Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde have injected excitement into an organization that had been reeling since early into the 2018 season. After superstar Manny Machado and former top pick Kevin Gausman were dealt away at the deadline, Orioles games held even less meaning. Fans clung to the idea of sending off franchise player Adam Jones in a positive fashion, but the end of the season marked an end of an era in Baltimore.
When the Orioles named Elias executive vice president and slotted in Hyde to develop players and manage games, fans began to focus on the future. What type of analytical strategies will assistant GM Sig Mejdal cook up? Who will Elias take with the top pick in the draft? These questions are more fun to ponder than “How many games will the Orioles lose next year?”
But the Orioles are going to lose a lot of games in 2019. They might reach the century mark in the loss column again in 2020. Baltimore has took the plunge into a full rebuild, and it will likely be years before the Birds reap the benefits of this commitment. Fans of the organization will be asked to be patient, and it will be difficult at times.
But if the Orioles are all but guaranteed losers, and fans know what to expect, will there be a sense of urgency within the clubhouse? Absolutely. While the team may be out of contention by mid-May, multiple players could have career defining years in 2019.
The term “make-or-break season” gets thrown around every year, but a few Orioles players are down to their final shot at being major league baseball players. Ask them, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
The Orioles farm system has been ranked towards the bottom of the league for several years now, and that did not instantly change with the hiring of Elias. The Orioles will hopefully bolster their prospect list through international free agents and the draft, but the farm is the farm right now. Baltimore’s lone strength in the category lies in the outfield.
The Orioles roster contains several young players who are either ready, or close to ready, to contribute at the major league level. Cedric Mullins projects to be the starting center fielder on opening day after flashing enough potential last season. Trey Mancini, although he feels like a veteran, is only entering his third year. Mancini has played left field while his natural position at first base has been blocked, and it is unknown if that will continue under the new administration.
There’s a hole in right field, and both corners could be up for grabs. Should guys like Joey Rickard and DJ Stewart be concerned about playing time? Again, absolutely.
Austin Hays remains a top five prospect despite a slow 2018 that was derailed by injuries. If the 23-year-old can return to his 2017 form, in which he dominated minor league competition before earning a cup of coffee with the Orioles, he’ll be knocking on the outfield wall fairly soon. Hays could even gain momentum to make the Opening Day roster with a strong spring paired with other outfielders’ struggles.
Yusniel Diaz immediately became the Birds’ top prospect after being acquired in the Machado deal. The Orioles will certainly want to see what Diaz has to offer, and he should show improvement now that he’s settled in and has strong minds around him. Diaz could come knocking for a roster spot by the end of the year. Ryan McKenna and other prospects could also put together a strong enough case for at least a September call up.
Even though Stewart was a first round pick, he wasn’t drafted by Elias. Stewart must snatch this opportunity before the other players are ready for the show. Rickard needs to show value, whether it’s as a starter or just a fourth outfielder. If relegated to the bench, the former Rule-5 choice needs to be the best fourth outfielder he can be. Reliable defense at all three spots and an ability to pinch run can go a long way.
Speaking of Rule-5 selections, Richie Martin has a chance to claim the starting spot at short. Martin has more motivation than anyone to have a strong spring at the plate and play quality defense at shortstop. Martin, a former first-round pick himself, must remain on the roster all season or be offered back to Oakland.
Martin, who recently turned 24, has never played at Triple-A. He hit .300 in 118 games at double-A last season. Martin could be a starting shortstop in the AL East, or returned to a team that didn’t even value him enough to protect him. Talk about a lot to play for...
Only two of Chance Sisco, Austin Wynns and Carlos Perez will make the opening day roster behind the plate. Few players have encompassed what one year can do for a guy more than the catcher those two will be replacing. Caleb Joseph didn’t make his big league debut until age 27, but he made $1.25 million in his fifth year with the Orioles last season.
The back end of the Orioles rotation is open, and bullpen spots are up for grabs. Mike Wright Jr. might finally be on his last ride, and guys like David Hess and Jimmy Yacabonis will be monitored closely.
Rebuilds require patience, but these guys will be fighting for a roster spot like there’s no tomorrow. For some of them, there might not be. Even a 100+ loss team will have some intriguing story lines in spring training.