The pandemic that’s about to shorten the 2020 season won’t help anyone. It might hurt the Orioles more than any other team.
Every team is used to judging its players on a 162-game season, but that possibility ended this week when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned against crowds of more than 50 over the next eight weeks.
The season is frozen, and guesswork is everywhere.
Let’s say the season began in late May or early June. The roster that begins the season would consist of players the team evaluated in February and March.
There would be another training period, but probably a short one. As eager as teams are to make up games, the training time might be as short as the 11 days left in the original spring training. Would general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde make their judgment on what they’d seen perhaps two months before?
Some of the top Orioles prospects who were with the team early in camp — Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Adley Rutschman — had already been sent to minor league camp when the suspension of activities began. Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle and Bruce Zimmermann remained, but wouldn’t start the season with the major league club.
The guess here is that a shortened season hurts a young, non-established club like the Orioles, and hands another advantage to a veteran club, say the New York Yankees.
Even if teams are allowed to play with a few extra players, at least initially, that could help a team with a deep talent system more than a developing one. The Yankees’ 27th and 28th players should be better than the Orioles’.
Last season, the Orioles had winning percentages of below .300 in April, May and June, and perked up somewhat the rest of the way, actually achieving a .500 July at 12-12, the first non-losing month since August 2017. Their August and September records weren’t great, but better than in the season’s first three months.
The Orioles had some better performances from Anthony Santander, Hunter Harvey and Austin Hays later in the season, but the team struggled early and ended up using a team-record 58 players.
Except for John Means, the team’s starting rotation was expected to be comprised of Alex Cobb, Wade LeBlanc, Asher Wojciechowski and perhaps Tommy Milone. It still might.
The Orioles were hoping that Cobb could return from two challenging years and establish a market value in the third season of his four-year contract. That has to wait.
If the season doesn’t begin until June 1, does Cobb have enough time to show a contender that he could help them? Even if the trade deadline is advanced past July 31, would a team give up much for Cobb or Mychal Givens with just a month or two of the season to base their judgment on?
Oriole fans hoped to be seeing Kremer, who showed well in 5 1/3 innings without an earned run this spring, late in the season. Zimmermann was scheduled to start the March 12 game at Fort Myers against Minnesota before spring training was halted.
Zimmermann, who was going to start so Cobb’s blister could be more closely monitored in a simulated game, had a 4.70 ERA in 7 2/3 innings, and struck out nine. He was likely going to be reassigned to minor league camp after his outing as Akin was two nights before.
Now, the plans for Akin, Kremer and Zimmermann must change. They’ll need to develop in Norfolk, especially Akin, who allowed 13 hits in 9 2/3 innings.
Elias won’t want to rush their ascension to the big leagues. If they were going to be promoted past the midway point of the 2020 season in late July, that would be earned on more than three months of play. He wouldn’t want to move a player to the big leagues based on a month or two in Triple-A.
Diaz, who has yet to play in Triple-A, had only 24 plate appearances because of a shoulder injury that delayed his spring debut.
Mountcastle is a different story. He started off well at the plate, but struggled later. The Orioles wanted to see him play a creditable left field and develop some plate discipline.
He still needs more reps in left, and in 34 plate appearances in Grapefruit League games, Mountcastle struck out nine times without drawing a walk.
Rutschman is probably going to begin the season at High-A Frederick. The delay most likely won’t change the Orioles’ plans for him, but last year’s overall No. 1 draft pick played in only 37 games.
Elias’ plans for Rutschman are a state secret, but a two-month delay in the minor league season might force him to spend more time with the Keys and less with Double-A Bowie in 2020, perhaps setting back his development temporarily.
Because amateur baseball is also on hold, the June draft might be held later in the summer, and that hurts the Orioles, too.
They have the second overall pick and could be choosing from among several players, some from high school and others from college. We can assume Elias and top scouts have seen the candidates play already, but since this year’s pick might be trickier than last year’s choice between Rustchman and Bobby Witt Jr., more information is helpful.
It’s true that all teams have to deal with the same handicaps, but the Orioles need their draft to be more fruitful than do the Yankees or Dodgers.
Last year, the Orioles traded Andrew Cashner in early July, but didn’t make any other deals. The Boston Red Sox, who acquired Cashner, had more than three months of looks at him. That same opportunity won’t be there for the Orioles this year.
These are all obstacles that Elias should be able to overcome, but fans hoping to see a quick move in the standings might have to be more patient than they were originally.
While fans can joke about a shorter schedule reducing the chances for the Orioles to lose 100 games, those 100 or 110 games played in 2020 are crucial to the Orioles’ rebuilding plans.