Baltimore’s Losing Season Has Been a Productive Oneon September 21, 2020 at 7:30 pm

Baltimore’s Losing Season Has Been a Productive One

The Baltimore Orioles have guaranteed that they will finish below the .500 mark after dropping four of five games to the Tampa Bay Rays. After playing relevant baseball for a good chunk of this shortened season and hovering in wild card contention into early September, fighting with the Red Sox to stay out of the AL East basement might be a disappointing result to some. As a suburban Baltimore native — like Elaine Benes, I’m from Towson — I can’t deny that the Orioles making the playoffs would’ve been cool, even with the COVID-19 restrictions preventing me from sneaking out of the press box for some pit beef. The 2020 season is unsuccessful from the point-of-view of the standings, but in terms of building a future contender, the O’s made real progress.

When it comes to roster construction, my personal credo is that if you can’t add good players, add interesting ones. I feel that even in a season that’s lost from a qualifying-for-the-playoffs perspective, there are no lost at-bats or innings pitched. Rebuilding isn’t just adding a bunch of players in the draft and seeing what happens; it’s a process of finding out every bit of information about your talent that you can. Even in just 60 games, the Orioles know a lot more about their roster than they did at the start of the year. The team has some veterans, but in most cases, they made sure to find playing time for a large percentage of the players with a plausible future in Baltimore.

We learned a lot about the players in the end, and for many of them, I feel better about a larger role in 2021 and beyond than I did before this season. And because it’s me, let’s just throw in some (preliminary) 2021-25 ZiPS projections.

Hanser Alberto

Never really considered a significant prospect with the Rangers, Alberto was one of the more fascinating O’s in 2019 — and not just because of his .305/.329/.422 line. In an age of low batting averages and high walk rates, Alberto’s a bit of a throwback. Stat lines like the .330/.346/.452 with nine walks in 101 games he put up for Triple-A Round Rock in 2018 feel more like something you’d see 40 years ago. The question about Alberto was whether he could come close to 2019 again, and while he hasn’t quite matched that performance, I think we’re at the point where we could reasonably expect him to be an adequate stopgap at second while the team builds. Perhaps there’s still some upside left if there’s some improvement in plate discipline; Alberto’s contact numbers aren’t at David Fletcher levels of excellence, and that’s what you would need to see a three-win season from Alberto without 2019’s power.

Ryan Mountcastle

I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t start the season with the team, but his performance since being called up a month ago has been anything but. While he’s been a bit aggressive at the plate for my liking — and for his contact skills — you can’t complain too much about aggression when a player’s wRC+ is north of 140. My big worries about Mountcastle were whether he had a defensive position in the majors, and if he did, would his bat be potent enough to prevent him from being one of those corner-infield tweeners who don’t hit enough for first or field well enough for third. None of the projection systems have fallen head-over-heels in love with Mountcastle’s bat, largely due to the shortness of the season and the .400 BABIP, but I think his outlook has inched up enough to dispel some of the more serious worries.

Nobody’s going to confuse Mountcastle’s defense in the outfield with prime Jason Heyward, but he’s been downright adequate, something helpful on a team with a surplus of first-base types. I’d still like to see the team not completely throw in the towel for him at third, however.

Anthony Santander

Santander’s always been a tricky player to evaluate. As a former Rule 5 pick who missed significant time with injury issues, he doesn’t have as lengthy a body of work as most other players his age. He finally received significant playing time in 2019 with mixed results; his plate discipline has room for improvement but the power was there. The pop has hung around in 2020, and he’s made some progress in plate discipline issues. I’m still not convinced Santander’s ever going to be better than, say, C.J. Cron, but with 31 homers in 570 PA in 2019 and 2020, he’s done enough for the O’s to at least pencil him into the 2021 lineup.

DJ Stewart

I’d personally trust DJ Stewart less when it comes to defense than Santander or Mountcastle, so with Trey Mancini hopefully returnining to the O’s in 2021, Stewart probably has the most to gain if the O’s have truly moved on from the idea that there’s going to be any kind of bounceback from Chris Davis. Stewart’s contact skills are unimpressive, but he’s compensated for that by swinging at the right pitchers; if you reduce the qualifying plate appearances to 50, Stewart would rank 15th in baseball in zone swing percentage. And of the 14 players ahead of him, 13 had a higher out-of-zone swing percentage! Even being quite unlucky in terms of BABIP, he’s walked and hit for enough power to peak at a 255 wRC+ in his small sample.

Renato Nunez

Renato Nunez is still hitting for power, but he has taken a bit of a step back in terms of plate discipline and likely has less upside than any of the last three players mentioned, although he likely also has the highest floor. Nunez has been a fun story in Baltimore, but a Mancini return ought to leave him about fifth in the team’s 1B/corner outfield/DH pecking order. I think he’d flourish for a team like the Rangers or, if the designated hitter continues in the NL, the Rockies. Up until this point, every player on this list added at least a half-win to their 2021 projections.

John Means

For John Means, a surprise All-Star in 2019, this year has been an odd one. After missing time due to COVID-19, he’s put up a season full of conflicting numbers. Despite adding velocity and improving contact rates, he’s been less productive overall thanks to his HR/FB inflating from 9.9% to 22.0%. His xFIP, which normalizes home run totals, actually puts his 2020 at three-quarters of a run better than his 2019 season. And all this comes despite inducing more grounders than last year. Means is even coming off the best start of his career, striking out 12 Rays in 5.2 innings, nearly doubling the strikeouts from his next-best start (seven).

It may be hard to draw a lesson from a bizarre campaign such as this one, but for the O’s, it’s a useful one: Means is not a Tom Glavine FIP-trashing unicorn. He’s a good mid-rotation starter, one who can hopefully soak some innings and a lot better than another famous suprising O’s lefty from the days of near-yore, Jeff Ballard. But he’s not going to be Baltimore’s Mark Buehrle.

Tanner Scott

In the ZiPS projections, there have been two pitchers with notably bimodal outlooks, meaning projected results that look like two bell curves rather than one: Michael Kopech and Tanner Scott. We didn’t get to see any Kopech in 2020, but we did get enough of Scott that it’s more likely that he’s going to land in the “really good” bucket rather than the “Brad Pennington” one. To my eyes, Scott’s issue has long been simply locating pitches rather than not knowing what to do with his high-90s fastball and slider. His stuff’s good enough that he can survive still walking four batters a game, which was the key question he had to answer. I’m of the belief that the O’s should enter 2021 with Scott as the assumed closer.

Pedro Severino & Chance Sisco

I’m still a bit disgruntled that the O’s spent so much time playing veteran Caleb Joseph in 2018 instead of Chance Sisco. The new regime avoided slapping a veteran behind the plate in 2019 and found enough time to look at Sisco, Pedro Severino, and Austin Wynns. The results were mixed; Sisco wasn’t impressive at or behind the plate, and while Severino hit, his defense didn’t match up to his reputation as a prospect for the Nats. But both Sisco and Severino have been better offensive and defensively, to the point at which you can say either are legitimate major league catchers. This season hasn’t made it clear which one should get the majority of the playing time in 2021, but too much depth at a position is only a problem for a team that lacks imagination.

Will the Orioles be serious contenders in 2021? They are still in the talent-assembling phase, have a lot of pitchers left to find, and need to see who pans out in the first base/corner outfield logjam. But if you can’t be good, be interesting, and the team has achieved that.

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