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Orioles-Royals series preview: The Witt-Rutschman showdown will have to wait

The top two picks of the 2019 draft could have squared off this weekend, but Bobby Witt Jr. is the only one of the duo to make his MLB debut so far.

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New York Yankees v. Kansas City Royals Photo by Colin Braley/MLB Photos via Getty Images

If you looked at the Orioles’ 2022 schedule before the season, you might have — for once — been excited about the idea of an O’s-Royals matchup in early May. The series was supposed to mark the first career showdown between the two top prospects in baseball, Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr., who were selected first and second overall, respectively, in the 2019 MLB draft.

Alas, Rutschman’s triceps injury in spring training put the kibosh on that potential mano a mano. While Rutschman continues to work his way through his minor league rehab for the Orioles, Witt will have the mega-prospect stage to himself this series.

The 21-year-old five-tool talent is considered a superstar in the making for the Royals, who wasted no time bringing him to the majors, putting Witt on their Opening Day roster after just one full minor league season. The son of the longtime big leaguer of the same name, Witt grades highly on the 20-80 scouting scale in nearly every facet of the game, with The Athletic’s Keith Law writing, “He’s at least a 70 runner, has an 80 arm, has plus power, and his hands and feet make him a plus glove at shortstop.”

To start his MLB career, though, Witt has almost exclusively been playing third base, logging just one inning at short, where Adalberto Mondesi started the first 15 games before tearing his ACL and Nicky Lopez has filled in since. Witt hasn’t set the world on fire offensively as yet, batting .229/.264/.349 with one home run, but he recently rattled off an 11-game hitting streak in which he posted an .874 OPS, suggesting that he’s slowly but surely making the adjustment to major league pitching.

Witt is far from the only Royal with less-than-stellar hitting stats so far. Nearly the entire offense has been in a funk, as Kansas City’s team OPS of .603 is third-worst in the majors. Seven-time All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, coming off a 48-homer season, has bopped five roundtrippers but carries a lowly .588 OPS. Veteran Whit Merrifield has been horrific, with just 14 hits in 101 plate appearances and a .151/.198/.183 line. Lopez isn’t hitting, and neither were Mondesi nor first baseman Carlos Santana before they landed on the injured list. The Royals’ lone offensive standout has been left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who’s batting .354 with an .846 OPS. The O’s are plenty familiar with Benintendi from his Red Sox days.

The news isn’t much better on the mound, where the Royals’ 4.57 team ERA is the fourth worst in baseball. The Orioles will miss Kansas City’s best starter, righty Brad Keller, who has a tidy 1.74 mark after five starts. The Royals do have some intriguing arms in the bullpen, including right-handers Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, and Taylor Clarke, who have split four saves between them. Still, at 8-15, the Royals don’t yet seem like they have the pieces to make a run at contention in 2022, even with Witt on their side.

The current weather forecast for Baltimore this weekend is atrocious, with rain expected all day both Friday and Saturday, so it’ll be a minor miracle if all three games are played.

Game 1: Friday, 7:05 PM, MASN

RHP Carlos Hernandez (0-1, 6.00) vs. RHP Jordan Lyles (2-2, 4.50)

DraftKings odds: Orioles +1.5 runs is a -170 bet, or Orioles to win is +100

The 25-year-old Hernandez impressed in 2021, shifting from the bullpen to become a regular in the starting rotation in the second half, but he’s off to a rocky start in 2022. He’s allowed nearly two baserunners per inning in part because of erratic control; Hernandez surrendered five walks in his last start against the Yankees and has given up 10 free passes in 18 innings this year. Perhaps he’ll fare better against the Orioles, whom he faced last September and stymied for six scoreless innings and just three hits, all singles.

Lyles is coming off a Houdini-esque performance against the Red Sox in which he allowed 11 baserunners but just one run in six innings. He’s lived up to his reputation as an eminently hittable pitcher — with a league-leading 32 hits allowed — who nonetheless gives his team a chance to win. He’s pitched well against the Royals in his career, with a 2.20 ERA in five starts against them. Perez has tagged him for two home runs.

Game 2: Saturday, 7:05 PM, MASN

LHP Daniel Lynch (2-1, 3.86) vs. RHP Tyler Wells (0-2, 4.50)

This will be the Orioles’ first look at Lynch, a Royals first-round draft pick in 2018. Lynch was the Royals’ best pitching prospect, and a top-100 prospect in baseball, before his graduation to the majors last year. The 25-year-old lefty had a rocky introduction to the bigs, throwing just two quality starts in 15 outings last year and getting demoted back to the minors at one point, and his 2022 campaign began with a six-run debacle against St. Louis. But he’s pitched well in his three starts since, including back-to-back scoreless outings April 20 and 26. Another point in his favor is that Orioles hitters have been particularly futile against southpaws this year, batting a collective .201/.289/.272 with just three home runs in 317 plate appearances.

The Tyler Wells starting experiment has taken a turn for the better in the last two games. The 6’8’’ right-hander reached the five-inning mark against both the Yankees and Twins, holding each to two runs or fewer. The Orioles have lost all five of Wells’ starts this season, though that’s far from his fault, as the Birds have combined for just nine runs in those five games. Wells faced the Royals three times last year, working 2.1 scoreless innings of relief.

Game 3: Sunday, 1:35 PM, MASN

RHP Zack Greinke (0-2, 2.57) vs. LHP Bruce Zimmermann (1-1, 2.59)

Can I tell you how happy I am that Zack Greinke is still doing his thing? He’s a delightful character, a future Hall of Famer, and, again, a delightful character. I would’ve loved the Orioles to sign him as a veteran mentor this past season, but Greinke understandably chose to return to the familiar confines of Kansas City, where he was the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft and spent the first seven years of his career, winning the AL Cy Young in 2009.

Now 38, Greinke is still a productive major league pitcher, even after posting a 103 ERA+ for the Astros last year — still above average, mind you — that was his worst mark in five years. He’s off to a strong start in 2022, working five or more innings in each of his five games and surrendering three runs or fewer each time. He is, however, striking out only 2.3 batters per nine innings, which is likely a small sample-size fluke. In his career, Greinke is 3-2 with a 4.79 ERA in 11 games against the Orioles. Ryan Mountcastle and Robinson Chirinos have each tagged him for a home run, while Rougned Odor and Chris Owings are a combined 2-for-21.

Poor Bruce Zimmermann — earlier this week, he saw his ERA rise by more than a full point when he wasn’t even pitching. A couple of long-after-the-fact scoring changes involving his April 28 outing at Yankee Stadium (the one where the Orioles made all the errors, all the time) turned two Kelvin Gutierrez miscues into hits and added three earned runs to Zimmermann’s ledger where he’d previously had zero. As a result, his ERA climbed from 1.48 to 2.59 with the click of a button. Tough break. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Zimmermann has been the Orioles’ most reliable starter this year. He’ll be facing the Royals for the first time in his career.

Poll

How many games will the Orioles win in this series against the Royals?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    3 (Orioles will sweep!)
    (27 votes)
  • 57%
    2
    (59 votes)
  • 12%
    1
    (13 votes)
  • 2%
    0
    (3 votes)
102 votes total Vote Now