It can be difficult, if not impossible, to draw many conclusions from spring training, especially when your favorite team’s local TV network broadcasts just two games the entire pre-season. In that case, a fanbase must wait until the games actually count before they can craft any type of analysis and corresponding overreactions.
Now that the 2021 Orioles have played three total regular season games—against what may prove to be a legitimately bad Red Sox team, no less—let’s talk takeaways.
The starting rotation might actually be OK
There was understandable concern that beyond John Means the Orioles starting pitchers were going to struggle to hold things together and keep games close. Well, Means was by far the most impressive (7 IP, 0 R, 5 SO) of the weekend, but the two guys that came after him were also effective.
Matt Harvey and Bruce Zimmermann combined for 10.2 innings, five earned runs, 10 hits, two walks, and nine strikeouts. Those sorts of performance won’t get either one of them into the Cy Young conversation, but it will allow the O’s to maintain a well-rested bullpen.
Let’s go back to Means for a moment. We are not to the point where he can be anointed a real-deal ace. However, if he is anything close, then these Orioles will be a lot better than previously anticipated. Being able to turn to a guy with the chance to go seven impressive innings every fifth day allows a team to paper over a lot of other holes.
Cedric Mullins has figured something out
Maybe it really was the maintenance of two swings that was holding Mullins back. The O’s centerfielder ditched switch-hitting during the off-season, and has started this year on fire at the plate. Mullins is 9-for-13 with three doubles, one walk, and one strikeout thus far.
Just a couple of years ago, the young outfielder could not buy a hit at the big league level. It got so bad that he was demoted all the way to Double-A. It was a long road to Baltimore from that level, and Mullins needed to compete with plenty of intriguing prospects in the Orioles system, but he is all the way back at this point. It is a joy to see.
Mullins earns his spot in the Orioles lineup everyday with his above-average defense, speed, and base-running ability. But his continued strides at the plate might keep him at the very top of that lineup all season long.
There is a lot to like about this Orioles bullpen
Despite trading away three veteran relievers (Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, Mychal Givens) during the 2020 season, the O’s bullpen still managed to be quite good. Their 3.90 ERA was ninth-best in MLB, and their 3.0 fWAR was sixth-best. Through one weekend, they look even better in 2021.
The Orioles bullpen threw 9.1 scoreless innings this weekend. That was highlighted by two saves from Cesar Valdez and his dead fish changeup, and Adam Plutko deserves a special shoutout for his 2.1-inning outing on Saturday that bridged a crucial gap from the starter to the backend arms in a close game.
It’s going to be tough for Brandon Hyde to to manage a relief group that includes two Rule 5 picks, but when the established pitchers do their job so well it makes things much easier. The return of Shawn Armstrong from the paternity list this week will add depth.
Austin Hays is...Austin Hays
Hays may have had the best spring of any Orioles player. He slashed .392/.446/.745 with four home runs, four doubles, a triple, and three stolen bases in the Grapefruit League. He looked ready to breakthrough on the big league stage.
He had a tough weekend in Boston, going 2-for-10 with a double and four strikeouts. But the real concern is that Hays had to exit the last game of the series with what is being called “hamstring discomfort.” It could be nothing, but for a player with Hays’s injury history it is a worry.
The Orioles can cover if Hays is out for an extended period of time. Ryan Mountcastle could move from DH to left field, or Pat Valaika may sub in for him as he did on Sunday. But the Orioles’ best lineup—both offensively and defensively—includes Hays.
Rio Ruiz can handle second base
Yolmer Sanchez being DFA’ed so close to the regular season was a bit surprising, but Rio Ruiz becoming the Orioles’ everyday second baseman may be even more of a shock.
The team’s former starter at the hot corner played every game at second during the weekend in Boston, and he looked quite good while doing so. There were a couple of over-the-shoulder catches gliding into the outfield, and a snazzy diving catch to his left. Turning double plays may prove to be the most difficult responsibility for Ruiz there, and it remains to be seen how he handles that duty.
If Ruiz continues to prove he can play defense at second, it could be a boon for him professionally. There is a significantly lower offensive bar at his new position, one that he may be more capable of clearing. That said, he will need to be better than the 2-for-12 with five strikeouts he posted these first three games.
Birdland is a happy place right now, and it should be. This weekend was extremely fun. The Orioles remain underdogs to come anywhere close to competing in the AL East, but they also don’t deserve to be the butt of every easy joke a baseball columnist writes this summer.