Don’t count out the Norfolk Tides just yet.
The Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, after starting the season 9-16, has found a groove. The Tides have won seven of their last 10 games, climbing within three games of .500.
Norfolk’s pitching has remained a challenge. The club has a 5.19 ERA, fifth-worst in the 14-team International League. Among starting pitching prospects, lefty Keegan Akin (1-1, 4.24 ERA in seven starts) hasn’t distinguished himself, and right-hander Luis Ortiz (1-3, 6.31) has struggled. In the bullpen, the only ERA better than 3.00 belongs to journeyman lefty Sean Gilmartin (2.61). Left-handed prospect Luis Rodriguez has a 10.50 mark in a team-high 12 appearances. It’s hard to find any Tides pitchers worthy of an extended look in the majors right now.
The offense, though, is another story.
The Tides’ bats have sparked the club’s recent turnaround. Norfolk scored a season-high 16 runs in a win over Louisville on April 26, and since then, the team has scored four or more runs in 13 of its 14 games. That included a wild, 20-hit performance against Charlotte on May 4 in which the Tides scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth for a walkoff victory.
A number of Norfolk batters have gone on a hitting spree in recent weeks. Five hitters in particular have stood out as possible candidates for a promotion to the Orioles. Let’s take a look at the case for and against each one.
Stats: .254 BA/.327 OBP/.429 SLG, 2 HRs, 6 RBIs
The case for a call-up: The Orioles haven’t found a center field solution since they demoted Mullins to the minors April 22. Joey Rickard took a crack at the job but hasn’t delivered offensively, batting .196. Stevie Wilkerson has held his own at the plate but isn’t a long-term answer in center, where he played just two minor league games before auditioning in the majors. Mullins is the most capable, MLB-ready defensive centerfielder in the Orioles’ system, and his solid showing at the plate — he’s reached base in all but two of his 15 Norfolk games so far — indicates he might be finding his swing.
The case against: It’s hard to overlook the hitting stats Mullins posted before his demotion. The Orioles’ Opening Day centerfielder went just 6-for-64 (.094) with two extra-base hits, both triples, and looked overmatched by major league pitching. His slump stretched back longer than that, though. In spring training, he batted .151 in 17 games, and in September 2018, he hit .187 with a .512 OPS. Mullins hasn’t hit well in an Orioles uniform since his his first few weeks as a big leaguer last August.
Verdict: Don’t call him up yet. The Orioles should let Mullins, 24, get into a more consistent groove instead of yo-yoing him back to the majors barely three weeks after they sent him there. There’s still more for Mullins to work on in the minors, such as trying to improve his performance as a right-handed batter, where he’s batting just .133 in his major league career. The Orioles may decide that Mullins needs to abandon switch-hitting and bat only from the left side, but that’s a determination they should make before he returns to the bigs.
Stats: .276/.360/.839, 5 HRs, 19 RBIs
The case for a call-up: Williams’ name might be unfamiliar to many Orioles fans, but the minor league outfielder has opened eyes in his first year in the organization. The former New York Yankee and Cincinnati Red, signed as a minor league free agent March 28, ranks in the Tides’ top four in OBP, SLG and OPS. Williams is a natural centerfielder, having played 644 games there across all professional levels, so he could potentially plug the Orioles’ hole at that position.
The case against: Williams isn’t on the 40-man roster, so the Orioles would have to find a way to make room for him. There are a few players on the fringes of the roster who could be jettisoned, but is it worth losing a player from the organization to add Williams, who might not be much of an upgrade over Rickard or Wilkerson? At 27, Williams isn’t a washed-up veteran, but he hasn’t fulfilled the potential that made him MLB Pipeline’s No. 75 prospect in baseball in 2014.
Verdict: Call him up. Williams is the right type of player to fill a roster spot in a rebuilding year. He’s not a highly touted prospect who’s going to be a key part of the next winning team, but he’s an inexpensive role player who’s young enough to contribute. The switch-hitting Williams could soak up some starts in center field until Mullins or the rehabbing Austin Hays is ready to claim the spot.
Stats: .319/.347/.500, 5 HRs, 23 RBIs
The case for a call-up: The 22-year-old Mountcastle is the most prominent name in the Norfolk lineup. Ranked the No. 2 prospect in the organization by Baseball Prospectus, MLB Pipeline and my colleague Dean Jones Jr., Mountcastle is considered a potential impact bat in the major leagues. He’s showing off that offensive potential in his first year of Triple-A, leading the Tides in batting average and ranking second in SLG and third in OPS. His offense seems major league ready and he figures to be a key part of the Orioles’ future, so it would make sense to bring him up and inject some excitement into the club’s lineup.
The case against: As promising as Mountcastle looks at the plate, he’s a work in progress in the field. Mountcastle’s iffy defense has already prompted the Orioles to shift him from two positions: shortstop, which he played from 2015-17, and third base, which he tried from 2017-18. The Mike Elias regime moved him to first base this spring, and that’s where he’s made 29 of his 33 starts in 2019. Mountcastle leads the Tides with five errors and could use more time to get comfortable at first base if that’s where he’s most likely to play in the bigs.
Verdict: Don’t call him up yet. While Mountcastle’s major league debut may be one of the most eagerly anticipated in recent Orioles history, the club shouldn’t be in a hurry to promote him. The 2019 season is a rebuilding year in which proper development of prospects takes priority over wins and losses. Mountcastle has only 34 games of Triple-A experience, and it’s not as if the Orioles desperately need his bat to spur them into a pennant race. Besides, his position is occupied by a player, Chris Davis, who has more than $100 million remaining on his contract and has hit well of late. Mountcastle will have his time, but it’s not now.
Stats: .259/.390/.500, 6 HRs, 22 RBIs
The case for a call-up: Stewart, perhaps more than any other player listed here, seems as close to a finished project as he’s going to get. The Orioles’ 2015 first-round pick has spent nearly 150 games with Norfolk dating back to last year, and he presented himself well in a 17-game audition with Baltimore in 2018, batting .250 with an .890 OPS and three home runs. And his stellar on-base skills — he leads Norfolk with a .390 OBP and 23 walks — could help an Orioles lineup that ranks second-to-last in the AL in OBP.
The case against: Right now, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious spot for Stewart, a corner outfielder, to play with the Orioles. Dwight Smith Jr. has locked down the everyday left field spot, and Trey Mancini is planted in right field while Renato Nunez serves as the designated hitter. Stewart might already be with the Orioles if he were capable of playing center field, but he’s manned that position just five times in his minor league career.
Verdict: Call him up. There’s not much left for Stewart, 25, to learn at the minor league level, and the Orioles can find a way to work his bat into the mix, perhaps as a pinch-hitter or as a platoon DH with the slumping Nunez (who is 1-for-31 in his last eight games). Even if Stewart’s most likely outcome in the majors is as a reserve outfielder/bench guy rather than an everyday player, the Orioles might as well start to find out.
Stats: .288/.383/.548, 7 HRs, 25 RBIs
The case for a call-up: After an ice-cold start at the plate, in which Sisco plateaued to a .188 average on April 27, the catcher has been blisteringly hot ever since. He’s gone 19-for-42 in his last 11 games, hitting seven home runs in that span and producing seven multi-RBI games. Sisco leads the team in homers, RBIs, SLG and OPS. The 24-year-old is reminding the Orioles what made him the organization’s top prospect as recently as two years ago.
The case against: As former manager Buck Showalter used to say of potential prospects, “How’s his defense?” Sisco has faced skepticism about his abilities behind the plate, and he hasn’t done much this season to fend off his detractors. Sisco has thrown out just nine percent (two of 22) of attempted base-stealers, his worst mark in any season so far. And his offense can’t be a considered a sure thing, either, considering his 2018 performance. After breaking camp with the Orioles that year, he batted .181 and struck out 66 times in 160 at-bats.
Verdict: Don’t call him up yet. The breakout of new Orioles catcher Pedro Severino, who is hitting well and throwing out baserunners at a league-best 70 percent rate, has lessened the need for Sisco in the majors. The Orioles can let him continue to develop his defense at Norfolk. Still, if he keeps up his hot hitting, look for Sisco to come up sometime this summer, perhaps in a time-sharing arrangement with Severino.