The season many thought wouldn’t be completed because of Covid-19 is over. As executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias inferred during his 25-minute session with the media on Saturday, it is hard for Oriole fans to feel happy about a losing record and failing to qualify for an expanded postseason.
With a rotation that included Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone and Asher Wojciechowski at the start,the Orioles finished the first third of the season with a 12-8 record.
Even though they had a 13-27 record in their final 40 games, there are reasons to feel positive.
If you extrapolate their winning percentage of .417 to a full 162-game season it equates to a 67-95 record in a year when many were fearing the worst.
“For the first 40 games, I thought we thought we played really well. We were right around a .500 club (19-21),” manager Brandon Hyde said. “They had the opportunity to win a handful of games more than that at that point, and then we ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw the last few weeks where we didn’t swing the bats really well and went through tough times offensively together. We just had a tough time getting out of that.”
Elias and Hyde inherited a team that lost 115 games in 2018. In their first year, they dropped 108, so there’s progress in the record.
Fans who saw the debuts of outfielder/first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and pitchers Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and Bruce Zimmermann are hoping for contention in 2021, but that’s wildly optimistic.
The good news is that the Orioles have added a number of players who will be on the team next season. They’ll be joined by other players who showed signs that they could be part of the next good Orioles group.
“I thought a lot of guys took a step forward from last year,” Hyde said.
Austin Hays, who missed a month because of a rib fracture and Cedric Mullins, who showed his defense, speed and hitting skills will be part of next year’s outfield class.
Tanner Scott’s relief work was stellar in his first full season in the major leagues and Dillon Tate showed flashes before his year ended in the season’s final week because of an injury to his pinky finger.
Hunter Harvey, whom the Orioles have waited patiently for, began the season on the injured list because of an elbow injury, and ended it with a 4.15 ERA in 8 2/3 innings after excelling late last season.
“We have some really good arms that have huge upside,” Hyde said of Scott and Harvey. “I’ll take my chances with those guys any day of the week because I really believe in their stuff, and I really believe in them as players and guys. I think they’re only going to improve. It’s going to be fun to watch going forward.”
The players who performed regularly for the first time in 2019 didn’t suffer a letdown. Even though rightfielder Anthony Santander missed the last 23 games because of an oblique injury, his power numbers and defense earned the Most Valuable Oriole award.
John Means struggled at the start after missing his Opening Day start because of arm fatigue and more time after the death of his father. But he rebounded and delivered four strong starts in September.
José Iglesias spent time on the injured list because of a quadriceps injury and missed three more games after his wrist was bruised when he was hit by a pitch. In the time he played, he had a team-leading .956 OPS and .373 batting average. The Orioles hold a $3.5 million option on Iglesias, and the shortstop is expected to return in 2021.
So should Trey Mancini, the Orioles’ best player in 2019 who missed the season after colon cancer surgery and chemotherapy.
Infielder Richie Martin’s absence after breaking a bone in his wrist was a surprisingly big loss. His solid play at shortstop could have helped when Iglesias was out.
Then, there are the question marks. Adley Rutschman isn’t going to be the Orioles’ catcher to begin 2021, and maybe not at all next season. Pedro Severino, who was hitting .325 on September 8, lost 75 points on his average and ended at .250 because of a 3-for-46 tailspin. His defense also suffered down the stretch.
Chance Sisco got to play an entire major league season for the first time, and his offense sputtered, too. He ended the season with a .214 average, although his defense improved.
DJ Stewart was hitless in his first 17 at-bats, hit six home runs in six games and finished at .193. He also struggled in the outfield.
“A lot of guys are disappointed in the last 20 games, and how they’re finishing up,” Hyde said before Sunday’s game. “That’s really them putting pressure on themselves, wishing they could have done more to help us in the last 20 games.”
The Orioles’ fielding also went south late in the season.
“I think as we started to struggle, swinging the bat, our defense wasn’t as good,” Hyde said. “We didn’t play as well the last few weeks as we did the first month of the season. I thought we played better team defense. I thought we made the routine play a lot more.
“I think the defense has fallen off the last few weeks, and I think that’s because of some frustration by our position players with the offensive frustration. I think that’s inexperience. That’s just not having a ton of veterans to help pick up the pieces.”
Since the Orioles don’t have any major league ready infielders in the high minors, Elias will be on the hunt for reinforcements, although Martin’s return will help. Perhaps he’ll search for another veteran catcher, although Bryan Holaday performed well in limited action.
Beginning 2021 with Means, Akin, Kremer, Zimmermann, Alex Cobb and Jorge López in a possible starting rotation appears to be a far better one than began 2020, but there will be difficult times for the young starters, too.
Kohl Stewart, who opted out for health reasons early in the season, could return and so could Thomas Eshelman, whose three wins tied him with Travis Lakins for the team lead.
Stewart and Eshelman could provide rotation and long relief depth, and Elias could go fishing in an uncertain free-agent market for more possible starters.
The bullpen was much better. Even beyond Scott and Tate, Paul Fry, who had a 2.45 ERA, and Shawn Armstrong, who had a 1.80 ERA despite missing a month with a lower back injury, fared well.
Then there was César Valdez, whom the Orioles rescued from baseball’s backwaters in Mexico. At 35, Valdez, reinvented himself with a changeup he called the “dead fish.” In a time when teams are obsessed with velocity, Valdez was an effective change of pace.
The feeling here is that 2020 was a success for the Orioles. Progress is being made, but next year might be just as challenging. Holes remain, the team is inexperienced and contention is unlikely until 2022.
But if the team can continue to move forward while building a foundation with young talent, the Orioles could be on the verge of some very interesting times.
Question time: Later this week, I’ll be answering your end-of-season Orioles questions. Please email me your questions: [email protected] or leave it in the comments section.