It is easy to write off the Baltimore Orioles.
Manager Brandon Hyde’s team is off to a 6-13 start, on pace for a record of 51-111. FiveThirtyEight’s MLB forecast sees the O’s rebounding only slightly, predicting a league-worst 61 wins. None of this is new — the last time the Orioles finished a full season with fewer than 100 losses was 2017.
But look under the hood, and there are some significant signs of progress — and a real sense that this team is closer to respectability, even contention, than you might think.
This is true in many respects given the pipeline of minor league talent drawing closer by the day, with the latest Baltimore promotion, pitching prospect Kyle Bradish, set to make his major league debut Friday night. For Hyde, even as he prepares his team for battle every night at the big-league level, there is a sense of anticipation about the talent that’s coming as well.
“I keep track of what our minor league guys do,” Hyde told me, sitting in the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium this week. “I keep track of our upper-level guys. I’ve read the game reports every morning. We’re inching closer.”
Bradish is one example — a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft by the Angels (acquired in Baltimore’s deal for pitcher Dylan Bundy) who has been absolutely dominant in the minor leagues. He finished 2021 at Double-A Bowie with 13 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 26, and got the call after an excellent start to 2022 at Triple-A Norfolk, with an ERA of 1.20 and 17 strikeouts in 15 innings.
And yet, Bradish is not the only highly anticipated member of the Norfolk staff. There’s Grayson Rodriguez, who is dominating Triple-A hitters as well, with an absurd 28-to-3 K/BB rate over his first four starts to go with a 2.45 ERA. A team that has struggled to prevent runs during this long stretch of futility is set to add multiple cornerstone pieces to its rotation, with D.L. Hall — another elite arm who is receiving encouraging reports as he returns from injury — just behind them.
Even more encouraging for the Orioles is the early success of Bruce Zimmermann, a 27-year-old Baltimore native acquired from the Braves in the 2018 Kevin Gausman deal. Zimmerman’s first four starts of 2022 reflect a pitcher ready to make the leap — a 0.93 ERA and peripherals that suggest it is for real, with a 21-to-6 K/BB ratio in 19 ⅓ innings.
“Zimmermann shut us down last time over in Baltimore,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday. “And, you know, understandably, a lot of the questions were about our offense that day. … I thought a big part of that was Zimmermann, he threw the ball incredibly well.”
Zimmermann has changed his pitch makeup dramatically since his 2020 debut, when he threw four-seamers about half the time. He’s emphasizing his slider more, the command of which Hyde cited as a reason for his success, and he now throws his changeup virtually as often as his four-seamer (one-third of the time for each), giving him a pair of elite weapons. So far, whiff rates on those two pitches are up significantly over last season, and no one has a hit against his slider, with eight strikeouts in 10 at-bats that ended with a Zimmermann slider.
Let’s not sugarcoat this, though: During the rebuild, the Orioles have run into problems not only in the starting rotation but in the bullpen and with everyday players as well. But there are also reasons for optimism on both those fronts.
The Orioles have five relief pitchers with at least eight innings pitched and ERAs of 3.50 or lower: Keegan Akin, Dillon Tate, Jorge López, Joey Krehbiel and Félix Bautista. Notably, all have excellent strikeout rates but succeed in different ways, from Akin’s four-seamer to Bautista’s splitter to López’s sinker, which comes in a shade under 98 miles per hour and generates plenty of swings and misses.
López, who debuted in 2015 and is a well-traveled 29-year-old, attributes his success to his health, which allows him to throw the pitches that help him most when he wants to, rather than when one malady or another allows for it.
“But to come to spring training throwing mid-90s already, good spots, that was huge for me,” López said.
It also allowed the Orioles to move Tyler Wells, last year’s closer, to the starting rotation, a season after selecting Wells in the Rule 5 draft.
Incremental improvements like this can help bridge the gap, according to Hyde, who noted that this team hasn’t yet increased payroll to a point that it is competitive against the behemoths in the division like Boston, New York, Toronto and hyper-efficient Tampa Bay. “We haven’t entered player-acquisition mode,” Hyde said. But interestingly, the lineup, for its early struggles, may be the place of least concern, even with a slash line of just .217/.305/.315 entering Friday night’s games.
The lineup is where the most successful Orioles tend to leave their marks. There is 2021 Comeback Player of the Year Trey Mancini, who hit 21 home runs last year. There’s Cedric Mullins, the team’s star center fielder, who broke out with 30 homers in 2021. Anthony Santander, the right fielder, has cut his swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone from north of 40 percent in 2019 and 2020 to less than 30 percent so far in 2022. He walked 23 times all of last season but is already at 14 on the season — and April isn’t over yet. Shortstop Jorge Mateo has the tools to be a plus defensive shortstop, the organization believes, with plays like this only reinforcing his case.
Ryan Mountcastle, who plays some first and some left field, slashed .255/.339/.487 in 2021 while breaking Cal Ripken’s franchise record for most home runs by a rookie with 33. Mullins and Austin Hays — who hit 22 home runs last year in his first chance at regular work in the outfield, and is off to a strong start again in 2022 — were both cited by Yankees manager Aaron Boone as potential foes for years to come.
But the first player Boone mentioned hasn’t even played a major league game yet.
“I saw Adley Rutschman start a rehab assignment the other day,” he said, referring to the switch-hitting catcher who is plus defensively behind the plate. It is easy to understand the level of excitement for Rutschman, who is likely to make his debut soon. I saw him in Double-A last year, facing Luis Severino on a rehab assignment throwing 99 to 100 mph, and Rutschman got ahead of him, then crushed a home run over the right field fence. He’ll be an immediate star — and a huge upgrade over the capable backup currently holding down the fort, Robinson Chirinos, who is slashing .189/.318/.243 so far this year.
Nor is Rutschman alone among Baltimore hitters — infielders Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg and outfielder Hudson Haskin are already tearing up Double-A, and center fielder Colton Cowser, in High-A but not for long, might be the best of the bunch beyond Rutschman.
The Orioles sense this positive movement as well, and Hyde will have the chance to see it through — the Baltimore Sun reported this week that Hyde is under contract beyond this season. “I think we’re getting closer to being the type of team we know that we want to be,” Hyde said. “It just takes time. We talk a lot about the process, which is tough to talk about year after year, but we are getting more talented.”
His Orioles went out and lost that night, and again the next day. But this isn’t just happy talk from a manager. All the signs are there.
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