The Orioles entered the 2021 season with an incomplete roster. There were plenty of holes, several question marks and even a few that’s the best they can do?’s. No matter how you phrase it, nobody was confusing Baltimore with a playoff team.
The glass-half-full folks would point out that the situation provided several young players an opportunity to catch on with the club. The Orioles, in the middle of a rebuild, needed to evaluate as much talent as possible, and it’s not like there were any $161-million power vacuums standing in the way.
Players came and went. Rio Ruiz had a go at second base, and Wade LeBlanc made multiple appearances. The Orioles have trotted out almost 60 guys this season, but a small group made a lasting impact. The question now becomes which players can carry that momentum into next season and beyond.
Chris Ellis comes to mind with recency bias in play. Ellis, a 28-year-old waiver claim from Tampa Bay, allowed three runs during a three-inning spot start at the beginning of August. Baltimore gave Ellis another shot, and the righty limited a powerful Toronto offense to just two hits over 4.2 innings.
Ellis broke out his next time out with five scoreless frames at Yankee stadium. The zero in the run line turned heads, but a zero in the hit column dropped a few jaws. Ellis followed that performance by again keeping the Blue Jays in check. The Ole Miss product limited Vlad Guerrero Jr. and the boys to just one run through five.
The haters will (fairly) point out that his 5.09 FIP sits much higher than his 2.08 ERA. They’ll mention that Spenser Watkins posted strong numbers early on before quickly returning to the minors. Ellis has just four starts under his belt, and the righty has yet to complete six innings. He struggled at Triple-A this season before a brief stint in Tampa Bay.
On the other hand, Ellis appears to pass the eye test. His breaking ball looks nasty when used properly, and he’s shutdown two of the toughest lineups in baseball. Ellis still holds all three minor league options, and he’s earned a spot on the 40-man as a starter or reliever.
Speaking of the bullpen, no player in Baltimore has made a larger jump than Tyler Wells. Wells joined the Orioles after being selected in the second round of the Rule 5 draft, and became the club’s unofficial closer by the month of September.
Wells posted strong numbers throughout his minor league career, and likely would not have fallen to Rule-5 status without missing the 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery. His 0.876 WHIP and 64 strikeouts over 53.2 innings make him a slam dunk to return next season, but his role could change.
The Orioles could shift Wells to the rotation next spring. It’s a risky move, but the Birds are playing with house money when it comes to Wells. Baltimore could keep the 27-year-old in the back end of the bullpen, but the move could elicit a Miguel Castro-level of gripes.
Baltimore claimed Jorge Mateo off waivers at the beginning of August. The speedy utility man slashed .280/.328/.421 over 32 games before a lumbar injury cut his season short. Mateo appeared banged up over the last week, but a hot start prevented his numbers from dipping too much.
Mateo hit just .207 over 93 plate appearances with San Diego this season, but he appeared to benefit from more consistent at bats. His speed and versatility make him an intriguing option, but his run at the plate guaranteed an opportunity next season.
Mateo possesses the pedigree of a high-level prospect, and he showed a slight improvement on his low walk rate after arriving to Baltimore. The potential is there.
It’s easy to forget that Bruce Zimmermann took the ball in the third game of this season. Zimmermann delivered a quality start in a win over the Red Sox and made 11 starts before injuries derailed his season.
The 26-year-old proved to be a solid contributor that could reliably toss five or six innings. His 4.83 ERA and 5.11 FIP do not jump off the page, but Zimmermann looked the part of a back-end starter. In case you haven’t heard, the Orioles could use a few of those.
There’s an argument to be made that Cedric Mullins exceeded expectations more than any other player in baseball this season. While the All-Star center fielder does not have a long track record of success at the big league level, he has already established himself as multiple tiers above the other overachievers on this team.
Ramón Urías stepped up after Freddy Galvis went down with an injury, and Austin Wynns played his way into the Adley-Rutschman-future-backup conversation. Austin Hays pounded left-handed pitching, and Matt Harvey contributed far more than many expected in the second half.
Which players do you feel most exceeded expectations this season, and which overachiever do you expect the most from moving forward? Let us know!