Roster competition is a popular theme every spring. The Orioles have had more of it than most other teams lately because there’s been so much playing time up for grabs. Another way of putting that, of course, is the O’s haven’t had much talent on their roster.
During the 2020 season, that started to change. It happened gradually. Anthony Santander showcased his power. Tanner Scott morphed into a reliable relief weapon. Cedric Mullins bounced back and carved out a role in the outfield. Ryan Mountcastle debuted and couldn’t have looked more ready. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer had strong outings against quality opponents. DJ Stewart resurfaced with a truly unexpected power display. And Austin Hays did his thing and impressed again in September.
There was more, but you get the idea. There will again be competition at O’s camp in the spring. This time, though, younger players and prospects, some with more to prove than others, will be pushing for more playing time as the O’s talent pipeline continues to take shape. Here’s a look at some of those storylines.
Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins
It’s not so much that Hays and Mullins are directly competing. Hays has been the higher ranked prospect and has the tools of an everyday player. Mullins is more of a fourth-outfielder type. There’s room for both on the O’s roster, and yet they both still have major question marks.
Hays has yet to show that he can be the guy in center field. His defense has been above average — and certainly exciting at times — but his bat hasn’t been good enough. In parts of three seasons, he has a 97 wRC+ in 272 plate appearances. 2020 was supposed to be his breakout year as the unquestioned starter, but he got off to a slow start and then missed time with a fractured rib. He’s had more than his fair share of bad luck with injuries, and 2021 could have a similar feel for him after he finished strong and is again the presumed opening day starter.
Mullins doesn’t have the same injury worries as Hays, but he has a more questionable bat. After an intriguing late-season showing during his 2018 debut, Mullins struggled so mightily in 2019 (-12 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances) that he was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk and then to Double-A Bowie before finding himself and rebounding. His glove and speed are interesting; Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric has him as above average or better in each of his three seasons, and he’s currently the O’s fastest runner. Those qualities make him a strong late-game option off the bench, but his bat (88 wRC+ from the left side, 25 wRC+ from the right side) is keeping him from being anything more than a platoon outfielder.
Every catcher in the Orioles’ organization who isn’t Adley Rutschman faces an uphill battle to earn playing time in, say, late 2021 or 2022. But that isn’t something that Sisco has to worry about now; instead, he’s simply trying to show that he can be useful.
In 121 plate appearances, Sisco’s year at the plate was high in on-base percentage (.364) and low in slugging (.378). Seventeen walks and six hit-by-pitches helped fuel Sisco’s OBP, but he also collected a mere eight extra-base hits (four doubles, four homers). His Statcast numbers show a slightly higher barrel percentage but worse expected stats compared to the previous season — so there’s not anything to get overly excited about. Still, his 111 wRC+ was the best of his career, up from 58 in 2018 and 96 in 2019 (not counting his brief cameo in 2017).
Like Pedro Severino, Sisco again rated as a negative pitch framer, but not quite as bad as the previous season. His caught stealing percentage improved slightly from 17 percent in 2019 to 19 percent in 2020, but it was still nowhere near his 31 percent in 2018 (though he accomplished that with a pop time near the low end of all catchers). His slow pop time has always been a concern.
Overall, Sisco’s 2020 was … better than the last couple seasons. But his ceiling looks like a backup catcher at best, and his below average defense behind the plate is not encouraging.
It remains to be seen whether the Orioles will ever be able to take the reins off of Harvey. Steering clear of a major injury in 2019, he made it all the way to Baltimore and showed plenty of promise before a combination of an innings limit and biceps soreness cut his season short. Harvey was destined for a hefty late-inning relief role in 2020, but a sore/strained right elbow caused him to miss more than a month of an already truncated season.
Harvey ended up pitching just 8.2 big-league innings in 2020, only slightly more than his 6.1 in 2019. He wasn’t nearly as good, either; his strikeout percentage dropped from an eye-popping 42 percent to just 16 percent. He also was much more fastball heavy, throwing four-seamers 78 percent of the time (up from 70 percent) while seeing a decrease of about 1 mph on the pitch, and moved away from his changeup/splitter (throwing it about half as often).
While Harvey’s 2020 was mostly a lost season, it wasn’t all bad. The O’s new regime has tried to be as careful with him as possible, but he did finally pitch on back-to-back nights during the O’s final two games. It’s a small thing for most relievers, but if Harvey’s ever going to be a reliable force out of the bullpen, it can’t be in one-inning stints spaced days apart.
Hanser Alberto, Pedro Severino, Renato Nunez and Rio Ruiz
The Orioles recently made the decision to move on from pitching coach Doug Brocail and third base coach/infield instructor Jose Flores. The choices were made for multiple reasons, but “economic factors” reportedly played a part. These are understandably trying times for many industries, but if baseball teams are moving on from big-league coaches because of financial concerns, that doesn’t bode well for plenty of veteran players about to hit arbitration or hoping to cash in (let alone scouts, minor-league personnel and more).
With the Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy trades last offseason, the O’s were motivated to move on from a couple of guys making hefty amounts in arbitration ($8.2 million for Villar and $5 million for Bundy, pre-delay), even if it brought back relatively underwhelming returns (more so for Villar). In 2021, the O’s again have several players eligible for arbitration. The shoo-ins include Trey Mancini (second arbitration year) and Anthony Santander (first arbitration year). But it wouldn’t be surprising to see the O’s move on from any of these others: Alberto (second), Núñez (first), Severino (first), Shawn Armstrong (first) or Pat Valaika (first).
Armstrong is likely safe based on what he showed this past season in limited work, but it’s not hard to see the flaws in the rest of the group. Alberto is loads of fun and someone worth cheering for, but he’s only successful if he’s hitting for a high batting average because he swings at everything and rarely walks. Núñez, as a designated hitter who doesn’t get on base much, showcases exciting power from time to time and that’s about it. He also faces increased competition for work at 1B/DH as Mancini, Mountcastle, Stewart and even Chris Davis could all be on the roster next year.
Severino is similar value wise to Sisco, and the O’s could choose to bring in a glove-first catcher to help keep the seat warm for Rutschman. Rio Ruiz, who doesn’t hit arbitration until 2022, is probably safe, but he’s no sure thing if the O’s want to try someone else at third base. If any or all of these guys come back, they could also become trade chips and be moved at the next trade deadline.
It’ll be kind of sad when the O’s part ways with some of these bridge players, and there’s always a chance something clicks down the road for some of them. But roster churn is inevitable, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.
It would be foolish to look at Stewart’s bizarre 2020 and make any kind of bold declarations about it. It’s been well-discussed at this point, but outside of an unimaginable nine-game stretch, when he hit all seven of his home runs, he was pretty miserable! But those at-bats still count, and they helped Stewart finish as one of the O’s best hitters in 2020, with a 123 wRC+.
The answer to “What is DJ Stewart?” is most likely the same as previous seasons. He’s a hitter who can work the count and does have power, but he’s mostly been unable to make that power stick at the major-league level. He’s also a subpar corner outfielder who’s prone to making the blooper reel.
You probably know what Stewart is, but you don’t know for sure — hence the whole Barry Bonds display for a week-plus earlier this year. Would you rather give at-bats in 2021 to Núñez or shudder Chris Davis? I know what my answer is, but you’re entitled to yours. Either way, Stewart’s work is far from over.
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