If you know anything about the Orioles and the current makeup of their roster, you know that, like last season, they probably won’t be good. There is almost no hope of them competing in this truncated 60-game season, but they are in the middle of a rebuilding process that is showing promising signs, even if there’s a long way to go.
Still, no team is completely without talent, and even bad teams provide reasons to watch and things to look for. Here are five of them for the 2020 Orioles:
1. Prospects getting a full-time shot.
During a rebuild, fans want to see the fruits of a team’s labor. That means they want to see prospects. Unfortunately, with the minor-league season canceled and many of the team’s top prospects settling in at the O’s alternate camp in Bowie, the only real game action will come from those who appear at the major-league level this season.
That being said, there are really only two prospects who are on track to get full-time work with the O’s this season: Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey.
Hays is the Orioles’ No. 5 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. He is the presumptive everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter. Healthy, for now, after a couple of injury-plagued seasons in the minors, Hays was superb (.309/.373/.574, 146 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR) during a 21-game stint at the end of last season.
Harvey (ranked 12th per MLB Pipeline) is sort of like the pitching version of Hays, though his injuries have been more persistent and frustrating. In fact, he’s dealing with some arm fatigue right now. After switching from a starter to reliever in the middle of the season, Harvey found a role that fit him well and got him promoted to Baltimore. In seven appearances and 6.1 innings, he put up a 1.42 ERA while striking out 11 and walking four.
It’s a shame that Hays’ and Harvey’s time to shine comes in a shortened season, but it could be just what they need to find major-league success and get through a “full” season relatively unscathed.
2. Monitoring the progress of prospects at Bowie.
Looking for Ryan Mountcastle’s name above? I don’t blame you. If you watched any of the O’s few exhibition games, you saw Mountcastle (the Orioles’ No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline) getting in some game action and hitting the ball hard (including this tater against the Phillies).
But Mountcastle is slated to begin the season at Bowie because … well, service time reasons. The O’s have made it known that Mountcastle needs to continue working on his defensive skills and plate discipline (justifiable reasons), but that matters much less with no minor-league games to play.
What seems more important, at least to the O’s, is having Mountcastle under team control for an extra year by having him miss a handful of games in this shortened season (Joe Trezza of MLB.com has mentioned “roughly seven games”). That is maybe a little silly considering Mountcastle is no sure-thing prospect and may end up being a designated hitter; regardless, fans will have a reason to be confused if he’s not on the major-league roster and playing often after a week or two.
Other than Mountcastle, a few prospects could find themselves on the O’s active roster before the end of the year: Keegan Akin (No. 11), Dean Kremer (No. 9), Yusniel Díaz (No. 7), Michael Baumann (No. 8) and more. It’ll be fascinating to see the final mix of players the Orioles have at camp — prospects that are on the cusp of the majors, veteran depth and then top prospects joining Adley Rutschman and DL Hall, presumably Grayson Rodriguez, Gunnar Henderson and maybe even Heston Kjerstad.
It’ll be difficult to figure out what qualifies as success in such a strange season, but a nice mix of some prospects performing well at the major-league level while a handful receive advanced, in-person instruction along with intrasquad game action would be a start. Avoiding injuries would be nice as well.
3. Unknowns getting a chance to shine.
Even when factoring in the successful cameos from Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey last season, maybe nothing was better from a team and fan standpoint than watching John Means and Hanser Alberto (and to a lesser extent, Pedro Severino and Asher Wojciechowski) come out of nowhere to perform well. With so many spots on the Orioles’ roster up for grabs, there are plenty of opportunities for unknown players to step up and earn playing time.
There’s no shortage of potential options this season. Names like Kohl Stewart, Cole Sulser, Andrew Velazquez, Thomas Eshelman, César Valdez, Dilson Herrera, Pat Valaika and others could find themselves playing a lot and being useful.
Besides Stewart, whom the O’s will likely provide every chance to make starts and eat innings, the most interesting name in this group may just be the 30-year-old Sulser. He was drafted by Cleveland in the fifth round in 2013, but he didn’t appear in the big leagues until last season (after the Rays acquired him during the previous offseason in a three-team trade by the Indians, Mariners and Rays).
Sulser earned a promotion as a September call-up after a strong 2019 in Triple-A. In 7.1 innings, he didn’t allow a run while striking out nine and walking three. Then, in October, the O’s claimed him.
Unlike the rest of the team, the O’s bullpen has a decent amount of potentially good options this season. Sulser could easily be a strong part of that mix.
4. Players looking to build on success and get better.
What’s even better than a random, successful season? Proving that it wasn’t a fluke. That’ll be the challenge for several O’s who turned some heads last season: John Means, Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez, Anthony Santander, Asher Wojciechowski and Pedro Severino.
Can Means recover from his arm fatigue and show that his All-Star season was for real? Can Alberto do more against pitchers who aren’t left-handed while getting on base more or hitting for more power? Can Núñez get on base more and show that he can be competent in the field? Can Santander, after recovering from COVID-19, show more on-base skills and not wear down? Can Wojciechowski earn a rotation spot and hold onto it? And can Severino again get off to a hot start and show that his offensive improvement was legit?
If the Orioles are going to truly return to relevance, it can’t happen by simply relying on every single top prospect to pan out. That’s not going to happen. Instead, they’ll need a mix of everything — and that includes more success stories … and having those players continue to improve.
5. Chris Davis’ shot at redemption.
This 60-game sprint must mean everything to Chris Davis. This is his shot — his chance to show the world that he’s capable of being feared at the plate again, that he can post a WAR that doesn’t have a minus sign next to it.
The details have been discussed repeatedly. Davis has gone through the ringer the last few years. He has considered walking away from baseball multiple times. He worked hard and focused on bulking up during the offseason. Through the first part of spring training, he looked dominant. According to hitting coach Don Long, Davis is, uh, “ready to hit,” so that’s good!
But, of course, it was only spring training. No one will believe anything about Davis truly being back until he does it when it matters.
Davis still has two years left on his massive contract, so you can’t say for sure that this is his last shot. It probably isn’t, even with Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle vying for future innings at first base. But this may be Davis’ last chance to prove he can be anything resembling an average, everyday player. The deck is stacked against him; do you really think he can do it? If you’re being honest, no, probably not. I don’t! But it would be fun if he did, right?
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox