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The Orioles’ three off-season free agent signings are looking a lot smarter now

Robinson Chirinos, Rougned Odor, Jordan Lyles—no one was too excited about them back in the spring, but the trio of veterans has been great for this team, each in different ways.

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New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Since last week, you may have started to see a new genre of Orioles-related Twitter activity cropping up. It’s the “I owe Rougned Odor an apology” tweet. Here’s a small sampling:

This offseason, when the Orioles signed Jordan Lyles, Robinson Chirinos, and Rougned Odor, I, like many fans, was unimpressed. I didn’t want Odor to block Jahmai Jones or Richie Martin’s development. I wanted the Orioles to do better than a career .227-hitting catcher to warm up the seat for Adley Rutschman. I didn’t see how a hurler with a career WAR of -2.2 and ERA of 5.16 really helped our rotation. As far as veteran signings go, these felt more like Yólmer Sánchez and Maikel Franco than Andrew Cashner and Freddy Galvis.

But I have to admit I was wrong. The three have shown immense value to this team, in ways both quantifiable and not.

As a player’s physical tools start to decline, what is it that a veteran can do for a baseball team, exactly? “Steadiness, mentorship, leadership,” are the typical refrigerator-magnet words people throw out. But having observed the Orioles’ trio of Lyles, Chirinos, and Odor, here is a stab at three slightly more specific roles under those headings:

  • One, play as steadily and durably as you can so people can imitate you and pick up the little things in action, especially on the mental side of the game.
  • Two, actively mentor the younger guys: teach them a new grip, maybe, how to read a particular pitcher, or how to stay confident through a slump.
  • Three, set a clubhouse culture, stabilizing the team during the bad times and bringing the confidence and experience to make it fun in the good times.

Of the three, Jordan Lyles is the steady play guy, the one whose output on the field may be most impressive thus far. He was signed to eat innings, not the sexiest of roles, a fact he admits, candidly. But now that he’s here, leading the league in starts and behind only three other pitchers in total innings, it’s a little more impressive. Lyles wants the ball. It’s even more impressive when you see manager Brandon Hyde head out to the mound in the seventh inning and get waved off by his pitcher. Other Orioles pitchers have talked about how unflappable Lyles is: easy to say, hard to do when you’ve allowed a batted ball that whistles by your head. But if they can pick up his ease and focus, the whole staff will be better for it.

It helps, too, that Lyles has pitched to a 4.10 ERA with a 1.35 WHIP heading into June. Will he regress? It’s probable, given that his current 4.17 FIP would be the fourth-lowest of his 12-year career. Then again, some of his numbers are not that inflated, by his own career standards: his HR/9 rate (1.2) is just average for him and he’s allowing plenty of hits. Where Lyles is excelling, by his own terms, is in keeping walks down: 2.7 per nine innings, 62nd percentile in the league. That has nothing to do with the dead ball, nor necessarily anything to do with luck. So, keep it up, Lyles! If he can, those innings he’s been eating will be fun to watch, even.

Robinson Chirinos is the consummate role model/veteran player-qua-coach guy. He has a reputation for mentoring younger guys, even current Yankees catcher José Trevino, when he and Chirinos were with Texas. Brandon Hyde positively gushes when talking about his veteran catcher, saying:

He’s a player, but he really could be a coach. His baseball intellect, he’s just so smart when it comes to the game. … It’s known around the league how much of a pro Robbie is, and how supportive he is, with everybody in our clubhouse. He’s the loudest guy in our dugout during games when he’s not playing, even when he is playing. He’s just constantly supporting others, extremely positive… a wonderful human being and incredible teammate.

So yeah, I’ve grumbled about Chirinos’ offense. With an xBA in the bottom 1% of the league, Chirinos is not exactly demanding a recall of that assessment, but it’s not worth grumbling about it now. The future is Adley, and with this young of a pitching staff it was the right year to get an older catcher to be a mentor. And in that role he’s been outstanding.

Finally, Rougned Odor, the pugnacious second baseman with more heart, maybe, than great hands? I’ve grumbled about his five errors in 143 chances, and his .180 average over his first 20 games. But: since May 16, he’s hit .303 with five extra-base hits and 9 RBIs, at least five of those of the “clutch” variety (e.g. here, here, here). Austin Hays says, “He brings a lot of grit and just hard-nosed baseball to this team.” His pimp jobs are stupendous, too.

Besides, if the 2022 season has been symbolized by anything so far, it’s the home run chain—which Odor, along with Chirinos, apparently helped discover and baptize. It represents the spunkiness and fun-loving nature of this club, and, although no one can prove it, it may be paying off in baseball terms: as the guys have said, “When we have fun, we play good.” I used to think the label “clubhouse guy” was essentially meaningless; now I’m genuinely not so sure.

I’m not saying Lyles, Chirinos, and Odor are the type of free-agent signings we’ll aspire to on the NGOT (Next Good Orioles Team), but these three have already provided a lot more value to the team than was obvious when the ink was drying on their contracts.

OK, we see you, Mike Elias/scouts/et al. Nice job.