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Three up, three down: Which Orioles took the biggest steps forward, back during 2021 season?

Much of the focus at the major league level during the early stages of this Orioles rebuild has been to see which players established themselves as pieces to be part of the next contending team in Baltimore.

Throughout 2021, some players further solidified that potential, while others who seemed to be trending that direction instead went the opposite. With the season complete, here are three who landed in each pool.

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Three up

Center fielder Cedric Mullins

The most apparent member of this category, Mullins had what Orioles manager Brandon Hyde classified as the best breakout season he’s ever seen. It’s a well-worn story at this point: Mullins opened 2019 as the Opening Day center fielder then ended the season in Double-A. He began 2020 in the majors, struggled more, then finally found his footing. But even entering this season, his decision to abandon switch-hitting seemed to foretell a platoon role in center field.

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Instead, he was the best player at that position in the majors. He recorded the Orioles’ first 30-30 season (30 home runs, 30 steals), with that home run total representing more than double any tally he put up in the minors. He was the American League’s All-Star starter in center and the unanimous Most Valuable Oriole. He turned 27 last month and still has one more season before reaching arbitration eligibility. If anyone established themselves as part of the Orioles’ future this season, it’s Mullins.

The Orioles' Ramón Urías led all qualified AL rookies in on-base percentage while also ranking third among Baltimore’s position players in both versions of Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
The Orioles' Ramón Urías led all qualified AL rookies in on-base percentage while also ranking third among Baltimore’s position players in both versions of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) (Julio Cortez/AP)

Infielder Ramón Urías

While Ryan Mountcastle hit 33 homers to set himself up for a strong finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting, Urías led all qualified AL rookies in on-base percentage while also ranking third among Baltimore’s position players in both versions of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) behind Mullins and outfielder Austin Hays (who deserves an honorable mention here).

Despite spending a good portion of the season either in the minor leagues or dealing with a nagging groin injury, Urías, 27, showed there’s a role to be had for him in the future. He posted a .790 OPS after shortstop Freddy Galvis was traded, and thanks to playing second, third and short, he showed he could at the very least be a utility infielder on the next good Orioles team while playing regularly for the time being.

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Right-hander Tyler Wells

When Wells made his Orioles debut, he did so as a rookie right-hander who hadn’t pitched in two years, was left off the Minnesota Twins’ 40-man roster and was still available to Baltimore in the second round of the Rule 5 draft after they took another righty, Mac Sceroler, in the first. Wells opened the year in mop-up duty, but his knack for pounding the strike zone led to more significant opportunities, with Hyde eventually electing to use him in the closer’s role.

From the beginning of June, Wells had a 3.28 ERA, limited opponents to a .471 OPS and walked only 3% of the batters he faced — the fourth-lowest rate of any pitcher with at least 30 innings in that span. The Orioles didn’t get him many leads to protect, and he didn’t always finish the job, but Wells showed a mindset and approach that’s deserving of such a prominent role.

Three down

Right-hander Dean Kremer

That Wells is the rookie pitcher featured above speaks to how poorly Kremer and the other young arms who entered this year among the organization’s top prospects performed. Kremer, though, took the biggest drop of that group.

Part of the trade package from the Los Angeles Dodgers for star Manny Machado, Kremer, 25, rarely managed to recapture the major league success he had in 2020 and made only one start with Baltimore in the second half after the Orioles elected to give him an extended reset in Triple-A. He ended the season with a 7.55 ERA, while his fielding-independent pitching — which considers only factors pitchers can control such as strikeouts, walks and home runs — was 6.99, suggesting many of his issues were on him rather than bad luck. Hyde believes his pitch mix is still that of a major league starter, but in 2021, he was unable to show he could consistently handle that role.

In his final 26 appearances, Orioles relief pitcher Paul Fry had an 11.05 ERA, served up three home runs and walked 23 batters in 22 innings.
In his final 26 appearances, Orioles relief pitcher Paul Fry had an 11.05 ERA, served up three home runs and walked 23 batters in 22 innings. (Will Newton/AP)

Left-hander Paul Fry

Fry, 29, was one of baseball’s best left-handed relievers in the first half and entered the trade deadline as one of the Orioles’ most valuable pieces. Instead, he imploded and ended the season in Triple-A.

In Fry’s first 26 outings of 2021, he had a 1.78 ERA, allowed one extra-base hit and no home runs, and issued 12 walks in 25 1/3 innings. In his final 26 appearances, he had an 11.05 ERA, served up three home runs and walked 23 batters in 22 innings. He then spent a month in Triple-A, where he posted a 7.88 ERA with nine walks in eight innings.

Eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, Fry went from being one of Hyde’s go-to leverage relievers to possibly off the roster.

“I’m hoping he comes into spring training lights out like he was the first half for us, which I think that’s the pitcher he is,” Hyde said.

Outfielder Anthony Santander

It’s unclear what the Orioles actually have in Santander. The 26-year-old hit 20 home runs in a little more than half a season in 2019 before taking a star turn in the shortened 2020 season, doing enough before a season-ending oblique injury to earn Most Valuable Oriole honors. But that performance came in less than a fourth of a traditional season, and he struggled through most of 2021 as he dealt with a series of lower-body injuries.

Among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances over the past three years, Santander has the 10th-lowest walk rate (5.2%) and seventh-lowest on-base percentage (.295). His OPS+, which accounts for league and ballpark factors, is 102; the average is 100.

Santander entered 2021 as a player locked into the center of Baltimore’s lineup, and although Hyde believes he’s more of the player he was last year than this one, it’s clear he took a step back.

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