When you go from losing 115 games to losing 108, and then to getting rid of arguably your best player, the first thought tends to be that there won’t be anything to watch from that team in the upcoming season.
That’s argle bargle (or is it fooforaw?). There will be plenty of questions facing the Orioles this season that are significant storylines to follow as the team moves forward (though whether or not that progress shows itself in the standings remains to be seen).
Here are the top questions O’s fans should be asking themselves this season, split into positional groupings, along with some other “in the running” topics that they will certainly be wondering:
Infield: Is Hanser Alberto a player to rely on going forward?
If the most surprising success story from last year wasn’t John Means’s performance, it was Hanser Alberto’s. Baltimore’s new second baseman started hot and never really let up, finishing with a .305 average and only 50 strikeouts in 524 at-bats. In terms of at bats per strikeout, he was the hardest batter in the American League to whiff, and he finished eighth in the league in batting and fourth in singles.
He’ll resume his starting spot for good reason, but there are so many causes for concern that 2019 was just a blip for Alberto. For one, he was a career .192 hitter over three years coming into the season. Two, his stats were clearly untenable based on the way he went about compiling them. Alberto was the best hitter in the league against left-handed pitching for most of the year, and he finished with a .398 mark against lefties. Think that’s repeatable?
And three, Alberto showed signs of returning to Earth before the season ended, batting .237 for September and seeing his average fall 16 points. Still, it’s hard to make a fluke last for an entire season, and if he’s arrived for real, he’ll be someone that can still be a part of the equation when the O’s expect to compete again. At 27, he could be a major find.
In the running: Where will Ryan Mountcastle play? Did Jose Iglesias bring his improving bat along?
Outfield: What do the Orioles have with Austin Hays?
For most of the year, the Orioles just didn’t have an answer in center field. From Cedric Mullins to Keon Broxton to Stevie Wilkerson, Baltimore bounced back and forth from one struggling hitter to another as they tried to fill what for more than a decade had been a checkmark with Adam Jones.
Then, as the season was winding down, the Orioles found their man in Austin Hays, who made his season debut Sept. 7 and finished batting .309 with a .947 OPS and four home runs in 21 games, while also playing some highlight-reel defense. Hays injected some life into what was looking like a sluggish slog to the finish line, and brought some excitement to the Yard.
Similar to Alberto, the question is whether Hays can approach that level of play over the course of the year, but the two are completely different case studies. Alberto came out of nowhere, while Hays has been on the farm radar since being drafted in 2016. He was the team’s fourth-ranked prospect going into last year, so the question is whether or not he’s fulfilled the promise many saw coming with him.
There’s now been time for teams to get film on him, so if he’s not up for the challenge of a bigger role, we’ll find out sooner than later.
In the running: Who’s the right fielder if Trey Mancini plays first base?
Catcher: Could Adley Rutschman make his Orioles debut this season?
I’m kind of cheating here, since this was supposed to be about the big club, but come on. Rutschman’s the biggest Orioles prospect in years. Ignoring him would be ignoring the elephant in the room.
All eyes will be on the former No. 1 overall pick from the start of the season, which for Rutschman will likely take place in High-A Frederick. He’ll spend March with the big-league club in Florida, but it’s unlikely he’ll play with the Orioles any time soon. He’s such a crucial player, and the team is so far from competing, that it doesn’t make any sense to jeopardize his development by throwing him into the fire too early.
But if Rutschman is raking from day one, the chatter will start and some fans will get restless about seeing him in the majors. Perhaps a call-up in September could be in the cards? It wouldn’t be unheard of — Dylan Bundy was drafted in 2011 and was in the show by September 2012. Not identical circumstances, but Rutschman could make it a dilemma.
In the running: Does Chance Sisco have any hope for a breakthrough at the plate?
Starting pitching: Which rookie makes his mark?
We’re going to start seeing the Orioles’ farm system begin to cross the threshold into the major leagues this season, with prospects like Keegan Akin (No. 11 in the system) and Dean Kremer (No. 8) expected to get shots this year in Baltimore. There’s a real vacancy in the rotation now that Dylan Bundy is gone, and after Alex Cobb, John Means and Asher Wojciechowski, there are question marks as to who will take the ball on those days.
Not that Akin (6-7, 4.73, 10.5 K/9 at Triple-A Norfolk) and Kremer (9-4, 2.98, 9.2 K/9 at Double-A Bowie), the latter of whom will likely be a later addition to the big league squad, will be immediately expected to rack up 150 innings, but the point is that the youth wave will get a chance to prove itself after the O’s spent a year relying on veterans and bargain bin arms to get through the season.
Ballyhooed prospects like DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez are perhaps a year away from arriving, but given the lack of rotation depth and stress for this season, it’d make sense for some other young arms to get a look.
In the running: Does Cobb bounce back? Is John Means more than a one-year wonder? Does Kohl Stewart have any unrealized potential?
Relief pitching: Is Hunter Harvey a weapon going forward?
Another positive storyline from last year was the emergence of Hunter Harvey, who seemingly overnight went from being injury-prone and a potential lost cause to being a triple-digit-touching power arm at the major league level. The 2013 first-round pick made seven appearances and struck out 11 in 6.1 innings with a 1.42 ERA.
A key facet to this season will be whether Harvey is able to pick up where he left off with the small sample size, and we’ll find out what role he’ll play, be it closer, middle relief or (less likely) even a return to starting. It hasn’t been rare for pitchers who blow batters away after switching to relief roles to struggle in the following seasons, so we’ll find out soon which path the 25-year-old takes.
His health is also a concern, as a laundry list of arm and shoulder troubles were the biggest reasons it took him six years to make it to the show. But if Harvey truly did break through for good last season, he gives the Orioles a stud reliever who is under team control until 2025. He’ll only be 30 by then, meaning he could give the O’s his prime seasons when the team is turning the corner in 2022 or 2023.
In the running: Will Mychal Givens be traded? Could young relievers like Dillon Tate, Branden Kline and Tanner Scott make the jump for good?