The Orioles are not ready to compete in the American League East this season and, at this rate, they never will be. The starting pitching situation is an absolute disaster. A huge chunk of the team may be leaving next winter. And, oh yeah, the manager and general manager are in the last season of their contracts too. It’s a mess.
However, there does seem to be a small glimmer of hope in the form of Baltimore’s farm system. Depending on who you ask, Chance Sisco, Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays are three of the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. Behind them in the O’s minors are guys like Tanner Scott, Cedric Mullins, Hunter Harvey, D.J. Stewart and D.L. Hall, who each have a good chance to make it to the majors as well. For the first time in a few years, the Orioles have a decent batch of youngsters. Some of them are ready to make the leap to the big time, but they should wait until 2019.
Much of Baltimore’s top minor league talent is made up of hitters. The Orioles don’t need hitters right now. In fact, they are already having a hard enough time figuring out what to do with their current crop of sluggers. Mark Trumbo remains for sale. Trey Mancini deserves to play, but not the outfield. Anthony Santander has to be on the MLB roster or the organization will lose him. And there is talk that the team is still interested in adding a veteran left-handed hitter (Carlos Gonzalez, Jarrod Dyson, etc.) to the mix. The O’s could make room, but Sisco and Hays don’t really fit right now.
Perhaps this is by design. Placing Sisco and Hays on the 25-man roster on Opening Day will start their service clocks and, in all likelihood, eventually burn a year of team control. And for what? Sisco doesn’t seem to be the clear starter ahead of Caleb Joseph, or Andrew Susac for that matter. And Hays would probably have to split time with Santander or some other outfielder. There’s no point to calling up two of your brightest pupils if they are going to ride the bench and burn their rookie years for a team that seems unlikely to contend.
It may also be beneficial for the final stages of their development if they play another year of minor league ball. Both will turn 23 years old soon (Sisco: later this month; Hays: in July), so it’s not unrealistic to think that they still have a few things to learn in the minors.
Sisco remains a well-regarded prospect overall, but he has nosedived in some ranking lists, including Fangraphs and ZiPS. The same question about his defense has stuck around. Can he hang at catcher in the bigs? And while there seems to be little doubt that he will hit for average and get on base at a good clip in Baltimore, his power does leave a bit to be desired. His hitting profile is what it is at this point. Little will change there with more time in Norfolk. But he can continue to develop his defense, or even pick up a new position if it comes to it.
Hays, on the other hand, has rocketed up prospect lists in the same way that he smashed through the Orioles farm system after being drafted in 2016. He seems to have all of the requisite skills. But he is yet to play at Triple-A, where he could gain some experience against MLB-lite competition, and he would be sure to play every day. In Baltimore, he may be asked to share innings with Santander as the O’s claw to keep control of the former Rule 5 pick. That could be frustrating for Hays, and possibly stunt his growth.
Pushing back the rookie years of Hays and Sisco has the added benefit of better aligning them with a handful of Baltimore’s other talented kids. Mountcastle, Mullins, Harvey and the like probably won’t be ready for the show until late this summer or sometime in 2019. Syncing up the service clocks of several talented prospects could keep the Orioles next window of contention open wider and longer.
Based on everything that has come out of “The Warehouse” this offseason, the Orioles are not officially in rebuilding mode. All of the team’s big name players with expiring contracts are still in Baltimore, and Dan Duquette is adamant that the team will, in fact, sign starting pitchers eventually.
These things can change in an instant. It takes just one phone call from the right general manager of a contender to blow away Duquette with a trade offer for Manny Machado. Should that one domino fall, it could easily lead to a deal for Brad Brach or even Jonathan Schoop and Adam Jones. All told, those trades would have to return at least a couple of good prospects. On top of that, the O’s have the 11th pick in this summer’s draft, their highest selection since 2012. Suddenly, Baltimore is tearing everything down and possibly closer to rebuilding than previously thought.
“Tanking” is an ugly word, but it feels like the only logical solution for the Birds current situation. Even if the team adds a few OK-ish starters (looking at you Jason Vargas, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb) they still seem light years behind the Yankees and Red Sox, let alone with rest of the American League.
If the goal is to put together the best possible roster, then Sisco and Hays should both be in Baltimore on Opening Day. They have oodles of ability that can help the Orioles win games. But it’s not clear what the Orioles plan is for 2018, and that’s a problem.