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Has the Orioles lineup improved since Mike Elias took over in 2019?

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The Orioles have not concentrated their efforts on the major league roster, but has the lineup improved since Mike Elias took over prior to the 2019 season?

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Orioles’ struggles have been well documented. Short-term issues and long-term woes have been pointed out on this site and from outside the Orioles community. Mike Elias knew the organization required a full-scale rebuild when he took the job at the end of 2018, and Baltimore has not skipped any steps.

With the 2021 season (mercifully) nearing a close, it’s fair to take stock. Almost everyone favors a stock with an upward trajectory, and the improvements in the minors cannot be ignored. Baseball America recently tabbed Baltimore as the second best system in all of baseball. That marked the highest ranking for the Orioles since BA began ranking farm systems in 1984.

Even the casual fan knows that Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez represent the future of the organization, but the quality depth that the Elias group has added cannot be ignored. Players like Terrin Vavra and Jahmai Jones project as big league contributors, Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg appear to have star potential, and pitchers like Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith slot in nicely behind Rodriguez and D.L. Hall.

Prospects do not win playoff games, but the club has made good on its promise to restock the cookie jar. Unfortunately, the major league roster has been an afterthought at minimum. The term “strategically relevant” has been thrown around far too many times over the last few seasons, and Baltimore’s lack of commitment toward winning games has been well documented.

Tyler Young expressed back in June that the Orioles current roster was unacceptable. The piece provoked discussions on the team’s refusal to field an MLB-caliber rotation, the failed Maikel Franco experiment, and whether it was ever fair to count on Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin to succeed.

It’s not fun to watch a major league roster that could have been assembled by Rachel Phelps, but last year’s team played plenty of competitive baseball before floundering at the end of an abridged season. With Rutschman and several other prospects set to debut next year, has the roster improved at all?

I took the liberty of comparing the lineup card from August 17 during the last three seasons. The lists included current Orioles, a few old friends, and players that are no longer with the organization.

2019 Lineup:

  1. Hanser Alberto 3B
  2. Trey Mancini 1B
  3. Anthony Santander RF
  4. Renato Nunez DH
  5. Jonathan Villar 2B
  6. Pedro Severino C
  7. DJ Stewart LF
  8. Stevie Wilkerson CF
  9. Richie Martin SS

Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander are the biggest holdovers from 2019. Pedro Severino and DJ Stewart have remained with the club, and the Orioles just released Stevie Wilkerson yesterday (though he had been previously designated for assignment).

The biggest takeaway for me was the presence of Richie Martin. Martin, whom the Orioles selected in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, struggled early but posted better numbers after the All-Star break.

Unfortunately, injuries prevented the middle infielder from further auditions in 2020 and most of this season. Martin has slashed .233/.294/.367 through 10 games after making his season debut on August 3, but his speed, defense and a touch of pop have reminded the Orioles why they selected the former Oakland prospect at the end of 2018.

Renato Nunez provided power, but was never regarded as a cleanup hitter on a good team. Hanser Alberto enjoyed the best stretch of his career in an Orioles uniform, but his 2021 line of .266/.282/.388 would still be moderately attractive today. Jonathan Villar is a major league infielder who has contributed for the Mets this season, but Baltimore had its veteran shortstop with Freddy Galvis before his injury and trade.

2020 Lineup:

  1. Hanser Alberto 2B
  2. Anthony Santander RF
  3. Renato Nunez 1B
  4. Pedro Severino DH
  5. Pat Valaika LF
  6. Rio Ruiz 3B
  7. Bryan Holaday C (Chance Sisco PH)
  8. Andrew Velazquez SS (Dwight Smith JR PH)
  9. Cedric Mullins CF

Right off the bat, the fact that Pat Valaika started in left field raises a big old red flag. Valaika started just three games in left last year, but that’s three too many in my book. Bryan Holaday was a third catcher that benefited from expanded rosters, and Baltimore moved on from Chance Sisco earlier this season.

Andrew Velazquez slashed just .159/.274/.206 over 40 games with the Orioles, and Baltimore finally cut Rio Ruiz after a regression in 2020 and a horrid start to 2021. The Orioles DFA’d Pat Valaika to claim Jorge Mateo earlier this month, and Dwight Smith Jr. is playing for the Acereros de Monclova of the Mexican League.

Oh, and then there’s that guy in the nine hole.

2020 Lineup:

  1. Cedric Mullins CF
  2. Ramón Urías 2B
  3. Anthony Santander RF
  4. Ryan Mountcastle 1B
  5. Austin Hays LF
  6. DJ Stewart DH
  7. Pedro Severino C
  8. Maikel Franco 3B
  9. Jorge Mateo SS

Yesterday’s card featured Cedric Mullins, the American League leader in hits, atop the lineup. Mullins was flanked by Austin Hays and Santander in the outfield. Hays is still injury prone, and Santander has struggled this season, but any outfield with 2021 Cedric Mullins in it takes the cake. In all seriousness, the O’s outfield does appear to be in a better place this season.

The lineup should have included Trey Mancini at either first base or DH, but a sore calf knocked him out of the lineup. The 1B/DH combo of Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle represents an improvement at both positions. It also would force Stewart out of the lineup.

Ramón Urías has locked up a place in the lineup when healthy, and Jorge Mateo possesses more potential than Andrew Velazquez. Franco will be a free agent at the end of the season, and there should be a better backstop on his way to Baltimore to replace Severino— although Sevy has turned it on in the second half.

Perhaps it’s recency bias, but I’ll take this year’s lineup. Alberto, Núñez and Villar were fun, but they are not solutions. The 2019 club was missing a healthy Mark Trumbo at the end of his career, while this year’s team is missing Mancini in his prime. Mountcastle is a weapon at the plate, and a non-switch-hitting Mullins bests his former self.

I’m not calling this a quality lineup, and it’s extremely difficult to be optimistic during this losing streak, but there does appear to be a template that could be aided by a free agent signing or two in the offseason. There’s no way of knowing whether Mateo, Martin or Urías possess any staying power, but Velazquez and Valaika were never going to elevate the club.

Side note: The pitching is an absolute disaster and will require bona fide major league free agents before the prospects are capable of leading a rotation.