At the end of a Buck Showalter-managed season, he’d often remark that it was time for the Orioles’ players to pick their own friends because for eight months their friends were effectively picked for them.
As spring training nears, we’ll find out what general manger Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde think of some of the players that were picked for them by Showalter, and to a greater extent, former general manager Dan Duquette.
Elias has already eliminated some of Duquette’s players and more will be discarded in the coming weeks. Hyde has yet to offer opinions on the players he’ll be inheriting when spring training begins on Feb. 12.
Elias, in an email to season-ticket holders shortly after he was hired, lauded Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins, indicating that the team could build around them.
All four have shown promise, but what about those Elias didn’t name?
Ryan Mountcastle, Chance Sisco and DJ Stewart were all high draft picks by Duquette, and he tirelessly advocated for them.
Elias and Hyde have no ties to any of them, but because the team has so much invested in them, they’ll be looking closely this spring.
Mountcastle, who was the 36th overall pick in the 2015 draft, has yet to play in the majors. In fact, Mountcastle has yet to even play Triple-A, which he’s likely to do this season.
Drafted as a shortstop, moved to third base in 2017, Mountcastle remains an unknown defensively. Despite pleas from the Orioles’ minor league staff, Duquette refused to move Mountcastle from the left side of the infield.
His bat is less of a concern, though Showalter made it a point to remind Mountcastle, and to repeat to reporters that he’d walked just 17 times in 127 games for High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2017. That wasn’t going to cut it, Showalter said.
Last year, Mountcastle, who missed the start of the season because of a broken right hand, improved somewhat. In 102 games for the Baysox, Mountcastle walked 26 times and had a .341 on-base percentage to go with a .297 batting average.
The Orioles need to decide on a position for Mountcastle, whether it’s first, the outfield or designated hitter.
Stewart was taken 11 spots ahead of Mountcastle, as the 25th overall pick in 2015, and had an erratic minor league career. He hit just .250 but had a .351 OBP.
He was elevated to the majors last September and despite a rough start (0-for-13), ended up with a .250 average, .340 OBP and three homers with 10 RBIs in 17 games.
It would be a plus for the Orioles if Stewart could capture an everyday outfield job in spring training, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for Elias to acquire a veteran and send Stewart back to Triple-A Norfolk for more work.
The decision for Elias and Hyde on Sisco is trickier.
Sisco, the second-round pick in 2013, had a strong minor league career with a .386 OBP. That excited Duquette, who insisted that Sisco was ready to catch in the big leagues. A strong offensive spring training a year ago seemed to support that.
But Sisco’s 2018 was a disaster.
He hit just .181 and was twice sent back to Norfolk. From July 1 to the end of the season, Sisco was just 2-for-33, and his defense went south, too.
After throwing out nine of his first 18 basestealers, Sisco allowed 20 of his final 24 runners to steal successfully.
At the beginning of last season, the Orioles felt confident about their catching with Sisco, Caleb Joseph and Austin Wynns.
Joseph was non-tendered and is still looking for a spot, Wynns performed creditably, throwing out 32 percent of runners trying to steal, and Sisco reverted.
However, not all was lost. Two of the pitchers who are expected to be among the Orioles’ top starters performed well when Sisco was catching.
Bundy, who had a 5.45 ERA in 2018, had an ERA more than three runs better (2.36) in the six games Sisco caught for him, and Andrew Cashner, whose ERA was 5.29, had an ERA less than half that (2.55) in the four games he threw to Sisco.
On the other hand, Alex Cobb had a frightful 10.52 ERA in the seven games he pitched when Sisco was behind the plate, more than double his 4.90 ERA.
The Orioles are trying to accumulate catchers. While Sisco and Wynns are back, and it’s still possible Joseph could be, they have at least three others likely coming to spring training.
Carlos Perez, a strong defensive catcher recently signed to a minor league contract, and Martin Cervenka, who improved dramatically at Bowie, are coming to major league camp. Andrew Susac, who was recently outrighted to Norfolk, could be around, too.
But it’s Sisco who will draw the most attention.
Elias and Hyde would love it if Sisco could prove he’s a major league catcher, but even the regular tutelage of former bench John Russell, who worked with him in 2017 and 2018, couldn’t elevate him.
Russell is gone now, and Tim Cossins, who Hyde will bring from the Chicago Cubs, will try to work with Sisco.
Mountcastle, Sisco and Stewart might find it easier to perform now that the pressure of being one of the previous regime’s favorites is gone. Or the new regime could decide that they never deserved that attention.
Because Elias didn’t bring them into the organization, they won’t be given a pass, though they’re likely to get extended looks.
Watching what happens with those three is going to be an intriguing storyline in the first spring training with the Orioles for Elias and Hyde.