The Baltimore Orioles have played one playoff game in the last seven seasons, and we’re all still waiting for Zack Britton to walk through the bullpen door. Life is hard as a two-story walk-up in a land of skyscrapers that make up the AL East. In three of the last four seasons, the Orioles finished at least 48 games out of first place (the other was a 60-game season and they finished 15 games out). There’s no such thing as margin for error for the Orioles. They have to hit on virtually every prospect, win every trade and get a little bit of love from Lady Luck. There are a few examples of developmental wins on the roster, but they’ll need more. This is another season for the Orioles in which what happens at the minor league level is more important than what happens at the major league level.
The Orioles need more guys such as Cedric Mullins to emerge. That’s easier said than done, but Mullins, who was the league’s only player with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, became a star. He slashed .291/.360/.518 with a .372 wOBA and had 5.3 fWAR. As a team, the Orioles had 8.9 fWAR among players that had at least one plate appearance. Mullins had never hit more than 14 home runs in a minor league season and showed no signs of that kind of production over his 418 major league plate appearances entering 2021.
Offensively, the Orioles have the potential to be decent. Ryan Mountcastle hit 30 homers last year, while Austin Hays and Trey Mancini combined for 43. Mancini missed the 2020 season while being treated for cancer and did wear down in 2021, posting a .791 OPS in the first half and just a .711 OPS in the second half, with only five of his 21 homers coming after the All-Star Break. Mountcastle struck out at a much higher clip than he did at any point in the minors, and a few more balls in play with his good contact authority will lead to better numbers across the board.
Another guy with some upside is Anthony Santander, who wasn’t able to replicate his outstanding 2020 season, but he was a bit unlucky in 2021. He had a career-best 43.2% Hard Hit% but pulled the ball into the shift a lot and had just a .232 BABIP from the left side. He also had wide home/road splits, posting a .355 wOBA at home and a .265 wOBA on the road.
Unfortunately, the top guys weren’t good enough to overshadow the rest of the roster, as the Orioles ranked 24th in wOBA at .305 and had the third-lowest BB% in the league. From a contact-quality standpoint, the Orioles were 25th in Hard Hit%. Star prospect Adley Rutschman should help those numbers, but the switch-hitting catcher was plagued by an injury in spring training that will probably delay his debut. He slashed .285/.397/.502 across 358 Double-A and 185 Triple-A plate appearances last season.
The Orioles’ offense wasn’t going to have a high projection anyway, but some ballpark alterations are going to significantly hurt right-handed batters at Camden Yards. The left-field fence, from the foul pole all the way to center field, has been moved back, and the wall has gone from 7.5 feet in height to 13 feet.
Orioles pitchers will get a little help from the ballpark adjustments, and they’ll need it. Playing 76 of 162 games against AL East teams is a big reason why the O’s had far and away the worst ERA in the majors last year. The staff checked in at 5.85, while the Diamondbacks were 29th at 5.15. The Orioles’ FIP of 5.15 was also 0.27 runs worse than the Diamondbacks. The Orioles allowed 258 home runs, which tied for the fifth-most homers ever allowed in a single season. All four of the higher totals came in 2019 with a juiced baseball (the Orioles were one of those teams and have the all-time record with 305 homers allowed).
The Orioles have a well-defined lack of talent in the pitching department. John Means would be a solid No. 3 or No. 4 starter, but he is the de facto ace of this group. Means has elite K/BB numbers but his command is suspect, having allowed 65 homers over the last three seasons including 30 in 146.2 innings last season. For his career, he has a 3.82 ERA with a 4.65 FIP, but the low walk rate and low hit totals against have allowed him to outperform his advanced metrics.
One big problem for the Orioles is that luring free agents is virtually impossible. They signed Jordan Lyles to a $7 million deal, which is a big price to pay for a guy that had a 5.15 ERA with a 5.34 FIP. It speaks to the caliber of pitcher willing to go to Baltimore and face AL East offenses.
Beyond Means and Lyles, the Orioles are hoping 27-year-olds Bruce Zimmermann and Keegan Akin can make some kind of leap. The good command numbers that Zimmermann showed in the minors have not translated to the majors with 16 homers allowed in 71.1 innings, but he could be the biggest benefactor of the new park dimensions. Akin has had flashes in the minors with high strikeout rates, but his control and command haven’t proven to be big-league ready.
Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall should replace some below average starters later in the season, with Rodriguez graded as a top-five MLB prospect and Hall in the top 30. We’ll have to see how aggressive the Orioles are with those guys. Both missed the 2020 season when there was no minor league baseball. Hall only made seven starts in 2021, while Rodriguez made 23 and worked 103 innings across two levels.
The starters weren’t the only pitchers that performed poorly. The Orioles ranked dead last in reliever ERA at 5.70, with another huge gap to the team that ranked 29th. Cole Sulser (now traded to Marlins) was outstanding with a 2.70 ERA and a 3.17 FIP, but he was the only pitcher with at least 20 relief appearances with an ERA under 4.00. Tyler Wells had a 4.11 ERA and a 3.63 FIP with 65 strikeouts against 12 walks. The converted starter looks like he’ll hold the fireman role this season, getting the call whenever needed and for multiple innings if necessary.
The Orioles’ bullpen did get a little unlucky with the lowest LOB% at 65.2%, but it also ranked 28th in K%. Striking out batters makes it a lot easier to strand runners, and only the A’s and Diamondbacks were worse in that department.
Player to Watch
SP Grayson Rodriguez: While Rutschman has been considered a can’t-miss prospect since high school, Rodriguez is the one I’m most interested in because of the Orioles’ dire need for pitching. FanGraphs made G-Rod, 22, their highest-rated pitching prospect with a fastball that touches triple digits and a front-of-the-rotation frame of 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. Per the FG scouting report, all five of his pitches already grade above average. He struck out 161 batters against just 17 walks in 103 innings last season. The Astros push pitching prospects quickly. Now we’ve seen the Tigers, with former Astros manager AJ Hinch, do the same. Well, the Orioles front office is led by Mike Elias, formerly with the Astros. If Rodriguez stays healthy, I’d expect him to debut in late May or early June.
The Orioles are slated for another last-place finish in a challenging AL East. The offense is relatively solid but the pitching staff is severely undermanned, at least for now. Help is coming from below, but taking a squirt gun to a raging wildfire doesn’t really work. A complete overhaul of the staff is needed, which is part of the team’s five-year plan. The division is a bear with 57 games against the Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays. In terms of DraftKings win totals, the Yankees and Blue Jays are two of seven teams lined in the 90s and the Rays are at 89.5. Even the Red Sox are lined in the mid-80s. The O’s were 20-56 against the AL East last season and the other four teams in the division might all be better in 2022. The Orioles finished 39 games behind the fourth-place Blue Jays last season. It will be another long year for the O’s, but the future does look a little brighter.
Win Total Lean: Over 62.5