On the occasion of the Orioles’ visit to face the Arizona Diamondbacks and old friend Adam Jones, neither Jones’ performance in the desert nor the progress of the young players the Orioles looked to as his replacements have done much to change opinions on what was the most polarizing part of the Orioles’ offseason.
There were two pretty clear camps: one believed that no matter the cost, Jones’ time in Baltimore was finished, and a younger crop of players who had a chance to be part of the next generation of winning Orioles clubs should get a chance. The other saw the possibility of last year’s 100-plus-loss season repeating itself and viewed the idea of bringing Jones back as a sign of goodwill to the fans that decided to come to Camden Yards all the same.
Both had plenty of merit. And what’s happened since has done little to sway either side.
That center field has been a massively disappointing position for the Orioles this season makes letting Jones leave in free agency and ultimately sign a one-year, $3 million contract with the Diamondbacks tough to swallow. When Cedric Mullins was summoned to Baltimore last August to play center field, shifting Jones to right field, he was seen as the center fielder of the future.
He started out hot but struggled the last few weeks of the season, and didn’t really get going in spring training, either. Mullins was the Opening Day center fielder nonetheless, and went 6-for-64 (.093) before being sent to Triple-A Norfolk. He was knocked down a level further to Double-A Bowie at the All-Star break.
It’s been a nightmare season for Mullins, and in addition to putting Stevie Wilkerson and Anthony Santander in center field with no real experience there, the Orioles brought in Keon Broxton, who struggled at the plate before being cut loose Sunday. The Orioles’ center fielders entered the weekend batting .198 with a .598 OPS, even if all have played well defensively.
But major league performance wasn’t really the reason not to bring Jones back. It was so the likes of Mullins, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, Santander and eventually Ryan McKenna and Yusniel Diaz could have a clear path to the majors when they’re ready. Ready, however, means something different than it did in the past. So the Orioles traded for Dwight Smith Jr. so he and Trey Mancini could occupy both corner outfield spots, and all of the young outfielders except Mullins started the year in the minors.
Stewart and Santander made it back to the majors eventually, with the former getting hurt shortly after arriving, while Hays has played well when healthy. McKenna and Diaz are still in Bowie, though they’ve played well of late.
Simply put, no one’s development would have been impacted in the slightest had the Orioles re-signed Jones. And yet, after a good first month or so, Jones has performed mostly at the levels he did in Baltimore in his first year with Arizona.
Entering Saturday’s games, he was hitting .271 with a .762 OPS and 13 home runs while rating better defensively in right field than he did toward the end of his time in center with the Orioles. From a baseball perspective, that would make him a tough fit in Baltimore, where Mancini has fit into the lineup in right field most often.
Jones might have been a steady bat in the lineup and helped the Orioles to a few more wins, and he certainly would be a player fans would be able to come to the ballpark and cheer for more so than the cast currently assembled.
But hardly anything this front office under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has done since being hired in November has been with winning this year in mind as much as building a talent pipeline for the future.
Whether that was cover for resentment on high for Jones exercising his vested veto rights on a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies last year, or simply a baseball decision, it seems like the idea of Jones returning got far more play outside of the Orioles’ offices than inside them. He said he never heard from the team before choosing Arizona, and still has an affinity for the city.
When an Orioles team that will be almost wholly unrecognizable to Jones arrives at Chase Field on Monday, the most accomplished Oriole on the field will be in Diamondbacks colors. Whether that should be the case is largely subjective, and probably reveals a lot about where one falls on this whole “rebuilding” thing going on in Baltimore.
What’s to come?
With three games in Arizona before a week in Southern California facing the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres, this is the big, back-breaking western swing that always seems to happen this time of year.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, it will be the week in which the Orioles are expected to accomplish a lot of their trading business ahead of the July 31 deadline. Dating to last year’s deadline, the mandate has been to cut payroll and get younger talent. Players who either are getting paid well or could be making more money soon — closer Mychal Givens, infielder Jonathan Villar, right-hander Dylan Bundy and outfielder Trey Mancini — could find their names popping up on the ticker before the deadline strikes.
It will make for an awkward dynamic on the road trip, but one most of the Orioles lived through before as last year’s deals shook up the clubhouse with the trades of Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Brad Brach, Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman.
What was good?
With all due respect to Mancini and the host of Orioles who broke out of slumps this week, here’s one that hasn’t been in a slump at all: third baseman Rio Ruiz. He ended the last trip out west batting .220, the lowest his average was since early April, but in 15 games since, he’s batting .349 with a .918 OPS.
He’s being protected from left-handed pitching and is essentially in a left-right platoon at third base with Hanser Alberto. But between what’s been standout defense that rates near the top of the American League in most advanced metrics and some good fortune at the plate, Ruiz is pulling himself out of his funk and getting himself into a good place as the second half grinds on and he presents his case to be a big leaguer beyond 2019 with the Orioles.
Catcher Pedro Severino was riding high after his three-homer game in Texas on June 4, after which he corrected a reporter who teed up a question by mentioning how he wasn’t traditionally a power-hitter. The next day, he had to leave the game after taking a foul ball to the mask in the first inning, and though he was cleared of concussion symptoms, his production took a tumble after that.
Severino was feasting on left-handers and batting .288 with a .939 OPS after that big game; since, he's hit .229 with a .577 OPS. This slide coincided with the arrival of Chance Sisco that week in Texas, with Severino's regular playing time waning, especially as Sisco has swung a good bat himself.
It’s noteworthy, however, that that week in Texas featured a pair of players in Severino and Dwight Smith Jr. who suffered head injuries and haven’t really gotten back on track since.
On the farm
Left-hander Alex Wells, by virtue of his status as a soft-tossing left-hander, will have to prove he can be effective at every level of the minors before getting his major league shot. He's proven his brand of deception and his 86-88 mph fastball can yield incredible success in his first crack at Double-A Bowie this year.
Wells allowed two runs on four hits in eight innings Monday and followed it up with six shutout innings Saturday against Akron, striking out four and walking none in each outing. His ERA dropped to 1.83 in 93 2/3 innings with 70 strikeouts and a 0.99 WHIP.
After finishing his first two professional seasons with identical 0.91 WHIPs and ERAs of 2.15 and 2.38, respectively, before a bit of a step back last year at High-A Frederick, Wells doing this at Bowie only goes to show that he very well could be for real.