The most unusual and fast-changing 2020 season will finally get underway Friday night, nearly four months after it was scheduled to begin.
Predictions in 2020 are even more meaningless than usual because in the last few days we learned that the Toronto Blue Jays could make Baltimore their temporary home for the year, and that eight teams in each league will qualify for the postseason.
The three-week run-up to a season like none other has been fairly smooth. The Orioles will begin with both players who tested positive for the coronavirus, outfielders Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr., available. However, pitchers John Means, who was supposed to start Friday night against the Red Sox in Boston, and Hunter Harvey will start the season on the injured list.
The Orioles also will play the 60-game season without their best player. Outfielder/first baseman Trey Mancini is rehabilitating after colon cancer surgery on March 12, the day spring training ended.
The season will be played entirely in the Eastern time zone and primarily at night. Besides Sunday afternoon games, just four games, including Saturday’s, will be in the daytime.
There will be new rules. Extra innings will begin with a runner on second. The designated hitter is mandatory in both leagues. And there will be a three-batter minimum for new pitchers—unless they finish an inning.
Eight of the 30 players on the Orioles’ roster are new, including a surprise replacement for Means as the opening night pitcher, Tommy Milone.
Wade LeBlanc, who will start the third game of the season, relievers Travis Lakins, Kohl Stewart and Cole Sulser are also new to the organization, as are infielders José Iglesias, Pat Valaika and Andrew Velázquez.
At 35, LeBlanc is the oldest player on the team. At 24, centerfielder Austin Hays is the youngest and represents the promise of a brighter future for a team that went 54-108 last season and 47-115 in 2018.
Iglesias, who will replace Jonathan Villar at shortstop, had a strong spring training and an impressive summer camp. He’s impressed by what he sees on the field.
“It’s very talented,” Iglesias said. “We are. I love how the guys play the game. They want to get better. They’re hungry to prove they can, each and every day.”
Milone, Alex Cobb and LeBlanc start the first three games. Asher Wojciechowski will be in the rotation and Means might be back by next week.
“I see a lot of potential in everybody that’s there,” Milone said. “We have a lot of people that can contribute, and I think we’re going to surprise some people and win some ballgames.”
Oddsmaker BetOnline has the Orioles with the lowest win total in the majors, 20 ½, and assigned them 80/1 odds to win the American League East.
With just 60 games, there’s less margin for a long losing streak. Playing 40 games against the American League East and 20 against the National League East will be an immense challenge.
Hanser Alberto, who batted .305 last season and, along with Means, was an unexpected surprise, is optimistic.
“I think we are more mature,” Alberto said. “We now can handle stuff better, and I think our mentality is different right now. I think we learned from last year and we are more together. I think our chemistry is better, so that gives us more confidence.”
Hays probably will lead off, and Alberto and Iglesias will provide contact. The Orioles will miss Mancini, who led the team with 35 home runs, 97 RBIs, a .291 average and an .899 OPS.
They’ll also miss Villar, who hit for power with 24 homers and 73 RBIs and stole a team-high 40 bases.
“Trey’s an enormous loss,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Trey Mancini is a middle-of-the-order hitter, one of the better middle-of-the-order hitters in the American League.
“Jonathan Vilar ignited us offensively, won some games for us with his bat and his legs. That’s going to be tough to replace, but I think our guys can improve and have improved. Then you add in Jose Iglesias. He’s incredibly steady, and he’s always going to give you a bat. He’s a veteran presence.”
At 33, Richard Bleier is one of the team’s oldest players and part of a 2019 bullpen that had an awful 5.79 ERA.
“We have a crazy amount of weapons in the bullpen, it seems, when everyone is pitching as well as they can,” Bleier said.
“We saw flashes from everyone that was on the team last year at what they’re capable of doing and why they’re in the big leagues, and I’m hoping guys take that step forward and turn those flashes into consistency, including myself. I think we’ll go back to being a strong bullpen unit like Baltimore’s known for.”
Third baseman Rio Ruiz is also anticipating a better 2020.
“Absolutely. I think everybody’s gotten confidence, and they’re ready to go,” Ruiz said. “The experience that everybody gained last year, they carried it into spring. We played really well in spring, and we carried it over here.”