The best thing you can say about the 2019 Baltimore Orioles is that they weren't as bad as the 2018 Orioles. That 2018 team went 47-115 and set a new franchise record for losses. This is a franchise that has been around in one form or another since 1901. In 2019 they improved -- "improved" -- to 54-108. That is merely the third most losses in franchise history.
"We're not worrying about (winning as many games as possible), we're worried about the development of the individual players," GM Mike Elias told NBC Sports Washington's Andrew Gillis in February. "We know where we're at this year, we're realistic about our chances in the American League East this year. I think everyone is. But we are mindful of making sure a player gets enough development time and meeting his development goals, whether that's at Triple-A or even if we're talking about a guy in A-ball."
I suppose the good news is the 60-game season means the Orioles won't get a chance to break last year's record for home runs allowed (305!). The bad news is all those prospects the O's are hoarding won't have a proper place to play and develop this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They'll have to get by with what they can. Let's preview the 2020 season in Baltimore.
Win total projection, odds
- 2020 Sportsline projection: 20-40
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): 500/1
- 2019 record: 54-108 (last in AL East)
- 2B Hanser Alberto
- SS Jose Iglesias
- LF Anthony Santander
- DH Renato Nunez
- 1B Chris Davis
- CF Austin Hays
- 3B Rio Ruiz
- RF D.J. Stewart
- C Pedro Severino
Trey Mancini broke out as an All-Star caliber hitter last season but will . That is a big loss for a team that doesn't have much star power in general. Nunez slugged 31 home runs last season and Santander had some nice moments as well. Overall though, the only players in the projected starting lineup with a realistic chance to be part of the next contending Orioles team are Hays and maybe Santander and Stewart. Just about everyone else is a placeholder.
Means emerging as a bona fide big league starter last season was one of the few things that went right for the O's. The changeup specialist tossed 155 innings with a 3.60 ERA. That is nearly two full runs better than the team's 5.59 ERA. Good grief. Cobb is coming back from hip and knee surgeries that might've caused him to miss the original Opening Day in March, though he's good to go now. Stewart, the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft, has not lived up his draft slot but is a nice roll of the dice for the Orioles at this point in their rebuild. He figures to get every opportunity to stick this year. Righties David Hess and Hector Velazquez are next in line for starts should a need arise.
- Closer: RHP Mychal Givens
- Setup: LHP Richard Bleier, RHP Hunter Harvey
- Middle: RHP Shawn Armstrong, RHP Miguel Castro, LHP Tanner Scott
- Long: RHP David Hess, RHP Hector Velasquez
Harvey struck out 11 and allowed one run in his 6 1/3-inning audition late last year and that makes him something like the second best reliever in Baltimore's bullpen. He's a former top prospect who's had some arm problems but seems to have found himself in the bullpen. Armstrong has some ability and, frankly, it feels like only a matter of time until Givens and Bleier are dealt for prospects. They're not long-term pieces for the O's. Lefty Paul Fry and righties Dillon Tate and Cody Carroll are the notable depth bullpeners.
Here are three key storylines for the O's:
1. What would qualify as a successful season?
The 2020 Orioles will not be judged by wins and losses. We all know that. Winning 20 games in the 60-game season would be a surprise -- I was shocked when I saw Sportsline projects them O's to go 20-40, though maybe I'm being too hard on them -- and hey, teams do want to create a winning culture. You don't want players to get comfortable with losing, so, in that sense, the more wins, the better. Clearly though, winning as much as possible is not the goal in 2020.
I think three things needs to happen for the Orioles to have a successful season. First, the young players on their MLB roster take a step forward and continue establishing themselves as part of the future, or at least as much as they can during a 60-game season. This specifically applies to Harvey, Hays, Means, Santander, and the Stewarts (D.J. and Kohl). The O's have to begin developing some long-term building blocks and those guys are their best candidates to do it in 2020.
Secondly, I'm sure the Orioles would love to see some young players come up from the system this year and experience success right away. There are going to be bumps in the road, that's just baseball, but instant success in a 60-game season would go a long way toward building confidence heading into 2021. And third, turn whatever trade chips remain on the roster into quality prospects and players who can part of the next great Orioles team.
That's the standard for success for the 2020 Orioles. Help young players, both the guys on the roster and in the farm system, take steps toward becoming viable big leaguers, and knock it out of the park with the veteran trade chips. Do that and we can consider 2020 a successful season in Baltimore. Do that and don't be a pushover on the field. Make the opposing team work for their wins.
2. Prospects who could debut in 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic and shortened season really threw a wrench into player development. There won't be a proper minor league season this year and thus no place to get prospects game reps other than the big leagues. Even the taxi squad, the 20-something players on standby in case reinforcements are needed, will be limited to workouts and intrasquad games.
When the Orioles announced their 60-man player pool earlier this week, it was noticeably devoid of top prospects, but it also included only 44 names. The team still has 16 spots open and they figure to fill them with a few prospects because working out with the taxi squad is better than sitting at home all summer.
Two prospects not on the original 60-man roster who have a chance to be added at some point and make their MLB debut this season are infielder Ryan Mountcastle and righty Dean Kremer, neither of whom our R.J. Anderson ranked among Baltimore's top five prospects coming into the season.
Mountcastle, 23, hit .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs in 127 Triple-A games last season and would have been a Sept. call-up in a just world (i.e. one without service time manipulation). He is still trying to find a long-term position -- Mountcastle has moved from shortstop to third base to first base to left field in his career -- but the bat plays, and the Orioles should give him a look at some point in 2020. He needs to face MLB hitting to continue his development.
The 24-year-old Kremer came over in the Manny Machado trade and he threw 113 2/3 innings with 122 strikeouts and a 3.72 ERA last season. He pitched at three levels and reached Triple-A, and also had a strong stint in the Arizona Fall League after the season (five runs in 19 innings). Kremer won't blow anyone away but he has a great curveball and knows how to pitch. The O's are in perpetual need of pitching right now and I have to think he'll get a look at some point in 2020.
The big name among Orioles prospects is, of course, catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. He was not on the team's original 60-man roster but is expected to be added at some point. Rutschman is incredibly advanced, both offensively and defensively, and he could probably hold his own in the big leagues right now. That said, what incentive do the Orioles have to call him up and start his service time clock this year? None. I don't think he'll get called up.
Kremer, Mountcastle, and possibly outfielder Yusniel Diaz (another part of the Machado trade) are the notable O's prospects with the best chance to make their MLB debut this season. I would be surprised to see Rutschman in Baltimore this year, especially with the O's showing zero urgency to win, though I wouldn't say it's impossible. Call the chances slim rather than none.
3. Givens, others likely on the block
The O's have mostly stripped their roster down to the studs and cashed in just about anyone with trade value, including Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Villar over the winter. The best trade chip still on the roster is Givens, a high-strikeout reliever with late-game experience and a year of control remaining in 2021. He was on the market last summer and it was a bit of a surprise the O's kept him. I can't imagine they will hold onto him much longer.
Here are the few other veteran Orioles with some semblance of trade value:
- LHP Richard Bleier: Lefty reliever with extreme ground ball tendencies and team control through 2022.
- RHP Alex Cobb: Maybe there'd be interest if the O's ate most of the $15 million owed to him in 2021?
- SS Jose Iglesias: Slick-fielder on a one-year contract. Any team that needs an infielder will come calling.
- IF Hanser Alberto: Same deal as Iglesias, except with a shorter track record and team control through 2022.
That's about it, really. Nunez swatted 31 home runs last year but low on-base DH types are rarely in demand these days. The Orioles will undoubtedly get calls about Hays, Means, the Stewarts, and some of their other potential building blocks and they absolutely should listen. They'd be foolish not to. You never know when someone will blow you away with an offer. Generally speaking though, the O's don't have many valuable trade chips outside Givens.
The trade deadline was pushed back to Aug. 31 this year and -- this is really important rule change -- only players including on the 60-man player pool can be traded this year. Rebuilding teams can't trade their impending free agents for some lower level minor leaguers. Not unless they're on the 60-man roster. That limits the available player pool and reduces the chances teams find a trade match to their liking. It could be a dealbreaker in some cases.