The Baltimore Orioles in 2021 were bad, but unlike in 2020, they were bad while taking some significant steps back. In a disastrous 52-110 campaign, their pitching crumbled with only John Means providing any reasonable production out of the rotation. Rookies like Keegin Akin and Dean Kremer that they were hoping to build on were absolutely feasted on by rival offenses, and their bullpen was largely limited to three effective arms.
The only reason they didn’t challenge the MLB worst season records was the emergence of several key players, providing them with some offensive punch in the middle of the order. Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and Ramón Urías had promising seasons at the plate, Trey Mancini returned from fighting cancer to put up solid numbers, and Cedric Mullins erupted as one of the best young outfielders in the division.
Unfortunately, when you give up three runs for every two you score, you aren’t going to win many games. The 2021 Orioles simply gave too many appearances to players who were bad at the plate and in the field, and with pitching barely classifiable as ‘Major League’, they were an easy source of wins for opponents.
RHP Felix Hernandez
SS Freddy Galvis
RHP Matt Harvey
3B Maikel Franco
C Pedro Severino
2B Rougned Odor
RHP Jorden Lyles
C Robinson Chirinos
LHP John Means
RHP Jordan Lyles
LHP Bruce Zimmermann
LHP Zac Lowther
LHP Keegan Akin
The Orioles’ starting rotation is anyone’s guess at this point. Past John Means, Jordan Lyles and Bruce Zimmermann, there are a dozen different fringe starters and prospects that could start out in the rotation. Based on last year alone and short of any spring evaluations, Lowther and Akin seem most likely to slot in behind those three to start the season, but for how long?
John Means will continue as the staff ace, finishing off last year with a 3.62 ERA and 134:26 K:BB through 146.2 innings. The durable lefty throws a lot of strikes but struggles a bit with hard contact.
Bruce Zimmermann is a back-end starter who started 14 game and posted a 5.04 ERA and 91 ERA+ for Baltimore in 2021. In any reasonable rotation, he’d be struggling to hold on to the fifth spot. He’s not good but he’s a stable level of not good, which right now means reliable in Baltimore.
Lyles was signed this offseason. The former Ranger gives up too many home runs and a lot of hard contact, but he is a durable inning eater and provides a little stability for a young staff. Much like Zimmermann, he’s not good but he’s consistent at it.
Lowther finished off the 2021 season in the rotation, moving from the bullpen to start six games to the tune of a 7.23 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, and 2.00 K/BB. He’s slated to start in the rotation, but it is unlikely he has much rope if he does.
Akin looked promising in 2020 but struggled through most of 2021 with his inability to command the strike zone. While he’s shown signs of improvement at points, his inconsistency is the biggest challenge facing him.
The Orioles’ bullpen is anyone’s guess right now. Tyler Wells, Tanner Scott, Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate seem to be the likely core. Between prospects and minor league deals, they’ll likely cobble together the rest from the best they see out of the spring and like with the rotation, keep the shuttle busy between Camden and Norfolk busy.
The one saving grace is that the Orioles have several top pitching prospects close or competing for a big-league spot. DL Hall could crack the rotation out of camp, jumping right from Double A. Grayson Rodriguez is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, coming in as the best pitching prospect as per Fangraphs and is nearly ready. Some mix of Kyle Bradish, Mike Baumann and Kevin Smith could get long looks in the rotation or bullpen as well. Considering the current dross behind Means, unless they think it will hurt their chances, the Orioles might be well served to give their rookies lots of rope in a likely lost season.
Rutschman looks disgustingly good. He crushed his way through the minors while being considered one of the top defensive catching prospects in the game. A switch hitter, he shows both power and selectivity at the plate. He has exceptional bat to ball skills, rarely striking out. He was Baseball America No.1 prospect (and basically everyone else’s as well) and is highly anticipated to debut. It seems likely that adding his bat to an already reasonable core will provide the Orioles a solid boost.
Due to an injury to Rutschman, the Orioles will open the season with journeyman Robinson Chirinos behind the plate. Chirinos is an effective defender with a reasonable bat for his role. His main value will be tutoring Rutschman and the young pitchers he receives for.
Ryan Mountcastle, 1B
The Orioles first round pick in 2015 first came up with an explosion in 2020, slugging a 137 OPS+ during the shortened season. Although he came up in the outfield, it became clear that his bat is his calling card. Last season, Mountcastle hit a solid .255/.309/.487 line, including 33 dingers, and a positional switch to first base, while brief, suggests that he could even out as an average or better defender there. Mountcastle is a power hitter who strikes out a ton but has seen slow improvement over the last couple of years in his ability to take walks.
Trey Mancini, DH
The Mancini saga last year had a touch of a fairy tale to it. Mancini missed all of 2020 while recovering from treatment for Stage 3 colon cancer. After a strong start to his 2021, he was in the Home Run Derby, supported by Vlad Guerrero Jr who held a sign which said, ‘I stand up for Trey Mancini’. He faltered down the stretch but still put up a solid .255/.326/.432 line for the year. The shift of Mountcastle to first fortunately gets Mancini out of the field, as he remains one of the worst defensive first basemen in the AL. As the full time DH, Mancini looks like he’ll anchor the Baltimore offense.
Ramón Urías, INF
As of writing, Baltimore is juggling six different infielders for various positions, and it is likely most of them will be defacto platoons. The only guy guaranteed to play full time is Ramón Urías, who split time at second, third and short last year.
A waiver claim off the St. Louis Cardinals in 2020, Urías eventually worked himself into playing 85 games for Baltimore as they shed names from an already revolving door of infield castoffs. The rookie put up a solid 2 bWAR season in 2021, playing relatively solid defense throughout the infield. He has a bit of pop and takes plenty of walks, although his .369 BABIP suggests a fair amount of regression is possible.
Rougned Odor, 2B
If baseball was fictional, editors would reject Rougned Odor for being too cliched a villain for the Jays. He was a prominent, obnoxious, and vocal opponent in two highly charged playoff series with Texas. He punched Jays star José Bautista in the chin and then banged off about it for years later like he floored him, as opposed to just knocking off José’s sunglasses. Then, he ended up on the Yankees of all teams to help them keep the Jays from the playoffs. If the Jays somehow miss the playoffs because of some unlucky series in Baltimore, I’m sure we know who will be to blame.
OK, so back to the facts. Odor is pretty bad. He’s been a solidly below average hitter since 2017 and his defense has also collapsed in the last few years. He still has some power and Baltimore is likely hoping their short right field will work to his advantage. He’s still only 28, so there’s a chance he’ll turn it around, but really, this is a flyer by the Orioles to see if there’s a chance they get the old Odor.
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
Acquired from the Royals last June, Gutierrez came up in August after the failure of the Maikel Franco experiment and finished out the season hitting .248/.327/.336, although he did heat up at the end. He’s best known for his defense and speed, although neither looked anything other than ordinary at best last year. Due to his splits, it is most likely he ends up as the right-handed bat in a platoon split at third going into 2022.
Jorge Mateo, SS
A former top prospect of the Yankees, Mateo was claimed on waivers from the Padres mid-season after a particularly gruesome 57 game stretch. He seemed rejuvenated by the change of scenery, hitting .280/.328/.421 over 32 games in Baltimore. Like so many Orioles projects, he’s still fairly young, so it is a chance to see if they can wring any value from them or get a strong first half to turn them into a prospect or two. Mateo will split time at short with Urías to start the year but will likely move between the rest of the infield as needed.
Cedric Mullins, CF
2021 was a huge breakout year for Cedric Mullins. He was able to tap into his power and exercise excellent control of the zone, culminating in a 5.7 bWAR season. His aggressiveness and speed as well as solid defense makes him a threat on both sides of the game. If he can build on this kind of production, the Orioles will have a dangerous collection of power hitters in the heart of their lineup.
Anthony Santander, RF
Santander, on the other hand, took a step back at the plate and in the field. Looking like he was on the cusp of a breakout after promising back-to-back years in 2019-2020, Santander , who has always sold-out plate discipline for power, barely walked at all 2021 while injuries hobbled his defense in right field. He still has power, but not enough to make up for an ocean of bad at bats if this continues.
Autstin Hays, LF
Hays also had a nice breakout in 2021, showing that the promise of his rookie debut wasn’t a mirage. Like many Orioles, he doesn’t walk much, but belted 22 home runs and played excellent defense all over the outfield.
Ryan McKenna, OF
McKenna is one of those guys they always call ‘gritty’, or ‘plays the game the right way’, and a ‘dirtbag’. The translation is he’s a white guy who can’t hit but has a decent glove and slides into a bag on his face. He has plus speed, but it hasn’t translated into much at the big league level. He’s a solid defensive fourth outfielder and pinch runner who takes just enough walks to not be an automatic out in the ninth spot in the lineup.
Stewart is on his last legs with the Orioles. He’s one of the few hitters that can take a walk in the lineup but had an OPS+ of 90 in 2021. He’s arguably one of the worst outfield defenders in baseball and lacks the power to be a bat only player.
Fangraphs Depth Charts: 67-95
My shocking prediction is that Baltimore is going to be pretty bad this year as well. The biggest question is going to be whether their prospects can translate their promise into big league production and how long it is going to take to get guys with upside into the rotation and the lineup. With the fourth overall ranked farm system, they absolutely have quality guys working their way up. It really depends how aggressive they want to be and whether they are willing to absorb another 100+ losses to punt another year completely to see if there’s any value to be had out of their reclamation projects at the trade deadline.
However, 2022 will be the first full season without Chris Davis on the roster, and also his final year on the payroll. The hard luck first baseman retired mid-season last year, and there’s a symbolic element that comes with that. Baseball is a sport steeped in superstition and notions of fate or karma. Davis represented both the peak and the collapse of the Orioles, his fate and theirs inexorably intertwined. Now that he’s gone, perhaps the Baseball Gods will once again shine on Baltimore.
Regardless, barring a miracle, the best-case scenario for the Orioles isn’t in the standings. The utter shellacking their pitching took last year set them back too far for any kind of surprise contention. If Hall and Rodriguez can hit the rotation mid-season with any kind of success and rookie pieces like Rutschman can transition to the majors quickly, they have a reasonable chance of playing spoiler late in the season. With the depth of talent in their system and some positive breaks, 2022 could be the last year of seeing the Orioles vacillate between being a joke and an embarrassment and start to worry the rest of the American League a little bit.