After the first three weeks, the Orioles have an 8-12 record. That projects to just under 100 losses, which many would consider a success after the 115-loss season in 2018.
The early part of the season has been a relative joyride, especially since the Orioles played 17 of their first 20 against New York, Boston, Tampa Bay and Oakland.
However, there are many challenges ahead, and the problems are difficult in some areas.
Take Cedric Mullins. The Orioles’ centerfielder, who impressed with his maturity in the final weeks of the 2018 season, has struggled more at the plate in 2019 than Chris Davis.
Davis has five hits in his last 13 at-bats — after starting 0-for-33 for a .109 average. Mullins is in a 1-for-32 slide that has dropped his average to .089. He appears overmatched at the plate but is playing a strong center field and contributed to Thursday’s 6-5, 11-inning win over Tampa Bay with a sliding catch in the 11th.
In most years, the Orioles might be thinking about a demotion for Mullins. But this year they don’t have an alternative in the minor leagues, at least not now. Mullins was not in the posted lineup for Friday’s game against Minnesota, which was rained out and will be made up as part of a doubleheader on Saturday, beginning at 4:05 p.m.
Joey Rickard, who has been playing center when Mullins doesn’t, isn’t considered a full-time centerfielder. He is a strong outfielder, however, and is coming off his best game with four hits, including the game-winner, against the Rays.
Austin Hays, who played well in spring training before he was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, sprained his left thumb sliding headfirst in a minor league game in Sarasota. He’s not close to being ready to play.
The Tides, who are 6-9, and were also rained out on Friday, have an offense that has been as punchless as the Orioles’. Both teams have .230 averages, and the Orioles’ .299 on-base percentage trails Norfolk’s .302.
During the spring, the Orioles seemed pleased with their core of young outfielders, but none has sparkled at either Norfolk or Double-A Bowie.
Anthony Santander, who had a strong spring, is hitting .255 with a .283 OBP in 15 games. He has a homer and eight RBIs.
DJ Stewart, who was removed quickly from major league camp, is hitting .245 with three home runs and five RBIs, but does have 10 walks for a .383 OBP.
Stewart, a left-handed hitter, has been playing the corner outfield spots at Norfolk and has limited experience in center.
Norfolk has been playing Mason Williams in center, but he’s hitting just .213 with a .316 OBP. Williams is a left-handed hitter and had a .293 average in 51 games for Cincinnati last season. Unless Williams begins to hit, it would seem unlikely that the Orioles would add him while demoting Mullins.
The situation isn’t any better at Bowie, where the Baysox have lost 11 of 14.
Yusniel Diaz, the headliner among the five players the Orioles received from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Manny Machado last July, has again struggled in Double-A.
Diaz is hitting .231 with a homer and seven RBIs. Ryan McKenna, who had an impressive first half last season for High-A Frederick, has again failed to produce in Double-A. McKenna has a .208 average in 13 games.
The demotion to Norfolk of catcher Chance Sisco also surprised some after his strong spring, as the Orioles decided to have Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino handle the catching.
General manager Mike Elias explained that he wanted to see Sisco and the others who were demoted have sustained success in the minors before they returned to the Orioles.
Sisco is hitting just .163 in 11 games and has allowed five of six baserunners to steal.
There were also questions about the Orioles decision to keep Mike Wright, who has allowed 15 hits in 10 innings and has a 9.00 ERA.
However, the minor league relief alternatives to Wright aren’t appealing. Cody Carroll has yet to pitch because of an injured back. The only other pure reliever on the 40-man roster, Branden Kline, has an 8.53 ERA in his first five Triple-A games.
Some of Norfolk’s starting pitchers have shown promise. Yefry Ramirez hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts, and Keegan Akin, new to Triple-A this year, has a 3.95 ERA in three starts.
Akin, who isn’t on the 40-man roster, needs more seasoning at Norfolk but appears to be a candidate for a call-up in the coming months.
Luis Ortiz, who was obtained from Milwaukee in the Jonathan Schoop trade, has a 4.76 ERA in three starts. Josh Rogers, who pitched once for the Orioles this season, has a 9.00 ERA in two starts.
Carroll, Rogers and Dillon Tate were obtained from the New York Yankees last July for Zack Britton. Tate, who was the centerpiece of that deal, is having an awful time at Bowie. Tate, who had a 5.75 ERA in seven starts for the Baysox last season, has a 10.29 ERA this year.
When Elias took over the Orioles, he said that he thought the minor league prospects were enough to work with, and that he had a favorable view of the trades that his predecessor, Dan Duquette, engineered at the trading deadline.
It’s clear that Elias was being kind, and that other than Jonathan Villar — who came with Ortiz and reliever Evan Phillips in the trade with Atlanta for Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day — those deals have provided little immediate help.
To be fair, reliever Zach Pop, who came with Diaz, has been excellent with Bowie. Pop has thrown 6 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits. Starter Dean Kremer, another piece in the Machado trade, led the minor leagues in strikeouts last year but has yet to pitch in 2019 because of an oblique injury.
Infielder Rylan Bannon, who was considered a throw-in in the Machado trade, has a .302 average for the Baysox.
Two of the best Oriole prospects, starting pitchers DL Hall (Frederick) and Grayson Rodriguez (Low-A Delmarva), are likely a year or two from helping the major league team.
Elias has been resourceful in signing minor league players, making waiver claims and using the Rule 5 draft.
His stated goal of boosting the talent level in the system will be augmented in the June draft, where the Orioles have the first pick.
If the alternatives in the minor leagues continue to underperform, Elias might have to trade in July to add players who are major league ready.
For the next three months, Elias will continue to add major league players at the margins and scout other teams’ minor league systems to see whom he might be able to obtain in July.
He’ll have to decide which Orioles have enough value for him to consider trading.