Before this 60-game season started, I wrote about what success would even look like for a rebuilding team like the Orioles. I settled on this as most fans could hope for: “High success: The season is played in full, and the rebuild takes a step forward.”
Well … mission accomplished! With five games remaining, the Orioles are 23-32. They’re not world-beaters. But they’ve already won more than 20 games, which is the most any realistic fan could have hoped for. They even flirted with a fleeting shot at a playoff berth before ill-fated meetings with the Yankees and Rays mucked up that Cinderella story.
More than any time in the last few years, there’s hope surrounding the Orioles. Prospects are making their debuts and producing. The farm system is moving up the ranks. And they’ve even managed to find veterans who could contribute next season and beyond.
For now, the best sign of what’s ahead is the progress of young players who showed real promise this season. Here are five of the most intriguing options. All statistics are entering play Sept. 23.
For the first month of his major-league career, Ryan Mountcastle, 23, has done nothing but exceed expectations. There were questions about him walking just 24 times in 553 plate appearances (4.3 BB%) at Triple-A Norfolk last season. In 118 plate appearances this season, he’s already walked 10 times (8.5 BB%).
There were questions about him striking out too much. While his strikeout percentage is probably more than he’d like (23.7 K%), it’s only slightly above the league average in 2020 (23.4 K%). And Mountcastle is doing that while putting up a fabulous batting line of .314/.373/.505 (137 wRC+).
There were also questions about Mountcastle’s defense in left field, and to a lesser extent, his athleticism. According to Statcast’s outs above average metric, he’s been an average defender in the outfield, which is certainly acceptable. Mountcastle hasn’t looked fantastic out there, but he hasn’t looked overmatched either. As a bonus, he’s also a pretty fast runner. His sprint speed in 2020 has been the same as Austin Hays. Speed isn’t everything, but Mountcastle is far from a plodding corner outfielder/first baseman type.
Like everyone else on this list, we’re only talking about a slice of games. Any amount of playing time in 2020 would have left questions unanswered. But in what he’s done so far, Mountcastle easily has the potential to be a future contributor on the next competitive Orioles team. At best, he looks better than fans (and maybe even the Orioles) hoped he would be.
Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin
Fair or unfair, these two young pitchers are going to be linked together both because of when they were promoted and how well they did during this shortened season.
Kremer, 24, is about nine months younger than Akin, and he’s the more interesting prospect of the two. In his three starts, he’s had the luxury of facing the Yankees (120 wRC+, fourth in MLB) twice and then the Rays (108 wRC+, 10th). It hasn’t mattered; in his 16 innings, he’s posted a 1.69 ERA and 2.37 FIP along with 20 strikeouts. He’s also the first pitcher in O’s history to allow one or fewer runs in his first three starts. He has walked nine batters in those three starts … so hey, he’s not perfect.
Meanwhile, Akin, 25, was promoted a few weeks earlier than Kremer and received a couple of appearances out of the bullpen before making his first start. While also facing the Yankees twice along with the Braves, Blue Jays and Red Sox in his five starts, he’s been very good as well (3.57 ERA, 2.34 FIP in 22.2 innings). His only noticeable blip came during his second go-round with the Yankees, when he allowed four runs and failed to make it out of the first inning. A veteran may have gotten the chance to escape the jam, but the O’s were understandably cautious with Akin.
A midsummer promotion during a longer season would have been the preferred way to introduce Kremer and Akin to the major leagues, but this small dose of success will have to do. Both young starters have looked dominant at times while putting up zeroes against very good offenses. They may be just the first wave of young pitchers to make their way to Baltimore, but they’ve kicked things off in a tremendous way.
For the second straight year, Anthony Santander’s season ended with an injury. In 2019, labrum inflammation cut his season short. This season, it was an oblique strain caused by an awkward swing. It’s unfortunate, because he never looked better.
Santander, who turns 26 in a few weeks, has played in parts of four major-league seasons, but has only accumulated a little more than a full season’s worth of games. His overall batting numbers in that time — .252/.292/.467 (95 wRC+) in 709 plate appearances — doesn’t paint the rosiest of pictures.
But he seemed to take a step forward in 2020. In 165 plate appearances before getting hurt, Santander struck out less, walked more and attacked more pitches inside the strike zone. Unsurprisingly, it worked. His on-base percentage increased to a still-not-great .315, and his power surged. His wRC+ improved from 97 in 2019 to 131 in 2020, and he hit 11 home runs in those 37 games. Per Statcast, his Barrel percentage also jumped up a few ticks to over 10%, while his xwOBA (.366) was only a bit higher than his actual wOBA (a career-best .358).
Assuming Trey Mancini moves to first base next season, the Orioles will still have a crowded group of outfielders, including Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart, along with prospects Yusniel Díaz and Ryan McKenna. It’s a good thing to have that kind of depth, and future playing time must be earned. Fortunately for Santander, he deserves a shot to start in right field in 2021.
You’re not alone if you wondered if Tanner Scott would ever put it all together. Like Santander, he’s also appeared in parts of four seasons with the Orioles and has done his best work in this truncated season.
Scott, 26, is now arguably the best reliever in the O’s bullpen. Sporting a 1.33 ERA and 3.57 FIP, he’s easily the most trusted. Scott has appeared in 24 games; only Travis Lakins and Paul Fry have also appeared in 20.
Scott has always had the look of an intimidating lefty, with an upper-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. But now, he’s filling up the strike zone more and cutting down on his walks. His strikeouts are also down, but he’s doing an excellent job of limiting hard contact (top 5% in exit velocity and top 7% in hard-hit percentage). In fact, Scott’s 2020 percentile ratings on Statcast are all somewhere between very good and great.
It’s been fun watching Scott transform into a reliable relief weapon and flourish. His next challenge is the same as everyone else on this list: Do it again.
Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox