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Orioles reset: Shortened 2020 season can’t be considered more than a qualified success

Orioles players and manager look back on the coronavirus pandemic affected season as well as discussing winning their final game of the season.

Perhaps the first month-plus of the season raised both internal and external expectations too high for the Orioles this summer.

When the Orioles players met with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde this weekend for exit meetings, they had to temper whatever positive thoughts they are leaving the season with by noting how disappointing the last few weeks of the season were.

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How the major league team fared never should have meant that much to whether 2020 went well for the Orioles, though.

That’s why, considering the limitations of a shortened season with no minor league affiliates in action, a shortened draft and no traditional player development vehicles, the fact that the Orioles had some individual improvements that led to a competitive season before they collapsed down the stretch means this year can only be deemed a qualified success.

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“While our record does not reflect where we ultimately strive to be and expect to be, we feel that even despite the circumstances, we managed to make progress in our plan that we wanted to see,” Elias said.

Said Hyde: “I think there’s some disappointment in how some of these guys have finished, but listen, I’m proud of our guys. I think we have gotten better. Being a consistent major league player is easier said than done. We’ve had the toughest schedule of anybody in the game. Our guys have improved. They’ve posted up. They’ve come out to play. It just didn’t happen for us offensively in the last few weeks. But there is a lot of positives going forward, but there is some disappointment from some of our offensive players about how they finished.”

On a major league level, the shortened season meant that the Orioles were in contention for a playoff spot until the last week of September but still managed to lose enough to secure a high draft pick. It would be much more exciting to think about the offensive progress of Renato Núñez, Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino before they fell off down the stretch, but instead they’re just a few of the several players whose big steps forward were followed by one step back. Even Hanser Alberto fell off a bit as the season went on.

The promise remains in the outfield, where Anthony Santander was the Most Valuable Oriole winner and Ryan Mountcastle had a fine debut, with good stretches from Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart mixed in.

Elias said there would need to be some creativity to figure out how to evaluate players in such a season

“You watch the games and see what you see, but we are going to try to do that as mathematically as possible when we look at numbers with some help from our analytics staff in terms of making sense of the whole situation, and then we’re also going to try to focus on some more process aspects of how a guy did and how he went about his play and try to do the best we can,” Elias said.

Where the progress is much easier to figure out is on the pitching side. John Means rebounded from a difficult first month of the season on and off the field to be as good as he’s ever been, and is joined by rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin as possible long-term rotation pieces. In the bullpen, Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, Shawn Armstrong, and Dillon Tate were all consistently impressive.

Considering how the pitching improved on the farm last year, it’s no surprise that the Orioles were able to figure out a way to make that aspect of their organization shine this summer.

Still, just think of what could have been. There could have been a longer draft. There could have been a minor league season in which, among other things, the 2020 draftees, including top prospect Adley Rutschman, could have shown what the future could hold. The return from the Dylan Bundy trade could have populated the minor league rotations and made it easier to stomach the starting pitcher’s breakout season in Los Angeles. The could have been few months in Aberdeen for this year’s top picks, including No. 2 overall selection Heston Kjerstad.

There could have been, as the organization hoped would happen, a jump in power and plate discipline for their minor league hitters with a new group of coaches and methods, the same way the pitchers improved in 2019.

Instead, there were around a dozen prospects in Bowie from the start, and no evidence of what was accomplished there — save for the success of those who came to the major leagues. The big league team, for all its encouraging signs, still played baseball at what would have been a 94-loss rate in a full season.

This wasn’t going to be a year in which the end of the major league season proved any kind of progress in normal circumstances. Instead, it was a season in which an inventory of what was accomplished only spotlights what couldn’t happen.

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What’s next?

When it comes to the roster maneuvering the Orioles are going to have to do in the next few months, there’s not a lot of urgency with that just yet. The Orioles have to activate several players from the long-term injured list, including Trey Mancini, Richie Martin and Kohl Stewart, and decide on the contract option for shortstop José Iglesias.

Those decisions, though, will come after the World Series ends, so there’s plenty of waiting around and reflecting on the 2020 season to come. More immediately, the Orioles might bring some more of their well-regarded prospects to a fall instructional league at the spring training site in Sarasota, Florida. It would likely be closed to the public, but would be another signal that the process of building what Elias once called an “elite talent pipeline” never ends.

What was good?

It was pretty clear what happened for the Orioles when they traded Richard Bleier at the beginning of August and Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens at the end of the month: tantalizing former top prospects Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate became the new leverage relievers for Hyde.

All, especially Scott, proved worthy of that role. But the bullpen’s general improvement, illustrated by their 3.90 ERA, wasn’t built on them.

Paul Fry ended with a 2.45 ERA in 22 appearances, didn’t allow more than one earned run in any of those 22, and increased his strikeout rate. Travis Lakins Sr. had more ups and downs, but used two scoreless innings Sunday to finish the year with a 2.81 ERA in 25⅔ innings, the most of any true reliever in the Orioles bullpen this year.

Shawn Armstrong missed nearly a month with a back injury, but struck out a batter per inning with a 0.80 WHIP and a 1.80 ERA when he was available. None of those three will garner the attention of the hard-throwers at the back of the bullpen, but the Orioles don’t keep as many games as close as they did without them.

What wasn’t?

At one point this season, Hyde was benching Chris Davis so he could have the designated hitter slot open for whichever of Severino and Chance Sisco wasn’t catching that day. That’s how good the Orioles catchers were swinging the bat this year.

Thirty games into the season, Severino had a .981 OPS, and Sisco wasn’t far behind at .962. Both fell off completely in the second half, with Severino finishing the year batting .250 with a .710 OPS and Sisco at .214 with a .741 OPS.

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When the team was playing well early in the season, both got plenty of credit for their work at and behind the plate. Their individual problems, including some simply careless catching behind the plate for Severino, mean the Orioles will have to go through another offseason of wondering exactly what they have in them.

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On the farm

The Orioles had stellar debuts across the board in 2020, but one that would have happened in a normal year simply didn’t. Elias said outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the centerpiece of the July 2018 trade that sent Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers, “could have and probably would have come up and debuted this year and been ready to” if the outfield wasn’t so crowded with Stewart and Mountcastle at the corners and Hays and Mullins in center field.

When the summer began, Elias and director of player development Matt Blood said Diaz would be challenged on his swing decisions and defense in a similar way Mountcastle was at the Bowie site. Elias said Diaz, who will be added to the 40-man roster this offseason to keep him away from the Rule 5 draft, came out of that camp better than he came in.

“I continue to be a big believer in him,” Elias said. “He looked good in Bowie, he drew a lot of walks, hit a lot of homers, defense looks great. I think he’s somebody who’s going to be able to help us in all three outfield spots.”

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