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 is the players themselves.
So in lieu of counting major league wins, we’re looking at 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.
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.
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.
Hays, a 2016 third-round pick out of Jacksonville, spent his first full professional season in 2017 shooting from High-A Frederick to the majors while batting .329 with 32 homers over two minor league stops. He was poised to compete for the Orioles’ everyday right field job after getting his feet wet in the majors that September. Pretty much nothing went according to plan over the ensuing year. Hays, 23, unintentionally swapped out his lithe, lean frame for a more muscular one, and the consequences for that lingered the entire season. Without the same mobility, his shoulder stiffened up in spring training, and he lost the chance to make the club.
He didn't play well early in the season at Double-A Bowie, and all the extra mass he was carrying ended up injuring his ankle. He hit .273 the rest of the season, but ended up getting surgery in September.
All that knocked the shine off Hays, but this spring he's shown himself to be much closer to the player he was in 2017. At his best, he's aggressive in the strike zone with power to all fields but shortens up and goes the other way with two strikes, making him a tough out. His hand quickness allows him to wait on fastballs, react to spin and cover the entire plate.
Getting on base more often will help, but there's more to improving a player's approach than just drawing walks. His hitting coach will be tasked with giving him a better idea of what pitches he can handle best and which he should try to lay off.
Mullins' major league debut was delayed a year after hamstring injuries derailed his 2017 season. But once the Orioles were well out of it in 2018 and their top stars were mostly traded away, Mullins represented the first true prospect to be called up to start the new era. There was plenty of symbolism in Adam Jones ceding center field to Mullins.
What will be fascinating is whether Mullins, 24, can keep that job. His major league debut was a lot like what he showed in the minors. He started out hot, batting .317 with nine extra-base hits in his first 18 games, then batting .187 in September. He's dynamic when he's hitting well, and has the type of speed and ability to lay down a bunt that should make him slump-proof, but Mullins is pretty streaky, and the lows aren't easy to work through in the majors.
That said, defense can help him stick around through that. Mullins has plenty of speed in center field, but some evaluators believe he's best suited for left field, particularly because of his lack of arm strength.
Mullins' marker of success this year is going to be consistency.
He spent a few weeks feasting on pitchers who weren't as familiar with him, then spent a month finding out what happens when major league teams figure out how to pitch a rookie: They keep pitching like that until you make an adjustment. It’s Mullins' turn to show he knows what pitchers want to do to him and attack that weakness to close it up. And if he does that, it could show this staff is capable of the types of tweaks and advice to help players stick once they make the majors.
The Orioles' 2014 draft was hampered because they forfeited their top two picks to sign major league free agents and used the second-highest pick they had on a basketball player, but Hess is turning out to be a worthy representative of that class. He debuted last year and made 21 appearances (19 starts), pitching much better in the second half of the season (3.81 ERA) than the first half (6.06 ERA).
There's another right-hander in the Orioles rotation who has glaring problems with the long ball and is only eight months older than Hess who could be listed here — 2011 first-round pick Dylan Bundy. But Hess, 25, might be a better indicator of whether the new program the club is trying to implement at the major league level and the development practices Elias referred to as the "secret sauce" behind the Houston Astros' minor league pitching success are working in Baltimore.
There's been some backlash around the game about using high-speed cameras to identify why pitches move, or to demonstrate to a pitcher what he might be best suited throwing, or for a pitcher to generally know why something doesn’t work — as opposed to pitching to a scouting report. It's correct that the new methods are not fairy dust. It also wasn't fairy dust that got most of the young Orioles to the majors to begin with. They have natural talents, worked hard and well with the minor league coaches at each stop, and made it to the highest level in the game.
Hess is one of pitchers who is primed to use all those advantages to try to stick with the Orioles.
Last year, after relieving all through college at Saint Joseph's and closing through his entire minor league career with the Orioles, Yacabonis 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.
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.