For many, there’s only one way to measure the success of a season: the win-loss record. A year ago, the Orioles were 25-35 in the shortened 60-game season, which can be extrapolated to a 67-95 record.
Let’s look beyond the record as spring training approaches.
Did the team improve?
Since we don’t know how the Orioles would have performed in a 162-game season, you would have to say there was improvement.
However, a 95-loss team isn’t one to celebrate. That would be a 20-game improvement over the 115 losses the club had in 2018 and a marginal one from the 108 losses in 2019.
The Orioles began the season 12-8 and stayed in contention for the next third of the season. With 19 games to go, they were 20-21, but they lost 14 of their final 19.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has cautioned that the record isn’t necessarily linear. It would be surprising if the record improved substantially in 2021.
Is the team likely to finish last?
The Orioles didn’t finish last in 2020. They finished in fourth place, the first time they hadn’t been fifth in the American League East since 2016.
The Boston Red Sox finished in fifth, a game behind the Orioles, but left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez will be back after missing last season because of Covid-19 and myocarditis. Chris Sale, who underwent Tommy John surgery last March, will be closely monitored as he completes his recovery.
Boston’s newest starter is Garrett Richards, who was healthy last season after 2018 Tommy John surgery.
The other teams — the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays — should be contenders.
Even though the Rays traded Blake Snell to the San Diego Padres, they still have some good starters. Tyler Glasnow, the recently re-signed Chris Archer, Michael Wacha, Ryan Yarbrough and several promising pitchers will be vying for the fifth spot in the rotation.
The Rays, who rely as much or more on their bullpen as their starters, might not win the East and return to the World Series, but they’re still formidable.
New York saw Masahiro Tanaka return to Japan, and the Yankees replaced him in the rotation with two pitchers who have a recent history of injuries, right-handers Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon.
They still have one of baseball’s best starters, Gerrit Cole, along with Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia and Domingo Germán, who was 18-4 in 2019 but missed last season after a suspension for domestic violence.
Toronto added to its core of young players — first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., second baseman Cavan Biggio, shortstop Bo Bichette and left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr with the biggest free-agent signing of the winter, right fielder George Springer.
Springer signed a six-year, $150 million deal with the Blue Jays.
They also have Randal Grichuk, who has terrorized the Orioles. In 40 games against the Orioles, Grichuk has 19 home runs, 44 RBIs, a .338 average and a 1.184 OPS.
Last season, Toronto finished seven games ahead of the Orioles for the final playoff spot despite playing all their games outside of Canada. This season, a return to Toronto at the start of the season seems problematic because of Covid-19, and they probably can’t play a second season in Buffalo because of scheduling conflicts with their Triple-A club.
It’s possible the Blue Jays could begin the season by playing their home games at their spring training home in Dunedin, Florida.
The Orioles don’t have the talent of the AL East’s top three teams, and if Sale and Rodriguez come back strongly, holding off the Red Sox is unlikely.
How should improvement be measured?
In 2019 when the Orioles lost 108 games, they could point to the successful seasons of left-hander John Means and right fielder Anthony Santander.
Last season, Means began poorly, but ended strongly, and Santander was the team’s most valuable player until he suffered an oblique injury and missed the last 23 games.
The Orioles had some other bright spots. Ryan Mountcastle played an acceptable left field and hit .333 with an .878 OPS in 35 games. Austin Hays played well in the outfield and showed some punch late in the season after breaking a rib early in the season.
Cedric Mullins, who had an awful 2019 season that saw him sent all the way to Double-A Bowie, rebounded sharply and played exceptionally well in center field.
Rookie left-hander Keegan Akin and right-hander Dean Kremer showed promise in their late-season starts.
The team is accumulating useful pieces, and there are signs of improvement.
When will the record reflect improvement?
The Orioles won’t blame the lack of a minor league season in 2020, but it hurt them more than many other teams.
Their top two prospects from the 2019 draft, catcher Adley Rutschman and shortstop Gunnar Henderson, only played at the Bowie alternate site after brief professional debuts two years ago.
Other top prospects — outfielder Yusniel Diaz and pitchers Michael Baumann, DL Hall, Zac Lowther, Grayson Rodriguez and Alexander Wells — didn’t pitch competitively.
If some of these prospects debut successfully later this season or early next, there will be measurable improvement in 2022.
Call for questions: I’ll be answering your Orioles questions next week. Please leave them in the comments section below or email them to: [email protected]