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The Top 10 Orioles in WAR this season: It’s an interesting list

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There are a few standouts, a few surprises, and not a ton more beyond that.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

As a dreary season draws to a close for the Orioles, it’s a good time to look backwards and ahead with an eye to better baseball. There’s a crop of prospects banging on the door, and at the major-league level, people whose auditions for the 2022 season are worthy of attention.

Last night’s improbable, come-from-behind win over the Yankees featured big contributions from several of this season’s most valuable O’s: a 2-for-4 night from Cedric Mullins; a life-giving solo blast from Ryan Mountcastle; two scoreless, hitless innings from Cole Sulser; the game-winning walk-off single from “Action” Austin Hays. And let’s not forget Chris Ellis, who’s come out of nowhere to stabilize a depleted rotation.

Here, in order, are the Top 10 Orioles in value to the team, measured in Wins Above Replacement (WAR):

Surprises? Certainly not Means and Mullins. But it’s great—and maybe unexpected—to see the often injury-prone Austin Hays round out the top 3. Hays hadn’t played more than 33 games in a season before this year; in 2021 he’s played 114, and it’s making a difference. Ramón Urías, who in 2019 was still playing for Los Mochis of the Mexican League, was recently called by MLB the O’s “most overlooked player” this season, with the team’s second-best OBP. Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells has been a revelation, even if he’s struggled in the closer spot of late. Bruce Zimmermann has been the most successful of the O’s rookie prospects in just 11 starts. Chris Ellis has managed to sneak onto this list, and he’s been an Oriole less than a month.

(If you’re wondering, the worst players on the team are: Maikel Franco (-1.5 WAR), Pat Valaika (-1.2 WAR), Spenser Watkins (-0.9 WAR), Adam Plutko (-0.8 WAR), Domingo Leyba (-0.7 WAR), and Richie Martin (-0.7 WAR)).

What do these individual WAR totals mean in absolute terms? Below is Fangraphs’ chart decoding WAR over a season.

Source: What is WAR? Fangraphs

There’s good news and bad. The good news: with his 5.4 WAR, Cedric Mullins literally gets a grade of “superstar,” confirming what we all already believed. John Means is a proper All-Star, at 4.3 WAR. Austin Hays is a “solid starter,” which is a reassuring level of performance to see from him over the course of a season. Sulser and Urías are sniffing around the same level.

Let’s put WAR totals in a little greater perspective. The current MLB WAR leaders—Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien—clock in at 6.9 and 6.7, respectively, with Mullins ranking 14th and Means 44th. In Orioles historical terms, a 5.9 WAR season ties you with Brady Anderson (1999), Paul Blair (1970), Manny Machado (2013), Boog Powell (1969), Merv Rettenmund (1971) and Miguel Tejada (2005) for the 50th-best all-around season in team history. The best ever: Cal Ripken in 1991, at 11.5. Crazy. The next-best: Cal Ripken in 1984, 10.0. Crazy.

Now here’s the bad: according to Fangraphs, the rest-of-the-best clock in somewhere between “Role Player” (1-2 WAR) and “Scrub” (0-1 WAR). That includes Wells, Mancini, Mountcastle and Zimmermann. In other words, the sixth-best Oriole is a replaceable piece on another team.

Maybe this is to be expected from a team built of other teams’ castoffs and that’s soon going to cross—sorry, calling it now—the 100-loss threshold again this season. Built to compete? No, not at all. We knew that. So expecting much depth is, arguably, pointless.

If you want to be optimistic about it, though, there’s an argument to be made that the No. 6-10 bunch (Wells, Mancini, Mountcastle, Zimmermann and Ellis) have more to show, none having hit their ceiling just yet. Most Orioles fans, I expect, want to see more from Zimmermann, Chris Ellis and Tyler Wells, who have been intriguing in a short time as Orioles.

As for the position players, it can be argued that Mountcastle and Mancini have a lower ceiling defined by their chronically average defense, but this might be stingy, too. Mancini posted a 3.7 WAR in 2019, and he’s done what he’s done in 2021 under highly stressful (to say the least) circumstances. Meanwhile, Mountcastle has made adjustments all season in the areas of pitch recognition and plate discipline, and his defense has seen improvements, too.

From a teamwide perspective, the—unsurprising and obvious—conclusion is that there are precious few pitchers who have performed well this year. Among starters, it’s only Means, Ellis and Zimmermann. Considering how few games the latter two played with this team this season, that’s concerning—actually, it’s downright sad that Bruce Zimmermann is still on the Top 10 list, having not pitched since June 13. Good relievers: it’s pretty much just Sulser and Wells.

On the other hand, the Orioles—it’s often said—are a team that gives opportunities, and Ellis’ impressive added value in just five games with Baltimore is a perfect illustration of that fact. There’s a lot about this team that needs to be scrapped, rebuilt, or fixed. But there are some exciting pieces that have been unearthed this year, and which could and should be around next season.