With apologies to Orioles 2021 draft-watchers hoping to go “FUBAR for Kumar,” pull a “Shiter for Leiter,” or end this 60-game experiment “Fadin’ for Jaden,” this is not a team sleep-walking through the season, hoping somebody calls the mercy rule. Last weekend’s series against the Red Sox should have put tanking theory to rest, and pitching collapses aside, there were real signs of life during this week’s impromptu two-game stand against the Yankees, too.
A week in, the MLB is a hot mess, but O’s fans should be pleasantly surprised by their team’s level of play so far. So far, the Orioles clock in at 12th or so in MLB in most hitting categories: runs per game, on-base percentage, batting average, slugging. They’re not hitting tons of dingers, but they’re making contact. The defense has been competent overall—Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins made two fantastic catches in the outfield last night, BTW—although we could stand to cut down on the baserunning goofs.
There are some bright spots among the newbs. Austin Hays is a sparkplug in the leadoff position. José Iglesias was signed for his glove, but has decided to throw in a .500 average with four extra-base hits in the bargain. A brief look at Pat Valaika seems to show a reliable contact hitter and an unspectacular but, yes, reliable glove.
Not convinced that the team is playing above expectations? Think back to last year. Back to Gabriel Ynoa’s 1-10 record and Dan Straily’s 9.34 FIP. Keon Broxton’s bat. Renato Núñez’s defense. Jesús Sucre pitching in relief. That goddamn Gleyber Torres-Gary Thorne montage. In 2019, there were lots of players on the roster who wouldn’t, ideally, be anywhere near the major leagues. This year, the lowest lows are just not as low. There are fewer players around just as a stopgap, and even relative unknowns like Rio Ruiz, DJ Stewart, and Chance Sisco are showing enough to be intriguing.
Plus, some of the old faces (old as in, all of one season) look different (as in, for the better). Back in March, the Sun ran a nice piece on the O’s minor league hitting development, the kind of piece that allows fans like me to dream of all the sophisticated technology been thrown into player development by the big league club. So far, it seems to have done good things for Rio Ruiz’s power, Pedro Severino’s swing, Miguel Castro’s simplified delivery, and John Means’ 96-mph fastball. (Means was all over the place last night against the Yankees, but hey, the fastball looked zippy.)
The question is, so what? Or, better yet, what’s to be lost if the Orioles play OK for 60 games?
My feeling is, not much. Let’s see, what are the Orioles’ team goals this season, again? It’s hard to remember when every projection has your team in the cellar, but best I can recall, the idea is to (1) build up durable organizational depth by drafting, trading for, and developing prospects. If it’s possible to (2) unearth hidden gems on the current roster for 2021 and beyond and (3) make Baltimore baseball a little easier on fans’ eyes in the meantime, all the better.
As a fan, it’s tough because Goal #1 is basically designed to be at odds with Goals #2 and #3 (and it’s so easy to just want Good! Baseball! Now!). Even so, circumstances this weird season give O’s fans plenty of reasons to relax and live in the moment.
First of all, everything is weird right now and we need a little fantasy.
Second, with the minor leagues shut down for the year, prospect development is, to a large degree, shot. That sucks for a lot of teams, but it really sucks for the Orioles. It’s exciting that Keegan Akin, DL Hall, and Grayson Rodriguez are getting specialized instruction at Bowie, but we have to accept that it’s a wasted year for a lot of prospects on the bubble.
Third, it’s hard to draft good pitching, as this team has long known. Since 2000, there have been eight pitchers drafted at No. 1. Three of them are Stephen Strasburg, David Price, and Gerrit Cole, four were busts, and the fifth, Casey Mize, drafted in 2018, is still waiting to make his debut for the Tigers. So, it’s kind of a crap shoot (one reason Mike Elias has proven wary of drafting young hurlers), but the fact remains that, for the foreseeable future, the Orioles will either draft their pitchers or pluck them off the waiver wire. And it doesn’t really look like a pick higher or lower makes all that much difference. Besides, if the season is canceled, it’s not crazy to think that could affect the 2021 draft order. It could be a happy result—sort of—if the Orioles play well in 2020 and draft as though it were 2019.
Fourth and finally, call this crazy talk, but a week in and having gotten a glimpse of the Yankees and the Red Sox, there really seems to me a non-zero chance that the Orioles could get lucky and sneak into the new 16-team playoffs (assuming the season makes it that far). In this format, eight out of the fifteen teams in the AL and the NL make it in, the top two teams from each division plus No. 7 and No. 8 based on record. Now, like I said, the odds aren’t great, but two supposed behemoths of the AL East each appear to have one really good pitcher and then a whole lot of questions. The 2020 Orioles can hit, they can field decent-ish, and if Alex Cobb and Wade LeBlanc more or less keep pace with their first starts, and John Means and Asher Wojciechowski get results more in line with the stuff they showed, then the idea of the Orioles sneaking into the No. 7 or 8 slot doesn’t seem to me like the craziest thing that’s yet happened in 2020.
Which is definitely something to play for.