- Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun took a statistically inclined look at the 2019 season of Orioles Rule V pick Richie Martin (link). As you might expect for a Rule V pick, Martin’s full-season slash line was pretty unsightly at .208/.260/.322, but Meoli points to a few positives in his month-over-month progress. In particular, Martin cut his strikeout rate by nearly 14% from the first to the second half; the infielder also showed less of a reliance on pulling the ball following the All-Star break. Hitting coach Don Long and assistant hitting coach Howie Clark took pains to simplify Martin’s swing over the course of the year, which will, hopefully, lead to Martin finally capturing the potential that Oakland saw in him when it selected him 20th overall in the 2015 amateur draft.
Orioles lefty John Means ascended from 40-man filler to building block in less than a year’s time, and the All-Star rookie sat down with MLB.com’s Joe Trezza to discuss his remarkable season. Candidly, Means revealed that he was expecting to be designated for assignment to clear 40-man space last winter. He’d made an emergency September start, allowing five runs in 3 1/3 innings, and was never considered much of a prospect within the system. Means attributes much of his breakout to a rigorous offseason program with P3 Premier Performance & Pitching, where he was able to boost his velocity, and Spring Training work with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt that led to an improved changeup. He’ll return to P3 this winter and spoke with determination when discussing ways in which he can further improve.
“I was never supposed to be here,” said the southpaw. “I wasn’t a first rounder. I wasn’t a prospect. I wasn’t someone who was supposed to do well. So when you have your success, you want to keep it going. That might take you to a certain level, but it won’t take you over the top or over the hump.” In 155 innings this season, the 26-year-old Means logged a 3.60 ERA with 7.0 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and a 30.9 percent grounder rate. He’s controlled through 2024.
More out of Baltimore as the gears of a rebuild continue to turn…
- Speaking of Holt, he’s being promoted from minor league pitching coordinator to the organization’s director of pitching, Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com reports. In the new role, he’ll have a much larger impact on the big league club and work more closely with returning pitching coach Doug Brocail. Holt came to the Orioles from the Astros alongside GM Mike Elias last offseason. He previously served as Houston’s assistant pitching coordinator but looks increasingly like a rising influence in his new organization, as Kubatko details. He’ll continue to oversee individualized development plans for the team’s minor league pitchers but will now have input on the MLB arms in a season that figures to see several younger arms emerge at the big league level.
- Dylan Bundy’s once-blistering fastball has faded early in his career as he’s worked through myriad injuries, but the right-hander spoke with Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun about his plans to continue working through the lost velocity and alter his pitch mix. Bundy cited Zack Greinke as a model he’d like to follow and explained how he began to favor his offspeed pitches more frequently as the season wore on (and, as Meoli notes, as his production improved). Bundy acknowledged plenty of room for improvement in his bottom-line numbers but spoke confidently about his ability to eventually make things work with a lesser fastball. “Now it’s staying healthy and keep learning what I learned this year about the way I pitched now, just continuing to improve,” he said. “…I think if I pitch at 92-93, 91 even, and locate it, use my other pitches, then I’ve been told that the heater plays up because of that other stuff.” Bundy, controlled by the Orioles through 2021, pitched to a 4.79 ERA with 9.0 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.61 HR/9 and a career-high 41.5 percent grounder rate in 161 2/3 innings this year. He’s projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $5.7MM in 2020.
We’re continuing with our “Three Needs” series, in which we take a look at the chief issues to be addressed for clubs that fell out of contention. The Orioles were about as bad as expected last year, but have plenty of possibilities in their second season under GM Mike Elias.
1. Go Wild On Pitching
The Orioles rotation was simply brutal in 2019, allowing more than two home runs per nine innings on average. John Means was quite effective but outperformed his peripherals by a wide margin. Dylan Bundy showed enough to keep hoping he’ll fully realize his talent. Otherwise … mid-season acquisition Asher Wojciechowski led the way with a 4.96 ERA in 16 starts. There were times where the organization had to scramble to find arms.
The Baltimore org should aim for better in 2020. To be fair, the O’s were hoping for much more from Alex Cobb and Nate Karns. And late-spring signee Dan Straily was worse than should have been expected. But there’s an argument to be made that the club should have been more proactive from the outset — and, more importantly, that it ought to be going forward. Given the state of the returning staff, which could include Cobb if he’s able to work back to health, there’s little choice but to add.
Notably, payroll is continuing to dive. There’s only so far to go while Cobb and Chris Davis are still on the books, but the O’s will start with just over $35MM in obligations before sorting out their arbitration situation. It’d obviously be foolish for the team to go splashing cash on veteran free agents, and attracting the most appealing buy-low candidates will be tough given the difficulties of pitching against AL East sluggers in Camden Yards. But there should be opportunities to acquire interesting pitchers via trade or signing, and the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to commit a bit of cash to acquire some baseline competence and — perhaps — marketable trade assets. And the team should be exceptionally active in grabbing interesting arms from the waiver wire and minor-league free agent market.
2. Market The Middle Infielders
Jonathan Villar and Hanser Alberto both turned in high-quality efforts in 2019. The former checked in at about four wins above replacement thanks to otherworldly baserunning, above-average hitting, and solid-enough glovework at shortstop. He earned nearly $5MM last year and will get a raise, so he isn’t cheap, but Villar is a fascinating utility rental piece for a contender. As for Alberto, he glowed with the glove at second and made so much contact (9.1% strikeout rate, .305 batting average) that you can almost look past his awful 2.9% walk rate. With loads of cheap control (but no options) remaining, Alberto occupies a different but also useful space in the roster landscape.
To be sure, neither of these players is likely to draw a huge return. But it’d be rewarding to get something back for them after already enjoying their strong work in an otherwise largely miserable season. Cashing in now makes sense as well because it would clear the deck to take yet more risks on other middle infielders. The chief asset for a rebuilding team is its roster flexibility. Chasing upside makes sense; at the very least, the team can look for the next Villar or Alberto.
3. Extend Or Trade Trey Mancini
You hate to think about moving a homegrown star at all, but the Orioles need to be careful not to get stuck in the middle on Mancini. He’ll qualify for arbitration for the first time, with three more seasons of control before free agency. On the heels of a strong bounceback campaign (.291/.364/.535, 35 home runs), Mancini is peaking in value.
There have been prior rumblings of a possible extension. That is a strategy worth pursuing. Mancini is already 27, so he’s not exceedingly youthful. But the Baltimore organization will rightly want to keep at least one gate draw on the roster and can still hope that Mancini will be an important part of the club’s next contending outfit.
That said, the price really has to be right to do an extension. The Padres’ experience with Wil Myers provides something of a cautionary tale. If the O’s can’t strike a real bargain, they’re probably better off dangling Mancini to some of the many organizations that would love to install him as a centerpiece for the next three campaigns.
- A sad note of remembrance in recognition of the passing of Orioles organizational fixture Andy Etchebarren, who died this weekend at age 76. Etchebarren, an All-Star in his rookie season of 1966, was an important part of Baltimore’s mid-century dynasty. Perhaps most notably, the backstop helped catch, along with Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles’ four 20-game winners of 1971; it’s probably not un-noteworthy that the man known as “Etch” was also the last man to ever record an at-bat against Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax. After his playing career, as noted in a post from MASN’s Roch Kubatko (link), Etchebarren carved out a nice career for himself as a coach in the Baltimore pipeline, including stints as manager of the club’s Triple-A and Double-A affiliates, and time spent as the bench coach for former manager Davey Johnson.
TODAY: Bullpen coach John Wasdin will also be replaced, per Connolly (via Twitter). Otherwise, it appears the club will not be making further changes to the coaching staff, per Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com (Twitter link).
YESTERDAY: Two Orioles coaches won’t be returning in 2020, as The Athletic’s Dan Connelly (Twitter link) reports that the team isn’t renewing the contracts of first base coach Arnie Beyeler and assistant hitting coach Howie Clark. It isn’t known whether any further changes are coming to Baltimore’s coaching staff.
Beyeler just completed his first year with the Orioles. The 55-year-old has enjoyed a long career as a scout, minor league manager and coach for the Tigers, Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox, Padres, and Marlins organizations, and he also served a previous stint on a big league staff working as Boston’s first base coach from 2013-15 (earning a World Series ring in 2013).
Clark was the only member of Buck Showalter’s coaching staff to remain with the O’s after the team hired Brandon Hyde as its new manager last offseason. Clark has been a coach in Baltimore’s organization for five seasons, first working as a minor league hitting coach before being promoted to the Orioles’ assistant hitting coach position prior to the 2017 campaign.
The Orioles announced that they’ve claimed right-handed reliever Cole Sulser off waivers from the Rays. Baltimore had an opening on its 40-man roster after outrighting fellow righty Chandler Shepherd yesterday.
Sulser, 29, went from the Indians to the Rays in the three-team Edwin Encarnacion/Carlos Santana/Yandy Diaz/Jake Bauers deal last offseason. The former 25th-round pick made his MLB debut with Tampa Bay this season and tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings with just five hits and three walks against nine strikeouts. That was a continuation of a strong season in Triple-A, where Sulser worked 66 innings with a 3.27 ERA, 12.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 31.6 percent ground-ball rate.
Sulser averaged 93.4 mph on his heater in his brief MLB tenure this season, complementing that pitch with an 86.7 mph slider and a much more occasional changeup. He has a decent track record of missing bats in the upper minors despite never getting an opportunity with the Indians. Sulser went unclaimed in last year’s Rule 5 Draft, but he’s managed to elevate his profile in 2019. While he’s too old to be deemed a “prospect,” given that he’ll turn 30 next March, Sulser will have all three minor league option years remaining beyond this season and looks the part of a legitimately intriguing late bloomer. The Rays, who have an extremely crowded 40-man roster, cut him loose over the weekend to get the aforementioned Diaz back on the roster in advance of this week’s AL Wild Card game.
The Orioles announced today that righty Chandler Shepherd has been outrighted after clearing waivers. He lost his 40-man spot after starting the final game of a forgettable Baltimore campaign.
Shepherd, 27, saw his first-ever big-league action this year, taking advantage of the O’s urgent need for arms. He ended up throwing 19 innings, allowing 14 earned runs and five long balls but compiling a sturdy 17:6 K/BB ratio.
A former 13th-round draft pick, Shepherd landed with the Baltimore organization when he was exposed to waivers by the Red Sox. He wasn’t any more effective at Triple-A than he was in the majors this year, but did post a 3.89 ERA in 25 starts at the highest level of the minors in 2018.
Brady Anderson, who formerly served as the Orioles’ vice president of baseball operations, is “stepping aside” and leaving the organization, MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko reports (via Twitter). Anderson, Gary Rajsich and Brian Graham were entrusted with interim oversight of the baseball operations department in Baltimore following the dismissal of GM Dan Duquette last winter, and less than a year later, the entire trio is gone from the organization. Rajsich’s contract wasn’t renewed for the 2019 season, while Graham was fired not long after new GM Mike Elias was hired.
Under the previous front-office regime, Anderson had seemingly risen to a fairly prominent standing. It’s been widely reported that he played a major role in the team’s signings of both Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner late in the 2018-19 offseason, although the Cobb signing has gone particularly awry. His role under Elias had been considerably less integral from a baseball operations vantage point, though; Anderson served in an advisory role with the team’s conditioning and fitness programs, per Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. Whatever role the Orioles might’ve had in mind for him in 2020, if any, it seems that Anderson instead preferred to explore potential new opportunities.
A couple more notes out of Baltimore…
- Another 100-loss season hasn’t swayed Trey Mancini’s commitment to the Orioles, writes Meoli in a separate column. The Orioles’ 2019 leader in home runs (35), Mancini says that his desire to remain in Baltimore has “never wavered at all.” The 27-year-old slugger, who’ll turn 28 next March, likes the direction the team is headed under Elias & Co. and has firmly bought into the Orioles’ rebuilding efforts. Mancini’s own improvement at the plate has been one of the biggest positives with regard to the club’s future outlook. His 2018 season yielded an ugly .242/.299/.416 batting line, but Mancini erupted with a .291/.364/.535 batting line to go along with those 35 homers in 2019. He also improved his walk rate by 2.4 percent and cut his strikeout rate by three percent. He’ll be in for quite the pay increase this winter in his first offseason of arbitration eligibility and is under club control through the 2022 season. However, Mancini has been vocal about hoping to remain in Baltimore, so perhaps the two sides will discuss the possibility of a longer-term arrangement next spring.
- Outfielder Austin Hays had been slated to play in the Arizona Fall League, but the Orioles have “changed their plans” for the resurgent top prospect, MLB.com’s Joe Trezza tweets. Hays won’t play in the AFL after all, but the 24-year-old certainly looks to have rebuilt his stock with a bounceback year. Injury limited Hays to just 75 unproductive games in 2018, but he suited up for 108 games across four minor league levels and the Majors in 2019. Hays reemerged at the MLB level in September, hitting .309/.373/.574 with four home runs in 75 plate appearances down the stretch. He’ll head into Spring Training as one of the favorites (if not the favorite) to open the 2020 season in center field.
- On the opposite side of the service time spectrum is Orioles DH Mark Trumbo, who discussed the forthcoming end of his three-year contract with Baltimore Baseball’s Rich Dubroff. The 33 year-old tells Dubroff he’ll take some time off at the end of the season and gauge how his body feels before determining if he wishes to come back in 2020. So continues a pattern of noncommital responses on his future from Trumbo, who has been hampered by right knee problems for the last year-plus. That injury history means Trumbo will probably have to settle for a minor-league contract with a spring training invite if he does decide to give playing another go.
- It’s no secret that Orioles pitching has come up short this year, but first-year pitching coach Doug Brocail expected some struggles when he took the job last winter. As he and a new front office regime attempt to build a pitching staff from the ground-up, Brocail offers some insight into the state of the organization in an interview with Dan Connolly of The Athletic (subscription required). There’s a long way to go for the team, but Brocail is seeing marginal improvements with rookie general manager Mike Elias trying to play catch-up after inheriting last year’s MLB-worst roster. With the emergence of John Means and the continued growth of the organization’s analytics department, there are some positive takeaways from his first year on the Baltimore staff.