Call me a hopeless optimist, but things are going better for the 2019 Orioles than I feared coming into the season. Yep, I got it: it’s a rebuilding year. The Baltimore faithful are not to hope for playoffs, high-profile slots on Sunday Night Baseball or even moderate success against hated division rivals. Our GM describes winning this year as “not strategically relevant.” After spring training, when none of the likes of Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Yusniel Díaz, Chance Sisco, Cody Carroll, Evan Phillips, or Tanner Scott made the 25-man roster, I’d just about written off the season. So long as we’re doomed to suck, at least they could let us watch some homegrown talent develop!
But, honestly, I can’t help it; I’ve enjoyed this season so far. Statistically speaking, the O’s aren’t exactly lighting the league on fire—they’re last in the AL East, last in most critical pitching indicators, and on pace to lose 104 games, pretty much in line with what preseason sports pundits predicted.
And yet… they’ve been a fun team to watch. The defense is actually good, and I can’t overstate how much more watchable that makes the team. The pitching staff is for the most part a disaster, but at least in a keep-you-guessing kind of way, know what I mean? My heart rate elevates a little whenever Dylan Bundy, Dan Straily, David Hess, Jimmy Yacabonis, Tanner Scott, or Mychal Givens take the mound. Don’t get me wrong; I miss the days of the shut-down O’Day/Brach/Britton bullpen, but the new guys are a lot like a box of chocolates, and finding out who is showing up to work that day is definitely not boring to watch.
The bottom of the lineup, Rio Ruiz (.238/.333./.338), Jesús Sucre (.224/.286/.259), Joey Rickard (.219/.288/.411), and Richie Martin (.17/2/.250/.224), isn’t hitting. But I swear the at-bats are getting better. In Tuesday night’s 9-1 win, Richie Martin saw something like 20 pitches in two at-bats. He grounded out in both of them, but he also laid down a tough bunt single, and watching him figure things out in real-time was a lot of fun. Río Ruiz is on an upswing, and Joey Rickard has recently looked a little bit better than a pure slap-hitter. Need I remind you, Chris Davis recently broke out of his historic 0-for-54 streak, and since April 26, his line is .360/.385/.720.
That Davis is, in some ways, the face of this team is kind of telling, and kind of important. Dwight Smith, Jr. says, “We literally look up to Chris” (well, he is 6’3”) for what Davis stands for in terms of toughing out failure. At some point in “The Streak” fans stopped booing Davis and started cheering him on: the Orioles’ $22 million first baseman went from heel to redemption story. Yes, it’s bad that Davis started the season 0-for-33, but I’ll be damned if the team’s outpouring of happiness when he got his first hit in Boston didn’t make us all smile. Yes, it’s bad that Davis had to come in to pitch the ninth inning of a 16-7 blowout, but I loved that he was willing to get out there and do it. I can no longer count on two hands the number of times I’ve heard a player describe this team as “scrappy,” but these guys wear the lovable loser mantle very well. Whatever Brandon Hyde is doing in the locker room, the team vibe has been great.
When the O’s took the 3/28-3/31 series from the Yankees at home, NY fans complained that they were being beaten by “a AAA team.” OK, so they weren’t that far off. But seriously, from the point of view of discovering new talent, there have been some genuine bright spots. Smith, Jr., Trey Mancini, Renato Núñez, Rio Ruiz, John Means (who won again two days ago on his birthday), and Paul Fry—there are names on that list that make me think forward to a couple of seasons from now.
Mike Elias still has a lot of items to check off his wishlist. Minor league depth is thin, player development a work in progress, and the international scouting program pretty much in diapers. I expect by mid-season, we’ll have a sub-.500 record somewhat better than 2018’s 23-59 mark. The real test for the fans is going to be then, when Elias & Co. have to take this heartwarming bunch and figure out how to extract value from it.
I’m definitely not saying the O’s are going to compete this year. If Mike Elias has said one thing consistently since the offseason, it is that slow and steady wins the race. Cutting ties with Mike Wright last weekend showed Orioles faithful that this team is serious about being as competitive as they can be now. But it won’t be enough to stabilize the rotation in the short-term, and unfortunately, there aren’t signs from the farm that good arms are waiting in the wings to help. Single-A Delmarva has been a revelation this year, but if you think 19-year-old Grayson Rodríguez is getting a September callup, think again.
Still, as of today, the O’s are only 1.5 games back of third place in the AL East, a division that, save for the Rays, suddenly looks full of holes. It’s a long shot, but like they said in 1989, why not?