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Orioles reset: Amid scrutiny of rebuilding plan, losing streak also warrants examination of underperforming players

Throughout the Orioles’ 18-game losing streak that has consumed most all of August and much of the goodwill that remained about this rebuilding project, the focus has been on the front office far more than the field.

It’s true their roster is made up of more castoffs and waiver claims than most, but there’s also a contingent of former top prospects of whom more was expected. As general manager Mike Elias attempts to overhaul the organization amid what he called a “historically challenging situation,” this losing streak has perhaps intensified the scrutiny on the players who have been handed the chance to make themselves part of a winning future.

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Elias himself pointed to Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and John Means as players who have proven themselves when he spoke Friday. In the past, that list has included Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander and Austin Hays.

“There’s been some other things that have been steps back and that happens and that’s part of the challenge of this,” he said. “But overall, the large picture of us accumulating talent, cleaning up the situation that we inherited and getting things on track with a clear path ahead of this toward getting back in the fight in this division is going very well and it’s on track despite some of the player setbacks that happened this year, despite the horrible stretch that we’re in right now.”

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The pitching challenges of this Orioles team have been fated since before the season began. But manager Brandon Hyde expected this team would be able to score runs this year, and they haven’t. The players put that on themselves.

“We’re better than this,” Mancini said. “We’re much better than this.”

Mancini is quick to point at his own struggles as evidence of that. He’s had trouble getting going this year save for a stretch in May, and the pressure he’s putting on himself to get back to his best and finish strong is compounded by the team’s struggles.

He’s a unique case considering he missed all of 2020 with colon cancer, but he’s also the only player on this Orioles team with any kind of hitting track record. Mancini was an eighth-round pick in 2013, one of 11 Orioles draftees that year to reach the majors. He’s the only one who had a real impact at Camden Yards, and an Orioles team that would be in a position to prevent a weekslong losing streak would have plenty more homegrown players who are ostensibly in their peak seasons to help stem the tide outside of just Mancini.

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The next wave of prospects that followed him to the majors wants to prevent that from happening to themselves. Mullins’ All-Star season has helped solidify his status for years to come, and Mountcastle seems to be on that track. But others in the group of players who were meant to help this team improve in the short-term so they can be established veterans on future winning teams have been uneven.

Orioles right fielder Trey Mancini, getting ready for an at-bat against the Chicago White Sox on July 9, is quick to point at his own struggles this season.
Orioles right fielder Trey Mancini, getting ready for an at-bat against the Chicago White Sox on July 9, is quick to point at his own struggles this season. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Not all of that is down to performance. A scattershot player development approach, combined with injuries and regime change, means that Hays and DJ Stewart — who debuted in September 2017 and September 2018, respectively — only recently got to the point where they’ve played enough games cumulatively to have a full year of major league experience. Santander has the equivalent of two full years of plate appearances despite debuting in 2017 as well, and Mullins, who also debuted in 2018, had 418 plate appearances entering this breakout season.

The challenge for that group, which has anchored an offense that’s averaged fewer than four runs per game but also had inconsistent development tracks, and one that is trying to stay afloat amid all this losing and build on their own careers without being selfish, is significant. But the feeling that they should be playing better is likely heightening the tension of the moment, even if it’s not impacting their confidence.

“I definitely believe that we can perform at the big league level and we can be a big part of winning baseball in Baltimore,” Hays said.

Showing that more consistently would help solidify that, though Hyde said players in their positions can get a longer evaluation period, considering their track records of performance in the minors and their pedigrees in the organization.

“I think it depends on the player, and age, prospect status — somebody you’ve had in the organization,” Hyde said. “I think it differs player to player.”

What’s to come?

The Los Angeles Angels and the Tampa Bay Rays are set to visit Baltimore this week, with the Angels representing a rare break from playing teams that are ticketed for the postseason on this stretch of the Orioles’ schedule.

Tuesday will feature a reunion with former Orioles top pick Dylan Bundy starting for the Angels in his first game back at Camden Yards since being traded in December 2019, and Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani will be starting the following day.

Not much of the must-see variety has happened at Camden Yards this year, but Ohtani’s two-way game gracing this ballpark will qualify.

What was good?

Mountcastle made his major league debut a year ago Saturday, and entered Sunday’s game batting .281 with an .814 OPS and 26 home runs in 141 career games. But the 24-year-old’s progress is probably best exemplified by the fact that Hyde singled him out for taking quality at-bats when those have been scarce.

This time last year, the reason Mountcastle was only just debuting was because of plate discipline concerns.

Said Hyde: “We have some bright spots and that’s one of them. Mounty has got a ton of ability. He’s always hit through the minor leagues, put up power numbers and the big leagues is different. In the big leagues you have to be able to manage the strike zone, be able to get in hitters counts, be able to [adjust]. Guys are going to pitch you differently, guys are going to have to make adjustments up here. The adjustments that Ryan has made this year, I’ve been really impressed with. He’s come a long way since April. I think he’s going to continue to get better, offensively and defensively.”

Orioles' Ryan Mountcastle celebrates a home run against the Atlanta Braves Saturday in Baltimore.
Orioles' Ryan Mountcastle celebrates a home run against the Atlanta Braves Saturday in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

What wasn’t?

Before Mountcastle walked in the first inning Sunday, it had been 76 plate appearances dating to the Orioles’ Thursday matinee loss against the Rays since they worked a walk. They also had no walks in Wednesday’s loss, giving them one in four games entering Sunday.

“It’s extremely challenging,” Hyde said. “Offensively, it’s tough to get rallies going. It’s tough to keep the line moving. It’s tough to string three, four hits together in the big leagues. When we get good, we’re going to have guys that give professional at-bats. … We just need more of that up and down through the order. I’m not talking about homer after a great at-bat, but being able to wear a pitcher down, being able to spoil pitches, being able to control the strike zone. We’re not going to be a good team until we have a lineup that’s able to do that, and the good teams have that.”

On the farm

Right-hander Jean Pinto has been a bright spot for those paying attention to the Orioles’ farm this year, and added another strong start to his log Saturday when he struck out eight and allowed just one earned run for Low-A Delmarva. He has 59 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings over two levels with a 0.77 WHIP, and the 20-year-old acquired from the Angels in last year’s José Iglesias trade is impressing Shorebirds manager Dave Anderson.

“It’s been really good,” Anderson said. “I think the main thing is, he throws the ball over the plate. He gets outs in the strike zone, and he knows how to pitch a little bit. It’s been fun watching him come out and throw. He’s been really, really good since he got here. He just keeps developing.”

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ANGELS@ORIOLES

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Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.

TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM

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