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Trying to find the pleasant surprise on the 2018 Orioles roster

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Trey Mancini was the Orioles success story almost nobody saw coming last year. Who’s the most likely pleasant surprise for the upcoming season?

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 2017 Orioles were a failure of the baseball team overall. This doesn’t mean that everything about them was a failure, though. There were pleasant surprises to be found, including first baseman-turned-outfielder Trey Mancini. If the 2018 Orioles are going to find success, they’re going to need to get another unexpected positive performance from someone this season. They might need more than one.

What was it that made Mancini such a surprise? In some ways, Mancini shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. The only thing that Mancini did at the big league level was continue a trend of solid hitting that he started in Frederick in 2015. Perhaps because he was “only” a first baseman, not a high draft pick, and not young, he was never a top-ranked prospect in the game.

It was clear from early last season that Mancini was the best option the Orioles had in left field, and to their credit, they put him there, where he did the best he could while posting a .293/.338/.488 batting line. If the Orioles had been willing to trust Mancini sooner, they would have been better off, as they wouldn’t have needed to re-sign Mark Trumbo.

Can the Orioles unearth a Mancini-level surprise this season? Their fate will look a lot better if they can do this. So if they’re going to pull that off, what might that look like?

Nestor Cortes

We know that the Orioles, or at least Dan Duquette, loves nothing quite like a Rule 5 pick. MASN’s Steve Melewski labeled him the current clubhouse leader for the #5 spot in the starting rotation.

Cortes is fairly young, just 23, and left-handed, which the Orioles won’t have in the rotation if not him. For all that, though, he was only ranked as the #25 prospect in the system by MLB Pipeline, below players who have accomplished less at lower levels of the minors. That’s probably because there’s not a lot of upside in this scouting report:

Cortes doesn’t wow with his size and stuff, but there’s something to be said about his ability to get hitters out. While he pitches with fringy velocity, often topping out around 89-90 mph, his fastball plays up because he commands it well to both sides of the plate while working from several different arm angles. He’s adept at changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance with each of his three secondary offerings, and in concert his arsenal produces a surprising number of whiffs as well as consistent weak contact.

There’s very little room for error for guys who top out at 90 miles per hour, even if they are left-handed. It could be that the multiple arm angles that keep hitters off-balance work against lesser hitters at Double-A or Triple-A. We may get a chance to see what he can do this season - and if there’s going to be an Orioles surprise, Cortes pulling off a good year with smoke and mirrors may be a part of it.

Colby Rasmus

Rasmus wouldn’t be a surprise quite like Mancini in the sense that he’s not an internal option. What would make him a surprise is that a month ago he wasn’t on anyone’s radar by virtue of his just walking away from baseball in the middle of last season. You don’t get much more out-of-nowhere than having quit!

Whether there’s a full season of good performance in him is less certain, which is also what would make him a surprise. Though he had an .896 OPS last season, that was only over 37 games, and it only came with a .318 OBP. Going back to 2014, Rasmus has batted a combined .229/.299/.442.

Couple that with his injury history and he’s not a sure thing at all. But, again, a surprise Orioles team is going to have some surprising player performances, and something like Rasmus getting a last hurrah while serving as a one-year stop-gap to prospect Austin Hays would be the sort of thing that might happen, if the Orioles are able to surprise people.

Tim Beckham

The idea that a player who has spent 52 innings playing third base at the big league level will suddenly swap over there and do well, after having had a spotty defensive reputation at shortstop, is actually kind of nuts. There’s been no point for Orioles fans to think of it this way because this is happening, so we might as well hope for the best, but it’s more of a longshot.

The other question about Beckham, of course, is whether he is going to look more like the player who posted a 1.062 OPS in August or the one who posted a .603 OPS in September and October. Plopping down between those two extremes might look like his combined batting line between the Orioles and Rays in 2018: .278/.328/.454.

That would count as quite the pleasant surprise! It’s not MVP territory, but Beckham was worth 3.3 bWAR in 2017, more than he had ever achieved before by far. If the Rays thought Beckham was going to look like that, they might not have traded him, or they would have insisted on trading him for more. Just Beckham being able to do that again would be a remarkable thing in and of itself.

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Optimism about the Orioles is in short supply, with the reminder that sports books are setting the Orioles win total in the low 70s being just one more sign that hardly anyone thinks things are going to go well.

It requires no great insight to say that things that look like they’re going to go badly are going to go badly, though, and it’s more fun to imagine some unlikely Orioles success. Don’t bet the mortgage on it, but if the Orioles ARE going to surprise people, they’ll probably get performances that nobody (except for themselves) saw coming from the likes of Cortes, Rasmus, and Beckham.