The Orioles were feeling rather great about themselves after a surprising sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays July 31-Aug. 2 and a competent 5-3 start to the season. Somehow, those positive vibes feel weeks old. The O’s have run into the buzzsaw that is the checks notes Miami Marlins, who hadn’t played for more than a week because of postponements related to COVID-19 and had to add a bunch of healthy players during that stretch just to field a roster.
After two excruciating days, the O’s have lost three games to the Marlins, including a doubleheader sweep, scoring a grand total of one run in 23 innings.
The Orioles are going to be ridiculed for such a dreadful performance. It’s disappointing, particularly on the heels of some unexpected early-season excitement. Still, it doesn’t wash away some of the nice stories for the O’s in this shortened season. One that I’ve enjoyed so far is the collection of upper-20s position players who were acquired for very little but have turned into regulars and key contributors.
Here’s a write-up on the five, including how the Orioles picked them up and a look-ahead for each.
Acquired via: Selected off waivers from Giants
Staying Power: Medium
In a four-month span after the 2018 season, Hanser Alberto was claimed off waivers four different times. The Orioles claimed him the second time, grabbing him from the Yankees … and also the fourth time, getting him back from the Giants. It’s a good thing, too, because he was one of just three O’s position players to top 1.0 fWAR last season (along with Jonathan Villar and Trey Mancini).
This year, he’s off to a tremendous start. He’s once again tormenting lefties, but he’s also hitting for some power as well. On top of all that, he’s still doing similar things with his batted ball profile and plate discipline: he’s swinging often, not hitting the ball very hard, not striking out, barely walking and still racking up a bunch of hits. He’s playing competent defense at second base as well; he was +6 outs above average (OAA) in 2019.
With Alberto, you could see things going one of two ways. He could be a trade chip for another team looking for help in the infield and also against left-handed pitching. Or he could stick around, since the O’s don’t have a bunch of infield options and he’s also arbitration-eligible for two more years. Either way, he’s been a wonderful find and an absolute delight to watch.
Acquired via: Rule 5 draft pick from Indians
Staying power: Medium
Santander is the only player on this list who wasn’t added from a waiver selection. The youngest one as well, he’s also the one with arguably the highest ceiling. He was well on his way to a breakout of sorts in 2019 (he didn’t play regularly until June) when a combination of fatigue and labrum soreness derailed him during the season’s final stretch:
June: 97 wRC+ (91 PA)
July: 124 wRC+ (105 PA)
August: 118 wRC+ (118 PA)
September/October: 23 wRC+ (87 PA)
After the Orioles took it slow with him in the spring (along with the delayed start to the season), Santander appears to be fully healthy. He’s been running and throwing just fine in the field (he’s a serviceable corner outfielder), though his offense has dipped the last few days (88 wRC+). If he’s going to take that next step, he’ll have to rediscover that pre-September form.
Similar to last season, his Statcast numbers don’t jump off the page, but one potentially positive sign is that he’s barreling the ball more (7.7% to 8.1%). Unlikely to gain much in the on-base percentage department since he rarely walks, he’ll need to hit for power more consistently. Regardless, he’s not going anywhere for a while.
Acquired via: Selected off waivers from Braves
Staying power: Medium
Two things immediately stand out about Rio Ruiz. The first is his defense. If you watched the Orioles play Aug. 4-5 with Renato Núñez at third base, you noticed that they just aren’t the same defensively without Ruiz’s steady glove. That’s not to say Ruiz is a wizard in the field — surprisingly, he rated in the last handful of third basemen with a -4 OAA rating in 2019 and is listed as being particularly poor coming in on the ball — but Núñez was even worse in his expanded role in 2018 (-8 OAA). There’s a reason why Núñez is a DH.
The second thing about Ruiz is that he’s more interesting at the plate now. Something seemed to change after he was recalled from the minors last August:
Before 8/9/19: .238/.306/.335, 70 wRC+ (289 PA)
After 8/9/19: .235/.320/.515, 117 wRC+ (150 PA)
Over at Camden Chat, Nick Cicere detailed stance and swing changes that Ruiz has made in the past year. It’s hard to argue that they aren’t paying off. Ruiz, who isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2022, seems to have a pretty firm hold on third base for now.
Acquired via: Selected off waivers from Rangers
Staying power: Low
More than anyone else on this list, Núñez needs to create value with his bat. After joining the Orioles in 2018 and settling into a full-time role, he’s shown proficiency at hitting the ball hard and out of the ballpark. And like Alberto, he’s off to a strong start this season (139 wRC+).
Despite that, there isn’t much else to his game. He strikes out a lot, and he doesn’t walk much. His low-.300s OBP (career .312) is not something you want from someone who’s hitting in the middle of the order. He doesn’t add value on the basepaths, and he’s a liability everywhere in the field.
And yet! Núñez is still one of the team’s most productive hitters. There’s even a glimmer of hope that he could improve his plate discipline and increase his walks (so far, he’s seen a modest decrease in chase rate and uptick in walks). With a little more power and a little more OBP, Núñez can be a pretty effective DH. It’s not extremely valuable or something that will keep him around for a long time, but it’s something.
Acquired via: Selected off waivers from Nationals
Staying power: Medium
When the Orioles added Severino before the 2019 season, it seemed like they were getting a decent backup catcher option who also had a rifle for an arm. But while Severino does have a strong arm and a good pop time, it’s not up there with the elite defensive catchers around the league. He’s also pretty average when it comes to pitch framing.
Instead, Severino has impressed with unlikely offensive skills. After receiving sporadic work in the years prior, he played in 70 games with the Nationals in 2018 and received 213 plate appearances. He hit .168 and posted a wRC+ of just 31. Jumping to the Orioles and a larger role, Severino’s wRC+ improved to 94 in 2019. His walk and strikeout rates remained nearly identical, but he cut his swing rate down (mostly on out-of-zone pitches) and added some pop. Severino faded down the stretch last year, but he is once again off to a hot start (117 wRC+).
You can’t bring up “Orioles” and “catcher” without an Adley Rutschman mention. The young phenom will eventually find his way to Baltimore, pushing any other catching option to backup duty. That could end up being Severino, or he could be dealt to make way for someone else. That Severino has made that first part a possibility is a credit to the work he’s put in at the dish.
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