting this still-valuable youngster to come out of a season healthy? Or was his sporadic usage just a sign he’ll never fully be able to sustain a healthy enough profile to count on?
Can Chance Sisco get back the value he seemed to offer?
On Feb. 24, Chance Sisco will turn 25 — certainly not too old to still navigate a nice major-league career. But for this second-round pick in 2013, it’s been the tale of two Chance Siscos. One is a very solid batter throughout 2,218 minor-league plate appearances (.305/.386/.430).
But in the majors, it’s been a near-cataclysmic disaster. In 404 major-league plate appearances, Sisco has batted just .203/.319/.357. More eye-popping are his strikeout numbers: 134 of his MLB at-bats have been whiffs, with only 38 walks to counter that. He did show some home run power last year, swatting eight home runs in 198 plate appearances.
Sisco got on a tear at Triple-A last year after being sent to the Tides in a somewhat surprising decision at the end of spring training. Sisco got off to a sluggish start at the plate, but by late April he had collected himself. Before being promoted to the Orioles, he hit .292/.388/.530 with Norfolk. That he couldn’t build on it in Baltimore was what made his 2019 so disappointing.
So this offseason, Sisco went out West to work with noted hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock, a 73-year-old instructor in the Dodgers’ organization. Wallenbrock, who worked extensively with Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez when he turned his career around, was one of the early teachers to stress launch angle.
While we know that anybody with a face mask in the Orioles sphere is merely a place-setter for eventual face of the franchise Adley Rutschman, it would be hugely important for the 2020 Orioles if Chance Sisco became the kind of hitter he was supposed to be. Needless to say, his value, if elevated again, would help the organization in one way or another.
Can Jose Iglesias be the Orioles’ next J.J. Hardy?
Of all the deals Andy MacPhail made while in charge of things in Birdland, maybe his most important was acquiring shortstop J.J. Hardy away from the Minnesota Twins after Terry Ryan’s retirement. Yes, it was Ryan’s in-house replacement, Bill Smith, who dealt Hardy away for right-handers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.
While Hardy was a decent contributor with the bat — he hit 20 or more homers every season from 2011-2013 — it was his steady, seemingly effortless play at short that provided the glue to everything in the Buck Showalter era.
Sure, the club had the prodigious power of Chris Davis, the burgeoning stardom of Manny Machado and the captain-like leadership of Adam Jones, but the defense was the thing that kept it all together. And for that the thanks went to Hardy, who’ll be serving as a spring training instructor in early March.
Sure, almost every vestige of those winning teams is gone, and the talent level in the locker room isn’t what it was, and the team’s record bluntly shows that. But while not as glitzy as a Davis long ball or a Zack Britton 96 mph sinker, the defense has turned almost putrid.
It’ll be interesting to see if the presence of Iglesias will mark the club’s turning point toward playing defense the way winning teams do. Here’s hoping Austin Hays will (fingers crossed) be the starting center fielder and boost the defense.
Can Mike Elias coax a veteran free-agent starter to sign?
Three things need to happen for the Orioles to improve on their 5.59 team ERA from a year ago. First, they need to have lefty John Means throw 170-180 innings without a huge regression. Secondly, in a modest wish, they need right-hander Alex Cobb to deliver and make 15-18 starts without injury and pitch to the level he had become accustomed to before he signed his Orioles contract.
At that point, the Orioles could trade Cobb for something of value and get his 2021 salary off the books, or the club could hold onto him with the hope that he’d pitch even more in 2021. The latter would make him a 30-game starter who gives the O’s 140-plus decent innings.
But thirdly, what would make a solid difference for the mindset of the club would be if GM Mike Elias were to sign either Collin McHugh or Andrew Cashner to a one-year deal. I am fine with a club option for a second year on either pitcher.
Elias has referenced the need for another veteran starter without giving away the names he was contemplating. Cashner is familiar and has twice now been successful with pitching coach Doug Brocail. McHugh was a bit of an unsung hero with the Astros’ pitching success throughout the past few years, but in 2019, he wasn’t entirely healthy.
Right now, the clock is ticking on both Cashner and McHugh. Cashner was in the second year of a two-year, $16 million contract in 2019, while McHugh pitched for $5.8 million. Neither will get near that level of compensation to pitch in 2020.
My guess is Elias has offered both contracts and the first to sign one is an Oriole.
Both of them and their agents are probably trying to do better. They are entitled to do that as free agents, and an injury to a starting pitcher elsewhere could increase the demand for their services. That’s the risk Mike Elias is dealing with.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles