Wednesday night’s series finale for the Orioles in Houston not only ends a three-week stretch without a day off, but also delivers them to the season’s mathematical midpoint as their 81st game of the 162-game schedule.
At 26-54, the worst record in the American League, things often haven’t gone well for the collective. There are players who are shining through, and players who are contributing to the losing in undesired ways.
Through the Orioles’ first 80 games of the season, here’s a breakdown of the players who have seen their stock rise, the players who have stayed static and the players who have dipped the most:
Center fielder Cedric Mullins
If Mullins’ career was an actual stock, those who stuck with him when he went all the way down to Double-A Bowie in 2019 would be flush at the moment. Mullins entered Tuesday night’s game as one of the league’s top players with 3.3 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, ranking eighth among all position players in baseball.
For comparison’s sake, only four Orioles players in the past five years have had a WAR higher that Mullins’ right now in what amounts to a half-season in a full season: Manny Machado (6.3 WAR in 2016), Jonathan Villar (4.1 WAR in 2019), Jonathan Schoop (3.7 WAR in 2017) and Trey Mancini (3.7 WAR in 2019).
Mullins entered the season ostensibly in a center field competition with Austin Hays, and is a shoo-in to be an All-Star. Not many people can claim those kinds of rises in a given year, and Mullins has his decision to abandon switch-hitting and just bat left-handed to credit for that.
Left fielder/designated hitter Ryan Mountcastle
The Orioles’ faith in Mountcastle after a miserable April has been rewarded, and where he is approaching the halfway mark of the season only speaks to how good he’s been since the beginning of May.
He entered Tuesday with a .925 OPS and 13 home runs since May 1, with a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 151, essentially making him 51% more productive than the league average. In April, he had a .515 OPS and a wRC+ of 40, meaning he was considerably worse than league average.
What matters for the Orioles, though, is that he’s navigated whatever was ailing him and is back to profiling as the consistent middle-of-the-order bat that he was billed as when he arrived in the big leagues last summer. It would be helpful if he could play left field better than he does, but that was more troubling when he wasn’t hitting than it is now.
Left-hander John Means
Means was one of the game’s top pitchers in the first two months of the season, as evidenced by his May 5 no-hitter in Seattle. But the shoulder injury that has kept him out for the past three-plus weeks, his third in as many years, does a lot to weigh down a two-month stretch in which he had a 2.28 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP in 12 starts.
Still, even with a legitimate concern that he might not be a 30-start pitcher every year, Means has been dominant when healthy. If he can come back as the same pitcher after the All-Star break, the Orioles will be thrilled on a lot of levels.
First baseman Trey Mancini
In speaking about his upcoming Home Run Derby appearance Tuesday, Mancini noted that both his productive periods at the plate and his slumps are lasting longer this season, and it’s resulted in an uneven year. He’s batting .258 with a .789 OPS and 14 home runs, and that’s essentially with just one month of being the best version of himself.
Still, Mancini isn’t a materially different player than he was before he missed the 2020 season for treatment for stage 3 colon cancer. He’s still a crucial part of the Orioles’ lineup — and potentially their future — and nothing short of an absolutely disastrous first half was going to change the esteem anyone holds him in.
Outfielder Austin Hays
There’s always been plenty of talent and loads of tools with Hays, but over the past four seasons, there’s often been something physical to get in the way of that. Hays has done plenty to address it in how he prepares, and with good reason: he’s quite a productive player when he is healthy.
He’s batting .245 with a .716 OPS and seven home runs with essentially league-average production and good defense around some spells on the shelf with hamstring injuries, and as he gets farther away from the most recent ailment, he’s grown more productive. This version of Hays is one that impacts the game in a lot of ways. It just remains to be seen how often he can do that.
Outfielder DJ Stewart
When every one of the Orioles’ corner outfielders is available, someone was always going to be the odd-man out. Right now, that’s Stewart. His scalding September last year raised expectations that there was a true on-base and power threat there, but the consistent power hasn’t materialized this year. Also, his outfield defense hasn’t been at a level that has allowed the Orioles to run him out there every day and figure it out at the plate.
He had ample time in right field while Hays and Anthony Santander had their spells on the injured list, but now that everyone is back and Ryan McKenna is on the roster as well, he’s found himself without a chair. That can always change, as things do quickly and frequently where the Orioles outfield is concerned. But with prospect Yusniel Diaz on the horizon and some of the outfielders brought in by the new front office already in Double-A, it would be best not to wait too long.
Third baseman Maikel Franco
Everyone hit in Tuesday’s game in Houston, Franco included, but he sat out Monday because of how much he was scuffling. He’s batting. 213 with a .630 OPS and nine home runs and is worth 0.1 WAR, according to FanGraphs.
The Orioles’ infield is an area that badly needs an infusion of young talent, and there’s much more of it on the long-term horizon than the short-term. But until then, it will come down to players like Franco to show they’re better than whatever caused them to end up with this team. Franco has this year in spurts but he’s struggled to do it consistently.
Right-hander Dean Kremer
It’s been a tumultuous year for all of the Orioles’ young starters, including Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann and Zac Lowther, but none have had a tougher go than Kremer. The young right-hander is on his third minor league assignment, and this one seems like it might be a long one as the Orioles try to get him to consistently attack with his pitches and develop the right mindset.
The latter, for whatever reason, has been an issue for Kremer since his first outing of the spring, when he said he wasn’t locked in and never really found his mojo. Several of Kremer’s starts this year have featured bumpy first innings that required him to knuckle down and use his stuff to get hitters out efficiently. He often does once that switch flips.
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Still, it’s a concern to have such a switch at all. He was among the Orioles’ top pitching prospects entering this season because he has several major league quality pitches and can go deep in games with them. Whatever’s causing him to struggle seems to be a pretty big anchor he’ll have to shed.