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Eight Orioles storylines to watch in a not-so-regular 2020 season

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Yes, it’s terrible out there, but . . . at least baseball is back!

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Workouts Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

OK, let’s not sugarcoat it: there is a lot that sucks about 2020, and 60 games of Orioles baseball played in empty stadiums across the Eastern seaboard is not going to be the magic fix for any of it. Plus there’s no telling whether the whole thing gets shut down at any moment. But, at some level, baseball is always glorious baseball, and baseball in the age of COVID certainly beats no baseball at all.

In one way, it’ll be business as usual for Orioles fans: nobody expects good things to come to this fanbase any time soon. Yesterday, the team finally released the 30-man roster, and Twitter’s collective reaction was basically, “Who?”

One small silver lining is that a 60-game shortened season favors freak outcomes—and when you’re predicted to dwell in the cellar, a team with a lot of “known unknowns” might just pleasantly surprise.

With that, here are eight things—good and bad—for Orioles fans to keep an eye on going into this unprecedentedly weird season.

  1. A tough schedule, but nothing new. Based on opponent win percentage alone, the Orioles have the third-hardest schedule in baseball behind the Angels and the Marlins. (It’s easy when you’re not very good.) For what it’s worth, MLB.com calculated that this isn’t much worse than what the O’s would face in a normal season: a steady diet of Gerrit Cole and Gleyber Torres (sigh) is balanced out a bit by the slightly-less-intimidating NL East. MLB’s biggest losers? The Mariners and the Rangers, who now have to face teams like the Astros, A’s, and the Dodgers on the regular.
  2. Flaunting the law of averages. Let’s face it, sometimes a 162-game season can drag around the dog days. Now make it into what ESPN called on Thursday night “a 60-game sprint to the finish,” add a 16-team format expanded postseason, and all we really know is that people are predicting randomness. (The O’s may not exactly be a “bubble team,” but, hey, stranger things have happened.) Some other possible effects of less length? A hopefully-healthy Hunter Harvey will get stretched out, a streaky Chris Davis could get hot and stay that way ... or the team could get stuck in an eight-game losing streak, which is more like 22 now.
  3. Roster … depth? Adding injury to insult, already out for the season are potential bullpen piece Ty Blach (Tommy John surgery), infielder Richie Martin (fractured wrist), superutility man Stevie Wilkerson (fractured finger), and Trey Mancini (undergoing chemo for colon cancer). The O’s are also dealing with minor injuries to John Means (arm fatigue), potential closer Hunter Harvey (elbow), reliever Dillon Tate (forearm), and catcher Chance Sisco (triceps). Also outfielders Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Santander caught COVID-19, but they’re better now. While I hope that everyone gets well soon, a small part of me wonders if maybe all of these freak injuries could induce Mike Elias to relax his stringent policy with prospects and clear a path for earlier-than-anticipated debuts by guys like Ryan Mountcastle, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, or Michael Baumann. Like, just maybe?
  4. Growth in the bullpen. After posting a league-worst 5.79 ERA last season, there’s reason to be optimistic about improvement by an Orioles bullpen “filled with bounce-back and breakout candidates,” as CC’s Alex Church put it this week. Both Hunter Harvey and Miguel Castro have tweaked their deliveries under the Elias regime, and they have a chance to emerge as bullpen weapons. If Mychal Givens improves on his homer-prone 2019, he could give the team a month of late-innings stability before likely being dealt at the August 31st trade deadline.
  5. That rotation, though… This may turn out to be the team’s weakest link. On the one hand, the odds of improving on Aaron Brooks, David Hess, and Gabriel Ynoa’s 2019 seem … not bad. On the other, Means has a dead arm, Alex Cobb remains injury-prone, and Kohl Stewart pretty much defines “dark horse.” Will the veteran presence of Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc be enough to steady things? More likely is that this group will repeat last-season’s heavy reliance on the bullpen and propensity to give up dingers.
  6. Making up for lost production. This, for me, is the most interesting (as well as hope-inducing) storyline of 2020. As we keep hearing, the O’s have lost their two best offensive players in Mancini and Jonathan Villar, who was traded in the offseason. Yet, some still sound notes of optimism: “I like us offensively,” manager Brandon Hyde said Tuesday. “I think we can surprise some people.” Last year, the Orioles had a major offensive vacuum up the middle: a .227/.307/.687 slash line at catcher, .242/.297/.759 at shortstop, and .224/.281/.667 in center field. This year, Hyde has touted Pedro Severino’s swing improvements, José Iglesias comes with a steady career .273 average, and if Austin Hays comes anywhere close to last season’s red-hot September, we could be seeing good things.
  7. Individual breakout/sophomore slump candidates. Was Hanser’s 2019 a fluke? Will John Means regress? Like 4,000 UK scouts and quite a few of the CC writers, I am fully aboard the Anthony Santander hype train, and it’ll be super interesting, too, to see if Renato Núñez can keep up last year’s 30 homer-90 RBI production, and if Hanser Alberto will continue his hit parade off lefties. Rio Ruiz is feeling confident about the team’s summer prep (“I think we’ve crushed it, man”), and I think regular playing time at third could lead to a breakthrough for him. What are we going to see out of relative unknowns DJ Stewart, Pat Valaika, and Andrew Velazquez? Then, of course, there’s the great Chris Davis question: did his hot spring mean anything? Will he play the whole (short) season?
  8. Can you spot the makings of a good team in the future? Though it’s hard to think the front office will draw solid conclusions from this shortened season, this is a chance for guys like Santander, Ruiz, and Núñez to prove they have sticking power. Elias & Co.’s cautious attitude to prospect development makes it unlikely we’ll see much of prospies like Mountcastle and Kremer, but an already-thin roster could deliver fans some excitement, in a backhanded way. And, of course, nothing about the Orioles schedule gives any reason to think they won’t be well-positioned to snag a top prospect in a deep 2021 draft. Patience, fans!

What are you looking forward to over the next two months? Bullpen improvement? Offense? Breakout performances? Or just closing your eyes and wishing it was 2023, already?