What’s to come?
The Major League Baseball draft and the Orioles’ first overall pick in it take center stage this week, but for the team itself, it’s a week full of visits to old stomping grounds.
The Orioles’ road trip to the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros sends many players to ballparks that were once their homes. That includes Chris Davis, who is expected to come off the injured list during the series against the Rangers, the team the Orioles acquired him from in a 2011 trade. Renato Núñez and Hanser Alberto, both of whom the Rangers lost via waivers in the past 13 months, as well as Andrew Cashner, the Texas native who will start Thursday’s series finale, are all former Rangers, too.
Houston will also represent a homecoming. Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal, the two men overseeing the Orioles’ baseball operations department and thus the draft, both joined the organization via the Astros. This will be Baltimore’s first trip to Houston since they were hired as general manager and assistant general manager, respectively, this offseason. Infielder Jonathan Villar played his first three major-league seasons as an Astro, but he has yet to play at Minute Maid Park since Houston traded him away before the 2016 campaign. The Astros drafted Orioles infielder Rio Ruiz in the 2012 draft but traded him to the Atlanta Braves before he could make his debut. This week’s series will be the first time he plays against or in Houston.
What was good?
Trey Mancini continued his march toward the All-Star Game, a campaign that now includes a logo and shirts donning it. But the top weekly honor goes to Núñez, who has snapped out of a two-week slump with a two-week show of prodigious power.
In this week’s six games, Núñez hit .364/.417/.909, with six of his eight hits going for extra bases and three of those going over the fence. Even without one Sunday, the Orioles’ designated hitter has homered in eight of his past 13 games.
After his solo shot Saturday, Núñez said his goal is to simply hit the ball hard, and he’s doing that better than any Oriole, even Mancini. Mancini’s home run Sunday matched him with Núñez for the team lead with 70 balls hit with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, but Núñez broke the tie with a 106 mph double later in the inning, then hit a 104 mph groundout in the ninth. Entering play Sunday, Núñez’s 47% hard-hit rate (the percentage of balls put in play at 95 mph or higher) was the highest among Orioles. The next closest was Davis at 45.8%, but he has hit only 33 balls at least 95 mph.
Of course, Davis’ return and the impending one of Mark Trumbo, whose rehab assignment will progress to Triple-A Norfolk this week, creates somewhat of a roster conundrum for manager Brandon Hyde. The Orioles’ two highest-paid position players, Davis and Trumbo will receive roster spots if they’re healthy enough for them. But while Trumbo is playing some outfield during his rehab process, it’s more likely he and Davis will be locked into at-bats as first basemen and designated hitters. But if Núñez keeps hitting the way he is once the other two return, with his 15 home runs putting him on pace for at least 40, it’s hard to envision Hyde pulling him from the lineup.
“The way he’s swinging the bat, you’d like to have him in there,” Hyde said. “... I think we’re waiting to see how Mark is, and I think we’re gonna make those decisions when that gets a little bit closer. We have a lot of first base, DH types, and it’s not an ideal situation, so we’re gonna figure that out when the decision for Mark gets closer.”
The Orioles are 1-9 in his outings since he pitched 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the Toronto Blue Jays in his first start of the year. Hess has an 8.68 ERA in those 10 starts and a 7.36 ERA overall, allowing a major league-high 19 home runs.
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Hyde briefly pulled Hess from the rotation in late April, but Alex Cobb’s injury put him back in it without a relief appearance. Since, Hyde has repeatedly said the Orioles don’t have enough starting pitching depth in the upper minors to put Hess either in the bullpen or in the minors, and that’s true. Josh Rogers and Luis Ortiz, both products of last summer’s flurry of trades, have ERAs north of 7.00 with Norfolk, and the Orioles are in no hurry to promote Keegan Akin, a 24-year-old who leads the International League in strikeouts.
But Gabriel Ynoa made two decent starts this week after replacing a struggling Dan Straily in the rotation. Straily pitched four innings of one-run ball in his first go out of the bullpen Monday, then followed it by allowing three runs in three innings Sunday, facing plenty of traffic.
Continued improvement from Straily would help, but should Hyde and the Orioles eventually choose to replace Hess in the rotation with Straily — or even another pitcher — to try to get the former right, either in the minors or the bullpen, that likely would not be a choice met with contention, even by Hess.
“That’s a decision that’s really not up to me,” Hess said Saturday. “I’m going to do whatever they think is best for me. That’s who we have in place for that reason. So whether that’s here, whether that’s somewhere else, whatever it may be, my goal is to go out there every single day regardless if it’s in a game on the mound or in between starts just to get better and continue to work and just continue to grind it out.”
On the farm
With an impending battle coming at the Orioles’ first base and DH spots, another contender looms in Triple-A.
Ryan Mountcastle, the 22-year-old who has arguably surpassed Yusniel Diaz as the Orioles’ top prospect, returned from a left wrist injury late in the week and put on his own power display. After delivering a walk-off homer Saturday, he hit three more Sunday to bring him to 11 for the season, the most in the system. His three-homer game was the first by a Norfolk player since 2005.
Elias has said the Orioles would like to see Mountcastle stay in the International League long enough for pitchers to face him a second time so they can see how he adjusts. There’s no rush to promote him, given his age and the Orioles’ bevy of players in the same role positionally. But Elias recently said Mountcastle has gotten some work in the outfield, though he has yet to play out there in a game.