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For the Orioles, 2021 has been The Year of the Audition

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Some have been good, some have been bad. All have been necessary as the team fills gaps and takes stock of its players.

2021 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Anyone recognize this guy? It’s Marcos Diplán, one of the newest members of the Orioles 26-man roster.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This week, in a perfect illustration of the promise and the peril of rebuilds, the Orioles went 3-4 against Detroit and the Yankees. Two bad starts from fringy lefty Alexander Wells bookended one tough-luck loss by Spenser Watkins, equally inexperienced and fringy of stuff but who’s shown good command and toughness. Matt Harvey, the onetime ace who a year ago considered packing his bags for the KBO, gave the Birds one dominant start and one OK, unlucky one where he left early after a comebacker hit his knee. Between these, John Means, a guy who also famously once believed he had no future in baseball, pitched a dominant six innings of four-hit baseball, and Jorge López, a waiver pickup with the best stuff in the starting rotation, silenced a Yankees lineup fortified with two brand-new All-Star lefty bats.

Meanwhile, the team called up relievers Dusten Knight and Marcos Diplán before DFA’ing Pat Valaika and claiming former Top-30 infield prospect Jorge Mateo. When Diplán and Mateo make their debuts with the team, it’ll make 52 players used this season (the team record, set in 2019, is 58) and 14 players making their MLB debuts (one shy of the team record of 15, from 2019). (CC Pre-season Contest alert: if you guessed that total # MLB player debuts > # total intentional walks, so far you’re looking good.)

A ton of roster turnover. Weird paths to the Orioles; hit-or-miss results. Old guys getting chances; new faces trying to hack it in the Majors. Sounds like a rebuilding team.

And of all the lean rebuilding seasons yet endured by this fanbase, it looks like 2021 will stand out as the Year of the Audition. First, because with a crop of prospects rising to MLB maturity, GM Mike Elias is finally cleaning house: testing out what remains of the Dan Duquette regime to decide whether it stays or gets tossed. Secondly, the front office is testing out their scouting eye on the market, trying to spot diamonds in the rough via waiver pickups or the Rule 5 draft. Third, while lower-level prospects mature in Bowie and Aberdeen, a talent dearth in the infield and the starting rotation is giving veterans a chance to extend their careers.

So far as I can glean, this makes three types of auditions, each with varying success.

The Old Regime

Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle, John Means, Chance Sisco, DJ Stewart, Ryan McKenna, Anthony Santander, Stevie Wilkerson, Richie Martin, Cody Carroll, Evan Phillips, Bruce Zimmermann, Hunter Harvey, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Dillon Tate, Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, Austin Wynns, Alexander Wells, Zac Lowther

Holdovers who’ve had to prove they deserve their spots, some have shone; for others, their time with the team may be drawing to an end. Put Hays, Means (duh), Mullins (duh), Mountcastle, and Mancini in the former category. In the latter, already-cut folks like Wilkerson, Carroll, Phillips, and Sisco. Austin Wynns is here strictly in a short-term capacity, which was true even before Adley Rutschman became the O’s anointed catcher of the future.

A few fall in the middle. Trending up, perhaps, but with more to prove are glove-first spark-plug Ryan McKenna; Richie Martin, injury-plagued but capable of web gems; and the plucky lefty Bruce Zimmermann. The talented-but-erratic reliever trio of Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, and Tanner Scott may end up getting moved in the offseason precisely because they have shown value.

Meanwhile, trending down: this is a crucial year for DJ Stewart and Anthony Santander to “go up or out,” and neither has shown enough. It’s not clear whether Hunter Harvey can stay healthy, or whether starter candidates Akin, Kremer, Lowther and Wells can dig themselves out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves this season.

The “Diamond in the Rough” Types

Rio Ruiz, Pat Valaika, Ramón Urías, Domingo Leyba, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Jorge López, Tyler Wells, Mac Sceroler, Mickey Jannis, Tom Eshelman, Shaun Anderson, Adam Plutko, Brandon Waddell, Dusten Knight, Conner Greene, Pedro Severino, Spenser Watkins, Marcos Diplán, Jorge Mateo, Isaac Mattson

Folks signed on the cheap in hopes that their talents had been ignored by other teams, all were picked by the Elias regime, but some have already reached the end of the line (to wit: a string of DFAs including Armstrong, Ruiz, Leyba, Mac Sceroler, Mickey Jannis, Shaun Anderson and—yesterday!—Pat Valaika). This group also includes a huge batch of pitchers who’ve been back and forth between Norfolk and Baltimore whose names might make you go, Who?: Konner Wade, Conner Greene, Diplán, and so forth.

Overall, very low success rate in this category. So far, the only diamonds seem to be Ramón Urías and his 114 OPS+, Rule 5 pick and possible closer Tyler Wells, and Jorge López, depending on how you’re feeling about him that day. Kelvin Gutiérrez may still make a revival with the club, and the dark horse relievers could have a contender among them, too. Spenser Watkins has looked better than expected.

The “One More Shot” Types

Matt Harvey, Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco, Wade LeBlanc, César Valdez

Honestly, it’s surprising how short this list is, considering the Orioles’ enormous roster needs this offseason. Maikel Franco seems like a waste of a spot, and LeBlanc obviously didn’t pan out. But if Harvey continues his resurgence and Valdez his recent effectiveness, then, coupled with the solid Galvis, who came and did his job in half a season, it’s a pretty good track record over a short list of veterans.

Conclusions? A lot of names. Yep. And actually, that the old regime didn’t do too badly, given the number of holdovers making strong stands with the club this year (possibly this is because the list was already culled and filtered, the way is happening now).

From the dizzying roster merry-go-round clarity and competence should come eventually. But for now, buckle up: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.