For the next four days, we will be looking at the competition that the Red Sox will be facing in the 2021 season in the division. We’ll take a look at their projected record by averaging projections from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, and then we’ll look at their top players before diving into their overall offense, rotation and bullpen outlooks. We’ll be going in reverse order of last year’s standings, meaning today we start off with the Orioles.
In an era of teams stripping everything down to the studs in massive rebuilds, perhaps no one has gone as far as the Orioles, who have not won even 42 percent of their games since 2017, and haven’t had a winning season since 2016. Last season say them get off to a surprisingly good start, but they faltered soon enough and were among the worst teams in baseball yet again. This winter, they haven’t really added much, as one would expect, and let two of their better players go in José Iglesias and Hanser Alberto. All in all, the expectation is certainly that this will be another year in the basement as the long rebuild continues for the foreseeable future.
2021 Projected Record
Best Position Player
In that aforementioned surprising start last summer, it was Santander who led the way. Although the outfielder was never quite a top prospect, there was always some talent to be gleaned, but he hadn’t gotten a chance to get consistent playing time. He was roughly average in 2019, his first season with more than a month of playing time, but he took a big step forward last year. Before his season ended with an oblique injury in early September, Santander hit .261/.315/.575 with a 132 wRC+. The power clearly stands out with that line, and his 11 home runs over 37 games puts him on a pace for 48-homer pace over 162 games. Defensively, he may not win any awards but he can hold his own in right field.
Looking ahead to the coming season, Santander won’t be enough to turn to the fortunes of the franchise on his own, but he could dramatically alter the watchability factor for Baltimore. It’s all but certain he will not keep up the same kind of home run pace, particularly with the league deadening the baseball ahead of the season. That said, projections have him pegged for around 30 dingers on the year, and if he can add a few more walks to his career norms he’s a shoo-in for the lone Baltimore representative at the All-Star Game.
Honorable Mention: Trey Mancini
Santander is the best player, but Mancini is the one who will deservedly get the headlines. And make no mistake, Mancini isn’t just a great story coming back to action after his cancer diagnosis last year. He can also hit the crap out of the baseball. His relative lack of defensive ability knocks him down a bit, but we’re talking about a guy who had a 134 wRC+ in 2019 and has a 116 career mark.
For all of the justified hand-wringing about how the Orioles are operating these days, they do actually have a handful of exciting players on the position player side of things. That cannot be said for the pitching. Means is their ace, and that is just a miscast role. To be clear, though, that is not to say he is not a good pitcher, because he is. The southpaw was Baltimore’s representative in the 2019 All-Star Game and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting that season thanks to his 3.60 ERA. Last season, he increased his strikeout rate and decreased his walk rate, but still added nearly a run to his ERA. Some of that is surely small sample noise, as he made just 10 starts over the shortened season, but he also left too many pitches over the plate and allowed over 2.5 homers per nine innings.
So there are some questions for Means heading into 2021, though he is very clearly the staff ace here for Baltimore after Alex Cobb was traded to the Angels. The key here for Means is simply going to be keeping the ball in the park, and those aforementioned deadened balls should help that. If he can keep his home run rate at 2019 levels — around 1.3 per nine — while maintaining the strikeout and walk numbers from 2020, he can be a good, three-win pitcher. Not an ace, but a pitcher who has a role on just about every team in baseball. Of course, that’d mean he probably won’t be an Oriole at this time next year.
Honorable Mention: Tanner Scott
There are a couple of interesting young starters joining Means in the bullpen, but we’ll go with their relief ace here. Scott was legitimately awesome in 2020, pitching to a 1.31 ERA over 25 appearances. The lefty has always had major control issues, but the swing and miss stuff is enticing. Think of him as a Baltimore Darwinzon Hernandez.
I mentioned the top two bats above in Santander and Mancini, but the Orioles do have a bit of excitement beyond that, which is not to say they have a good lineup, but rather that they are not horrible. By the FanGraphs projection linked at the top, they are projected for the ninth-worst offense in the league. The good news here for Orioles fans is that there is finally some youth and upside here to start dreaming on. Santander is 26. Austin Hays is 25. Ryan Mountcastle, one of the top prospects in the organization, is 24 and expected to start the season in the majors. Rio Ruiz is 26. And then, to top it off, former number one overall pick and one of the best prospects in baseball, catcher Adley Rutschman, should get his first call up at some point this year. So the offense isn’t quite here yet, but there is some excitement brewing and this could be a formidable group within the next couple of seasons.
While the lineup provides some excitement, if not real expected production, the rotation decidedly does not. Looking at the pitching as a whole, FanGraphs projects the Orioles to have the second worst staff in baseball by runs allowed per game, with Colorado the only team coming in behind them. Means, as mentioned, is a legitimately solid pitcher at the top of the group. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot beyond that. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer are both solid prospects, but they project more as back-end arms rather than ones with big upside. They do have Felix Hernandez, which would be a fun story but looks like his days as a major-league starter are just about done. They have some prospects for the rotation, but 2022 is probably more of when we’ll see those guys. Among them, DL Hall is probably the best bet to make any sort of impact in 2021.
This is a fun bullpen if you like remembering some guys, former prospects edition. Their protected closer right now on Roster Resource is Hunter Harvey, who was long on their list of top prospects. Injuries never allowed him to blossom in the rotation, but they’re hoping the bullpen works out better for him. Scott was mentioned above and could legitimately be the best pitcher on this team. And then there’s Dillon Tate, a former top five pick who has turned into a reliever that relies more on weak contact than missing bats. All in all, there are some names you’ll know if you followed prospects, but it’s expected to be one of the worst relief units in the game.
Sum it up in a sentence
There is finally a little bit of hope on the horizon for the Orioles, but in the short-term they are once again expected to be in the running for the number one overall pick in 2022.