Anything above last year's 47 wins would amount to progress for the Orioles, who enter the 2019 season with much more modest ambitions than the club that fell short of its one last crack at contending with its old core.
New executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and the front office plan to use time and resources on the amateur draft (in which the Orioles select first overall), building their analytics and international scouting departments, and revamping the player development system. Even if the major league results don't get much better in the short term as they do that, one thing that can improve are the players themselves.
The Orioles had 15 major league debuts last year alone, and eight the year before. Seventeen of those players are still on the 40-man roster, and many still have their rookie status intact. Those are the types of players who can accelerate the Orioles' path back to consistent winning baseball, and the leadership team of Elias and manager Brandon Hyde understands that.
It's why Hyde was hired, in part for his player development background, and it's why he has a staff with vast experiences building philosophies for young players to embrace and improving them against the toughest competition in the world.
Seeing some of the team's young players perform better than they have in their previous major league time might not do much to the Orioles’ overall win-loss record. That’ll be especially true if good performance by some of the more experienced or expensive players leads to them being traded and the late-season Orioles being as young as they were last year.
It will, however, be a sign that the coaching staff as well as the general practices and philosophies the Orioles have in place are taking the team in the right direction. If they can make the old regime’s players better, then they can certainly do the same when targeting a specific kind of player to fit their own beliefs.
So in lieu of counting major league wins, this week, we’re counting down five players whose performance in the majors this year can go a long way toward judging the first year of the Elias-Hyde era of Orioles baseball.
The first on that list is catcher Chance Sisco.
Sisco was the Orioles' top prospect in 2017 when he made his major league debut that September. Even as a bat-first catcher who carried pretty significant defensive questions and entered Opening Day in 2018 as a young 23-year-old, he entered the season with a pretty significant role carved out for him in the majors.
No matter the reason — whether it was the pressures of working with a struggling veteran rotation, the fact that his slumping bat carried into the defensive portion of his game and vice versa, or the crush of losing on a young player on a team with much higher expectations — Sisco ended up under water and swept away into a lost season.
He was optioned to the minors twice, and once he returned in September, he seldom played. But Sisco came into camp with a new mindset and said he learned from the struggles. He used his filled-out frame to crush the ball early in spring training.
Hyde and his staff won't be evaluating him on spring stats, though. They want to see the Sisco who hit at every step in the minors, but they also want to see him take charge as an on-field leader with a pitching staff that's far younger than it was a year ago, as an extension of the coaches from the dugout. They'll be far more encouraged by what they saw early in spring on that front than by the offense.
Sisco, 24, is most prominent in this group because the circumstances for him are almost identical to last year’s, with two differences: the year of experience he survived, and the coaching staff. Last year, he worked alongside longtime friend and teammate Austin Wynns and had veteran Caleb Joseph to show him the ropes. Now, it's Wynns and veteran Jesús Sucre with him in that mix.
Secondly, part of the appeal of having him in the majors in 2018 was the presence of bench coach John Russell, a well-regarded catching instructor who along with minor league instructor Don Werner were credited with helping the likes of Matt Wieters, Joseph and Nick Hundley improve behind the plate. This year, he gets the former catcher Hyde and Russell's replacement in everything but title, major league field coordinator and catching instructor Tim Cossins.
Perhaps their high-energy approach — something Sisco made clear early in camp was making a difference for him — will be a factor in helping Sisco with the technical work behind the plate required for him to catch in the majors. He had the second-slowest home-to-second pop time on stolen-base attempts in the big leagues last year, according to MLB's Statcast data. Some improvement on that front and something close to the high-contact, high-on-base offensive profile he showed in the minors will give the Orioles a potential longtime catcher, and someone for Hyde and Cossins to help grow at a position they know well.