Sunday’s 10-5 thumping of the visiting New York Yankees delivered the Orioles to the 40-game mark at 17-23 — a slight improvement on how they played the shortened 2020 season, albeit with an ominously long schedule still before them.
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Sunday that at the quarter-mark of his third season overseeing this rebuild, the progress some of the players they envision being around Camden Yards for years to come is brightening his vision of the year for a club that’s had a “competitive and pesky 40 games,” even if their record isn’t what he wants it to be.
“I think most important to us is we’ve seen some very positive steps forward from a lot of individuals who we plan to have on the next playoff team here in Baltimore,” Elias said. “I think John Means is at the top of that list, but there are other guys off to great starts. …
“In particular, our young outfielders as we expected are continuing to take steps forward with [Cedric] Mullins and [Austin] Hays first and foremost with that. I think things continue to move in the right direction when you look at the personal development at the major league level, a team kind of overall playing at a better and better clip every year so far and probably most importantly, the changing arc of minor league development and talent in the minor leagues, things are all moving where we want them to.”
Anyone following the Orioles would agree that the highlights of this season start with Means, who threw a no-hitter earlier this month in Seattle and with a 1.21 ERA is among the game’s best starters this season. Trey Mancini’s return from stage 3 colon cancer is up there as well, and after reaching base four times with an RBI double and three walks Sunday, his OPS of .775 is the highest its been since Opening Day and still climbing.
While those players are the team’s most marketable trade assets, they’re also a big reason for the growing notion Elias holds that this team could come together as a contender quickly. “They’re in positions to be leaders in this club when that happens,” he said.
Mullins and Hays have each played as consistent as they ever have at the big league level while providing standout defense in center and left field, respectively.
All of those headliners have at one point or another been considered young potential cornerstones as the rebuild trudges on, but they’re years beyond being rookies. This year’s crop of rookies, however, has endured some struggles that Elias said aren’t a surprise.
“We expect the young players are going to go through sophomore slumps,” Elias said. “Most of them do. It’s the exception that doesn’t.”
Ryan Mountcastle, who began the season as a left fielder but has played more first base and designated hitter of late, had a career-high four RBIs on Sunday but is batting .218 with a .578 OPS. Elias said he and manager Brandon Hyde are committed to letting Mountcastle work it out in the big leagues, something that hasn’t always been possible for their rookie pitchers.
“I think for the pitchers, this group — [Dean] Kremer, [Keegan] Akin, [Bruce] Zimmermann, to a little bit lesser degree [Zac] Lowther, this group would have been pitching a lot in Triple-A last year and didn’t get to do that,” Elias said. “We’re not in a position to kind of wait for that this year, so they’re going to get a lot of their development, a lot of their lumps in up here at the major league level. We’re going to try to avoid stressing them. That’s going to involve guys going to Triple-A for stretches and us managing our roster.”
Eventually, the Orioles hope to add hard-throwing righty Mike Baumann to that mix as he rehabs elbow soreness up the minor league ladder, and left-hander Alexander Wells is on the roster as well.
Those high-minors pitchers are being relied upon to cover innings for the major league team and for the most part holding their own, even if they lack consistency. The real wave of pitching that will be joining Means atop the rotation is bubbling up through the minors, though, with top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall among the best in baseball and trade acquisitions Kyle Bradish, Kevin Smith, Kyle Brnovich and Garrett Stallings each impressing early in their post-trade careers.
With position players like 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman also climbing closer to the big leagues, there will be fruits of this Orioles rebuild in Baltimore before long. After building up a scouting and player development infrastructure and getting back into the international market, the “heavy lifting done in the last few years is now working in their favor on those fronts,” Elias said.
“The thing that we feel best about right now in 2021 is where the organization is at globally,” he said. “We’ve got a full, deep minor league system that has interesting players top to bottom. There’s an international acquisition arm that is in place and bringing in and churning out players, and that hasn’t been the case here. We’ve gotten that pipeline flowing, and we have a high functioning, state-of-the-art player development unit that’s going to get as much out of these players as they would get in any other organization.
“For me now it’s about the timelines of these guys moving up here to the major league level, the roster kind of coming together, and us hopefully making good personnel decisions.”
What’s to come?
After some clusters of days off that the Orioles have used to manipulate their rookie starters’ schedules and give Means some rest, they’ll have no such luxury after Monday’s day off. Beginning with Tuesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles have 16 straight games, meaning they’ll have to stay on turn with the rotation and keep everyone on regular rest through that time.
Who exactly that entails is unclear. Means and Matt Harvey are givens. Hyde said Jorge López would remain in the rotation despite his up-and-down results of late, and Kremer has a 3.38 ERA in May, meaning his spot is still warranted.
It seems either Zimmermann or Akin will slot into the rotation in the fifth spot, with both getting long relief cameos this weekend and impressing in the process.
What was good?
If you’re a rookie pitcher for the Orioles, you basically have been tried in the major league flames this year. For Akin, Zimmermann, Kremer and Lowther, it’s constant tests against deep, experienced lineups like the Yankees and Red Sox.
That’s what made Zimmermann’s 5 ⅔ innings of two-hit, one-run relief behind Adam Plutko so promising Sunday. When he’s struggled, he and Hyde identified his struggles pitching in and jamming right-handed hitters to better set up his changeup and breaking balls, and there were no such struggles Sunday. That version of Zimmermann is one the Orioles will have trouble keeping out of the rotation going forward — and not facing the Yankees again until August will be a welcome change for all their young pitchers.
Catcher and second base have been two problem areas for the Orioles all season, with the backstop duo of Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco and the second base group of Pat Valaika, Rio Ruiz and Ramón Urías all struggling at the plate for much of the year.
While the second base group is hitting a bit better of late, Elias said the development of their top young players on the infield at Triple-A Norfolk — Jahmai Jones, Rylan Bannon and Richie Martin — trumps the need for improvement there. He said Jones and Bannon specifically are “working defensively to become major league quality” at second base, and the Orioles “don’t view them as being at a point of having graduated.”
“In the meantime, we’re going to be exploring different players at that spot — either the guys that are on our roster or more veteran-ish type options to provide some stability in that spot until we get the type of production that we’re looking to get,” he said.
As for the catchers, it seems that group will continue to get the chance to play its way out of this funk. Elias said Severino and Sisco are an interesting group that pair well with each other, and “unfortunately, Sisco has gotten off on a really slow start this year.”
“We’ve seen some defensive improvement with him, specifically with throwing,” Elias said. “He’s still got a very interesting pedigree and an interesting minor league track record and has shown flashes of .700 OPSs a couple years in a row at the major league level, but clearly we’re hoping for an uptick from him. Starting with Rutschman, we’ve got catching coming up through the minor leagues so there will be some pressure on this group eventually. At least, that’s what we hope and expect. But these guys are players that deserve to be a major league catching platoon in the way they are now.”
On the farm
The Orioles signed César Valdez as a minor league free agent out of the Mexican League ahead of the 2020 season, and thanks to his “dead fish” changeup, Valdez is now their closer.
Right-hander Manny Barreda, signed this spring out of the Mexican League after pitching there since 2017, is at Triple-A Norfolk and might be looking to replicate that improbable path to the big leagues.
The 32-year-old Barreda entered Sunday having allowed three hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in seven relief innings over three appearances for the Tides. The prospects take up plenty of attention in this Orioles rebuild, but any useful arm who can help the team get through this slog of a season will be a welcome addition.
Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.
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