Five weeks and 31 games remain in the Orioles’ 2019 schedule. And while the rebuilding club is plodding toward another 100-loss campaign, there are still interesting storylines to watch as the season winds to a close.
- Does Chris Davis have a role anymore?
When the Orioles signed Davis to a club-record, seven-year, $161 million deal in January 2016, they probably didn’t expect he’d be reduced to a benchwarmer halfway through the contract. During the just-completed homestand, though, Davis spent more time delivering the lineup cards to the umpires than being listed on them. He started only two of the seven games, going 0-for-7, and also had a hitless pinch-hit appearance.
Manager Brandon Hyde said Thursday that Davis’ playing time will be limited for the rest of the season. It’s a decision the Orioles had little choice but to make. Their new analytics-oriented administration this season has had no more success fixing Davis than the previous regime did. Davis is hitting .173 with a .566 OPS this year, coming off a historically bad .168/.539 performance in 2018. Since July 22, he’s 6-for-57 (.105).
It’s clear that Davis is a poor fit for a rebuilding club, and he’ll likely continue to be pushed further toward the periphery. This offseason, they’ll need to contemplate his future with the organization. But with three years and more than $90 million remaining on the 33-year-old’s contract (including deferred payments through 2037), will Orioles ownership be willing to part ways with Davis and eat the money?
- Will any young players step up in September?
The first year of the Orioles’ rebuild has offered plenty of opportunities, as the Mike Elias regime evaluates which players could be part of the future and which won’t. So far, several have stepped up to cement a place for themselves in the club’s plans. Rookie left-hander John Means, 26, transformed from a long shot Opening Day roster survivor into an All-Star starter. Fellow 26-year-old Hanser Alberto, who was waived four times this past offseason, holds the best batting average in the majors against left-handed pitchers, graduating from utility infielder to a frequent starter. Former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander, 24, has emerged as a middle-of-the-order slugger while improving his outfield defense.
During the final five weeks, other young players will have the chance to make a good impression. Some, including former first-round picks Hunter Harvey and DJ Stewart, have gotten a head start. The 24-year-old Harvey overcame years of injuries to finally make his MLB debut earlier this month, and he’s impressed with his 100-mph gas as a reliever. Stewart, 25, who’s suffered fluky injuries of his own this season, is heating up at the plate with 11 hits in his last seven games.
They could be joined by possible September call-ups such as 24-year-old Austin Hays, the Orioles’ No. 6 prospect, who is still looking to realize the potential he showed during a fantastic 2017 season, and enigmatic lefty Tanner Scott, who flashes excellent stuff but has had trouble commanding it. A strong late-season showing could help them make an early bid for a 2020 roster spot.
- What other records for pitching futility will the Orioles break?
On Thursday, the Orioles broke the record they’d been barreling toward for months, serving up their 259th home run of the season, the most in major league history. They’ve surrendered three more blasts since then and have another 31 games to extend the record.
It’s not the only ignominious pitching record the Orioles will set this season, at least for the franchise. The club owns a 5.93 ERA, and will almost certainly finish the season with the worst mark in Baltimore history unless it can shave off nearly 60 points in the final five weeks (the record is 5.37 by the 2000 Orioles). Assuming the Orioles pitch roughly 279 more innings this year — nine for every game remaining — they’d have to pitch to a 3.39 ERA for the rest of the season to avoid the record. That seems a tall order for a team that has posted an ERA of 5.28 or worse in every month of 2019. (For what it’s worth, the Orioles aren’t in much danger of setting a modern MLB record for worst ERA. That distinction belongs to the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, who had a 6.71 mark.)
Assuming the Orioles allow more than 105 earned runs, they’d also break the 2000 Orioles’ franchise record in that category (855). And it’s not out of the question they could set an Orioles record for hits allowed. With 1,258 this year, they’re 376 away from the high mark of 1,633, set by the 2009 Orioles. To break that record, the Orioles would need to allow an average of 12.1 hits per game for the rest of the season. They’re averaging 9.6 per game, so it’s unlikely, but not impossible.
- Can John Means make a bid for the AL Rookie of the Year award?
It’s been a tale of two halves for Means, the Orioles’ de facto ace. Before the All-Star break, Means went 7-4 with a 2.50 ERA, a 1.077 WHIP and 3.14 strikeouts for every walk. In his 14 starts, only once did he allow more than three earned runs. He held his opponents to one or fewer in nine of those starts. Buoyed by an All-Star selection, Means was a front-runner for Rookie of the Year honors.
The second half has been a different story. In his first six starts after the break — interrupted by a stint on the injured list with a left bicep strain — Means threw just one quality start, and three times was tagged for four or more earned runs. He was chased before four innings in three straight outings, something he hadn’t done since his first major league start. All told, Means is 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA in seven second-half starts. Still, he flashed his first-half form in his most recent outing, a seven-inning gem against the Rays on Saturday, before being placed on the family medical emergency list.
Does Means — who is 9-9 with a 3.61 ERA overall — still have a shot at Rookie of the Year? It’s possible. According to Baseball Reference, Means’ 3.3 Wins Above Replacement is the best mark among American League rookies, leading Rays infielder Brandon Lowe (2.8), who will miss the rest of the season with a left quadriceps strain. Houston Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez ranks third at 2.6. FanGraphs’ version of WAR, however, places Means third among AL rookies with 2.2, behind Alvarez (2.6) and Lowe (2.5).
A return to form in the second half would help Means make a strong case for the award. However, the bet here is that he’ll finish behind Alvarez, who has already collected 19 homers, 58 RBIs, a .322 average and 1.090 OPS in 59 games for the first-place Astros.
- Will the Orioles finish with the worst record in baseball — and the 2020 No. 1 draft pick?
For much of the season, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that the Orioles would end up with baseball’s worst record in 2019, earning them the top overall pick in the 2020 amateur draft. On July 2, the Orioles had 61 losses — four more than any other team — and were 4 1/2 games worse in the standings than the next worst club.
Since then, though, another team has fallen into the league’s basement: the Detroit Tigers, who won only five games apiece in June and July and are 39-89. They’re 2 1/2 games worse than the 43-88 Orioles. Also within spitting distance are the Kansas City Royals (46-85), who are three games better than Baltimore.
Examining the clubs’ remaining schedules, the Tigers won’t have many opportunities to rip off a winning streak. Twenty of their last 34 games are against teams above .500, including the resumption of a suspended game against Oakland that they were trailing 5-3 in the seventh inning. The Royals, too, have a tough schedule, with 19 of 31 remaining games coming against winning opponents. The Orioles, by contrast, will face above-.500 clubs in only 11 of their last 31 games.
The Orioles, Tigers and Royals each have one remaining series against each other, so there could still be some jockeying between them (not that they’ll be trying to lose, of course). Right now, Detroit seems to have the upper hand for next year’s No. 1 pick, but the Orioles surely wouldn’t be too upset to settle for No. 2 or 3.