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.
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-Brandon Hyde era of Orioles baseball.
The fifth on that list is right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis.
Last year, after relieving all through college at Saint Joseph's and closing through his entire minor league career with the Orioles, he was stretched out to start at Triple-A Norfolk after being sent out of major league camp in the spring.
It wasn't necessarily a reach — then-manager Buck Showalter would rave about Yacabonis’ hand size and how he had the ideal starter's frame. It was just a max-effort delivery that was pretty well-suited to unloading for a relief inning as opposed to turning over a lineup two and three times. But the Orioles used a method of trying to stretch relievers out in the minors to give them a chance to pitch multiple innings and have a bullpen session between starts to work on mechanics and their secondary pitches, and it worked with the likes of Tanner Scott.
When the Orioles stuck to it and didn't call Yacabonis up for a day at a time to cover relief innings, he took to it well. It was a pretty firm 90-pitch cap at its max, so he got there quickly, but Yacabonis, 26, showed for the second straight September that letting him get settled in the majors has its benefits. He had a 2.61 ERA with a 1.161 WHIP in six games (three starts) in September, and wasn't optioned back to Norfolk between any of them.
What all that means for 2019 is unclear, with few who were involved in Yacabonis' transition still in place to see it through. But Yacabonis is a hard thrower with a two-seam fastball spin rate in the top quarter of the league, and is only just learning to trust his slider and changeup after seldom throwing it in relief.
It might be too much to ask to have him make another 34-inning jump after going from 82 innings in 2017 to 116 in 2018, so having Yacabonis start in the rotation in Baltimore or Norfolk might not be feasible. Maybe being stretched out allows him to be a once-through-the-order reliever in the major league bullpen. But Yacabonis being more comfortable throwing his secondary pitches and not living in fear that a trip back to Norfolk was coming even if he pitched well could help the Orioles unlock one of the best raw arms in the system.
Seeing Yacabonis put into a role and kept there, above all else, will be an indicator that there's a plan in place from the front office on down to the major and minor league field staffs to commit to developing players without putting the day-to-day needs of the major league club first. He has shown at almost every turn that success comes when he's in such a situation. Combined with the technical and mechanical work being done to keep him consistent, the benefits of comfort for Yacabonis will only help the Orioles.