In returning to play Friday night against the Kansas City Royals, the Orioles begin their post-All-Star break schedule with a bit of a reprieve. Before being swept by the Los Angeles Angels, it had been a month since they last played a team with a losing record.
It’s a small bit of good news, but anything helps for a team that’s battling on as many fronts as these Orioles are. The remaining 73 games won’t be very meaningful in the standings for a 28-61 team that needs to go 35-38 just to avoid a 100-loss season.
As ever, though, there will be plenty to glean from the baseball they do play the rest of the way. Here are five things to watch as the Orioles begin the second half.
1. Will John Means’ return be enough to stabilize the pitching staff?
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde’s job is as difficult as they come, and his penchant for bright-siding things can be challenged under the team’s losing circumstances. But when given the chance to highlight anything he’d be thinking about during the All-Star break, he chose to point out “just how far away” the Orioles pitching staff is.
Their starting rotation has been a series of worst-case outcomes for pretty much everyone involved this year. The most significant of those, left-hander John Means’ extended absence with a shoulder injury, is set to end next week after his last rehab start for Triple-A Norfolk on Thursday.
But Means is only one man, and look no further than the team announcing rookie Keegan Akin as Friday’s starter and then a pair of to-be-announced starters as evidence that they need much more. Akin’s up-and-down season, combined with Bruce Zimmermann’s own injury and the poor results that led to Dean Kremer’s extended trip to the minors, means the team’s rookie starters haven’t provided the lift they’d hoped.
Jorge López has taken the ball every fifth day but rarely gives them five good innings, and he’ll be away on the bereavement list. Matt Harvey, the only one of the three veteran pitchers they brought in to survive after Félix Hernández’s injury and Wade LeBlanc’s early release, is getting a long rest after a bumpy start to the season.
Outside that group, it’s largely unknowns. Perhaps Zac Lowther or Alexander Wells can get a long look in the rotation, or later this summer the Orioles can add Kyle Bradish or Kevin Smith to the roster and give them a taste of the majors. Zimmermann’s return will help, but even with he and Means coming back, there are a lot more innings to fill than answers.
2. How many future building blocks will there be to feel good about come October?
Cedric Mullins’ All-Star coronation this week means that even if he scuffles in the second half, there’s little doubt who will be manning center field for years to come. Beyond him, it’s another year of teammates showing flashes of major league quality. Simply put, the Orioles need more.
Austin Hays has been much better of late, and two-plus months of him driving the ball to all fields the way he has the past few weeks would make him a reliable piece going forward. Anthony Santander hasn’t come around since his ankle injury and is producing much more like the overmatched Rule 5 draft pick version of himself than the 2020 Most Valuable Oriole.
Ryan Mountcastle has been the team’s second-best regular behind Mullins since May 1 after a shocking April, and has two-plus months to prove that his first month was an anomaly.
Having all three of those players locked in as reliable contributors entering 2022 would be ideal. Two would be an acceptable outcome. Anything less would make this year feel as if all these losses didn’t produce much. Even if someone like Ramón Urías keeps up what he’s done lately or Jahmai Jones comes up and hits right away, the sting of not solidifying the future of those three outfielders would be a significant one.
3. Is the trade deadline going to be a dud?
Means was one of the best pitchers in baseball when his shoulder injury knocked him out in early June, but if the Orioles are considering trading him, they’d be asking for typical under-control ace value from teams who are cautious of Means’ health and effectiveness.
Similarly, it’s an absolute minefield to entertain trading slugger Trey Mancini as he enters his walk year in 2022, considering how much he and his story mean to a beaten-down fanbase. There’s no right answers on that one, though executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said in May that those two players were the types he wanted to build around as the Orioles’ competitive window inches closer.
Injury (Freddy Galvis) and a lack of productivity (Maikel Franco) have meant the team’s one-year free agents don’t hold much appeal, leaving only their top bullpen pieces as options. Tanner Scott and Paul Fry will both be arbitration-eligible next year, with each showing signs of late-inning relief success this year. Fry was the Orioles’ best reliever for much of this season before he got put into a closer role, and Scott has been dominant more often than not, even though his hiccups are costly.
Moving either would come without a safety net, as there’s no one to step in effectively the way the young Orioles relievers did for Richard Bleier in 2020. But if a team wants to give up a starting pitching prospect the way the New York Mets did for reliever Miguel Castro last summer, the Orioles would probably listen.
4. Are there any prospect debuts to look forward to?
Little can boost a team that’s marching past the 100-loss mark like the arrival of an exciting rookie, and it’s possible that could happen for the Orioles in the second half. Jones is hitting well at Triple-A Norfolk after an oblique injury kept him out for nearly a month, but the team is focused on how he improves at second base more than how he swings the bat. Still, it would be a surprise if he isn’t called up this summer.
Elsewhere, former top prospect Yusniel Diaz is on the 40-man roster but has a .502 OPS at Norfolk; Tyler Nevin and Rylan Bannon could get looks as well, especially if third base doesn’t solidify for the Orioles soon.
Outside Jones, though, the most excitement could come on the pitching side. Had he not suffered a setback with his elbow in the spring, hard-throwing right-hander Mike Baumann might already be in the Orioles rotation. He’s rounding back into form at Double-A Bowie, and could soon join a Norfolk rotation with Bradish and Smith, the two most likely prospects to be added to the roster should the Orioles go that route.
The excitement of Mountcastle, Kremer, Akin and Zimmermann performing well made their fading stretch run easy to stomach last summer. Any of these players could help do the same in the second half.
5. Will Brandon Hyde’s seat get hot?
The Orioles are on pace to lose 111 games this year, and with a roster that’s constructed to cost as little as possible while the team waits on its stars of tomorrow to get to the big leagues, those losses are hard to pin on a manager.
Last Elias spoke, he supported Hyde and said their vision for the future includes him in it. But Hyde is the daily, front-facing figure of these continuous losing runs, and that gets old after a while. It doesn’t help that nothing comes easily for this team, but most considerations of his or anyone’s future should center mostly on two things. First, what did anyone expect to be different that another manager might have made happen? And second, is the team prepared to play each night?
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It will be hard to make any kind of assessment of Hyde considering the likelihood of a messy second half as the team tries to navigate its pitching woes and faces its imposing American League East opponents 41 of 73 games. There will be no quarter given to the Orioles by their rivals this year. It’s unclear whether the manager will get any, either.