Orioles pitcher Dean Kremer beat the Yankees at Oriole Park in his major league debut.
This time last year, as the Orioles’ affiliates were wrapping up what was a collectively impressive season on the farm, there were so many ways to quantify the progress in the first year of the team’s rebuild under new management.
Four affiliates led their respective leagues in pitching and the strikeout rate across the minor leagues spiked. No. 1 overall draft pick Adley Rutschman’s presence immediately elevated the talent level. They’d spent millions of dollars on international amateur free agents. There were new ways for players and staff to use data and technology at every level.
A year later, the cancellation of the minor league season means the only true way to measure growth on the Orioles’ farm is at the Bowie camp where the team’s major league depth and star prospects are getting in the best work they can. The only way to evaluate that from the outside is to look at what players from that camp have done in the big leagues, and the past few weeks paint that in a pretty good light.
Pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, each of whom spent most of the summer at that camp, dominated against the New York Yankees in starts over the weekend. Ryan Mountcastle, one of the top hitting prospects at the camp, came up two weeks ago and has been the team’s most consistent producer since.
To Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, it’s a sign that the camp’s true purpose — preparing players to be ready to help the major league team — is working, even as there are developmental goals for every experience level there.
“We felt like there was areas in Ryan, Keegan and now Dean, areas in their game where they needed to improve and we wanted to see them work on some things before they got to the big leagues,” Hyde said. “All three of those guys have done that.
“I think you see what Keegan [did], the aggressiveness in the strike zone and the off-speed stuff he’s spinning for strikes, that’s something that he took into account after spring training and really improved. Ryan, with his defense as well as his strike zone management, that has come into play big-time and he has had marked improvement over the past year. I’m excited about all three of these guys. I think it’s hard to be patient, but sometimes you have to be a little bit. You want to see the prospects play.”
And finally, they are doing so. All were held at the Bowie camp for a variety of reasons, some baseball-related and some strictly business. It’s a fun thought exercise to imagine them coming up 30 or 40 games into a 162-game season and having five months of baseball left to grow at the highest level as opposed to being August and September call-ups — which they may well have been even if the season had started in March.
They all had specific plans for what to address, though, and used the relaxed environment there without formal games and with plenty of individualized coaching from holdovers and new staffers alike to meet their development goals.
“In general, we’ve got a tremendous amount of guys that can just go out there and beat you with pure stuff alone,” Orioles catcher Bryan Holaday said Sunday. “That’s what they’re doing down there, refining that stuff and using it to be able to compete in the strike zone. Dean showed us today what that can do.”
Those coaches also helped players who washed down to the camp from the big league roster, too. Cedric Mullins was batting .077 with a .277 OPS in nine games as a spare outfielder when he was demoted to the camp in early August, and has been a different player since returning to play center field in Austin Hays’ absence. He’s batting .310 with a .796 OPS since, and is the team’s leadoff hitter when healthy.
Similarly, outfielder DJ Stewart was hitless when he was demoted to Bowie after beginning the season as the team’s regular left fielder. He came back up and homered three times over the weekend, and said the time at the Bowie camp played a role in getting him back on track.
“The atmosphere down there, it’s not games every single day but we’re still facing some of our really good arms,” Stewart said. “They challenged me. They’re challenging everyone down there. …
“Going down there cleared my head, put me in a better head space, and allowed me to come out here and have fun.”
While some of the up-and-down pitchers haven’t performed, the secondary site has helped deliver young right-handed relievers Dillon Tate and Hunter Harvey through rehabilitation from arm injuries to the back end of the bullpen. They have combined for 15 innings of four-run ball, with as many strikeouts (15) as base runners allowed.
No matter what happens the rest of the season, though, this past weekend of wins against the Yankees will be remembered as one when the Orioles started to deliver on their promise with young players taking over roles that belonged to older ones who have proved not to be part of their future.
The Orioles’ advance scouting team will get to recycle some reports this week as, with two more games against the Mets, then four against the Yankees, they’re running back the same schedule up in New York.
This time, though the Orioles are entering those games with an outside chance at a playoff spot again. Their series win over the Yankees at Camden Yards brought them to 19-21 with 20 games to go, two games out of a wild-card playoff spot and with a dramatically different rotation than they began the season with.
Hyde, though, doesn’t want them looking ahead.
“I want to think I’m an optimist, but I do think of all the games I felt like we should have won these first 40,” he said. “We just want to try to win as many games as possible, try to win as many series as possible, not look down the road too far, so I’m really happy with this series.”
Pressed into service in the rotation after Wade LeBlanc’s season-ending elbow injury, waiver claim Jorge López has looked the part so far as a starting pitcher.
He came to the Orioles from the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 9 as someone scouts have always liked but who hadn’t found consistent success, and though he’s had flashes of good results throughout his career, the Orioles might be the team to unlock it permanently.
In two starts, he’s allowed just three earned runs on six hits in 9⅔ innings, keeping the ball on the ground and using his mid-90s fastball to attack hitters.
The Orioles rotation, with Alex Cobb on the injured list reserved for players who were exposed to or are testing positive for the coronavirus, plus LeBlanc’s injury and the trade of Tommy Milone on Aug. 30, looks drastically different than it did a few weeks ago. López, Akin and Thomas Eshelman are all featured now, as is Kremer in Asher Wojciechowski’s spot.
This particular series made that part of the team look promising.
“It’s all about pitching at this level, 100 percent about pitching, and our starters just did a great, great job and our bullpen was fantastic,” Hyde said. “Jorge López to Akin to Kremer, just outstanding job of pitching and gave us all chances in the games that they pitched to allow us to win.”
Second baseman Hanser Alberto missed the entire Mets series with a knee injury he said was initially so painful it brought him to tears. First baseman Renato Núñez left Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury and has played just one game since. Outfielder Anthony Santander left the first game of Friday’s doubleheader with an oblique strain and is unlikely to return this season. Now, it’s Mullins who has been missing for two games.
The Orioles’ mid-August swoon probably removed the chance of a playoff run, but even as they aim to keep things competitive the next three weeks, a lineup that’s missing a few of those players plus Opening Day center fielder Hays is pretty thin compared with the types of teams the Orioles will be facing.
Even a few weeks of supervised development for the Orioles’ prospects seem to be worth it, as the team added a pair of Rule 5-eligible minor leaguers to the alternate site this week in left-hander Zac Lowther and infielder Rylan Bannon.
The camp is expected to run only a few more weeks, but for two of a handful of players the Orioles will need to decide whether to add to the 40-man roster this winter it will be an opportunity to play in a controlled environment.
Others, like outfielder Yusniel Diaz, right-hander Michael Baumann and left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, are already at the Bowie camp and seem like shoo-ins. Others at the camp, like reliever Isaac Mattson, are trying to solidify their spots. For those who are eligible but not at the camp, like left-hander Alexander Wells and infielder Mason McCoy, those decisions could be tougher.