Given the impending influx of prospects and the expanded rosters that will come in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Orioles figure to be a team with more intrigue than the one that preceded it.
Orioles fans got a taste of the future in late 2019, when Austin Hays made spectacular catches and Hunter Harvey flashed his terrific stuff. That should continue with regularity in this year’s shortened campaign, when those players have more regular roles and another collection of prospects is likely to follow.
However, some familiar players will carry with them some interesting storylines, as well. With that said, here are the five most interesting players in the Orioles organization for the 2020 season.
A blistering spring training 1.0 — where he tied for the league lead in walks and posted a 1.682 OPS that ranked third among all players with at least 20 plate appearances — doesn’t shake what has been an abysmal first half of the seven-year, $161 million contract Davis signed after his second major league home run title in 2015. But it did induce the thought that perhaps the final three years of the deal will be far more productive than their four predecessors, when Davis posted more strikeouts (745) than points in his OPS (.679).
With Davis turning 34 a few days after the sport shut down, it’s doubtful he’ll return to being the player who hit 100 home runs combined in 2013 and 2015 while earning Most Valuable Player votes in each season. The hope, then, is that he can at least become a contributor, and the question of whether he rebounds or suffers a third straight historically poor campaign is one of the most interesting of the Orioles’ 2020 season.
A full season’s worth of Hays’ September breakout would do the Orioles a lot of good, even if that season is an abbreviated one. Originally bound for the Arizona Fall League after a second straight year dealing with injuries, Hays instead spent the season’s final month with Baltimore, posting a .947 OPS across 21 games. Not only did that output mark an increase of nearly .400 points from his cup of coffee after he dominated the minors in 2017, but he also made highlight plays on repeat in center field, robbing home runs and making diving catches.
Penciling him into center and potentially the leadoff spot throughout the year would certainly make manager Brandon Hyde’s job easier, while also providing excitement to Orioles fans watching from home instead of at Camden Yards.
Mountcastle was the International League MVP last year and earned Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year honors. But his 25-homer campaign came with a strikeout rate that ranked among the 10 highest in the minors and a walk rate among the five lowest. The plate discipline, paired with defensive question marks, is part of why he was optioned to the minors shortly after the league postponed the rest of spring training.
His work in the outfield is meant to help him fit into a roster already containing several first-base/designated-hitter types. Once the Orioles find a space for his bat, Mountcastle should supply plenty of jolts at Camden Yards.
Speaking of jolts, each of Harvey’s seven appearances in 2019 were perhaps the Orioles’ most interesting outings of the year. Given the former first-round pick’s injury history, a late-season shutdown provided possible reason for concern, but early in the first edition of camp, Harvey returned to providing high-90s heat after overcoming an illness.
Harvey quickly after his arrival to the majors became one of Hyde’s go-to late-inning relievers and should find himself right back in that role this season. Harvey has only pitched back-to-back days once since his midseason switch to the bullpen last year, with those outings coming in his final two appearances before his promotion to the majors, which will certainly something to watch in the club’s usage of him. But the potential exists that he becomes the Orioles’ closer, allowing Hyde to truly deploy Mychal Givens in the “most important outs” situation he outlined for the veteran right-hander last year.
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Rutschman is the lone player listed here who won’t actually play for the Orioles in 2020 and, as a result, might not play at all. The abbreviated major league season will not feature minor league campaigns to accompany it. Yet, Rutschman’s status as the franchise’s top prospect and last year’s No. 1 overall pick prompt inclusion on this list. Finding ways to continue his development and that of others without minor league games could prove vital to the eventual success of the Orioles’ rebuild plans.
Rutschman’s .774 OPS in his first professional stint last summer came across three levels and followed a junior season at Oregon State in which he put up meteoric numbers and earned basically every notable amateur honor. His first full season in the Orioles’ system would have been one to watch without the packed schedule that came with the draft, his awards circuit and the bout of mononucleosis that delayed his professional debut. It’s doubtful the Orioles will use the shortened 2020 season to start Rutschman’s service time clock, but a strong year featuring more promotions certainly could’ve strengthened his odds of appearing at Camden Yards at some point in 2021.
Others to watch
John Means: A surprise member of the Opening Day roster who had a surprise first half that led to a surprise All-Star appearance, Means has the chance to show his 2019 wasn’t so shocking after all.
Dean Kremer: The right-hander could be the first product of the Manny Machado trade to make his major league debut with the Orioles sometime this year.
Yusniel Diaz: The same might be true for Diaz, the centerpiece of the Machado package. He has yet to perform at the level that earned him that status, but the Orioles still believe in the potential.
Alex Cobb: A season lost to injury hasn’t kept Cobb from an assured spot in the Orioles’ rotation, one in which he can provide stability before possibly attracting a contender for a trade.