The Orioles woke up last weekend after briefly dreaming of a postseason run. It was dissatisfying watching the O’s bats go silent in a four-game set against New York, only to explode for 14 runs against Atlanta Monday night. Drew Bonifant put that frustration into words yesterday morning.
Regardless of the O’s consistencies, they’ve shown enough to generate some optimism moving forward. As Tyler Young wrote a day earlier, this year has been a success for the Orioles. Several players exceeded expectations, multiple rookies found immediate success, and Baltimore played meaningful games in September. All three of those were a welcome surprise.
Anthony Santander solidified his status as a Major League outfielder before an injured oblique cut his season short. Pedro Severino has played like a top-tier American League catcher, and José Iglesias tested a sore quad by constantly running to first base.
Those three, along with a few others, played well enough to secure a spot in the lineup next season. Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart returned from Bowie and played themselves back into the Orioles’ future plans. Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer were already in the picture, but their strong play has only heightened their roles.
With Baltimore informally out of the playoff chase, the attention shifts back to the future. Mike Elias has taken a long look at the majority of the roster, and even this small sample size of a season has shown a lot. While there’s always room for a DJ Stewart sized breakout, Elias knows what he has in a lot of these guys. Still, there’s one player that can increase his stock more than anyone else.
The Orioles claimed right-handed pitcher Jorge López back on August 9. The former Royal had flashed plenty of potential during his time in Kansas City, but lacked consistency. The 27-year-old was out of options, and the Royals needed the roster spot. They likely hoped to sneak López through waivers, but the Orioles saw the talent and pounced.
López had made only one appearance in 2020 before a trip to the bereavement list, but he left Kansas City with a 5.97 ERA through nearly 200 Major League innings. López notoriously carried a perfect game into the ninth inning in 2018, and a quick Google search finds several examples of the Kansas City faithful begging the former second-round pick to put it all together.
The Royals acquired López in a deal for Mike Moustakas, and hoped he would factor into their rotation long term. Instead, hot and cold performances resulted in López bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation.
López fit the mold of a low-risk, high-reward move for Baltimore. The Orioles knew he could serve as a starter or reliever, and hoped they could tap into some of that potential. At a minimum, he had a two month audition on a rebuilding club.
Baltimore called on López for a few long-relief appearances prior to his first start with the Birds on August 30. The righty allowed three runs through 4.2 innings, but gave the club a chance to win. He followed that up with five scoreless innings in a winning performance against the Yankees. Those two starts, paired with an open slot, locked López into the rotation for the rest of the season.
López struggled in a short start against the Mets, but bounced back with seven shutout innings against the Braves in a blowout victory. He allowed five hits and struck out only three, but he demonstrated a heightened level of control throughout the contest. It wasn’t eight perfect innings, but the outing represented what López has always been capable of.
According to Baseball Savant, López utilizes an effective sinker about 40 percent of the time. He mixes that with a four-seam fastball that lives around 94 mph, a curve ball and the occasional changeup. When he’s dealing, his stuff looks nasty enough to produce a swing and miss from anyone in the Bigs. But like any sinkerballer, his success depends on forcing weak contact and plenty of ground balls.
Next year’s rotation appears to be a bit more clear compared to entering this season. Former All Star John Means has returned and projects at the top of the rotation. Akin and Kremer have at least established themselves as favorites to rejoin the group, and Alex Cobb will return if he is not dealt over the offseason.
Prospects Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Bruce Zimmermann will all head to Sarasota with lofty goals, and it’s only a matter of time before the O’s see what they have in the trio. Baltimore will likely sign at least one player similar to Tommy Milone— a veteran looking to return to form.
López has one clear advantage over the trio of prospects and anyone else the O’s may include in their rotation search— he’s already pitching for the black and orange. Simply put, López must take advantage of his final starts and establish himself as a favorite for next season. Two more impressive starts to end 2020 could give López, who will still be out of minor-league options, a slight edge next year.
López did not appear to benefit from bouncing back and forth from the bullpen and rotation. There’s no way to know if the lack of consistency in his role played into inconsistencies on the field, but a defined role paired with the O’s new wave of advanced analytics could be just what the former top-100 prospect needs.
Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart returned from the alternative camp and improved their stock in the final month of the season. López appears to be the final Oriole with a chance to make a standing impact at the end of 2020. Will he take advantage?