Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, June 28, 2022 -- "No Longer LOLrioles"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 54
June 28, 2022

Well, it wasn’t my intent to go dark for nearly the entire trip to Chicago, but that’s the way it turned out. Other than the White Sox/Orioles game Thursday night, I haven’t watched an inning of baseball in a week, and have kept up largely by following Slack and occasional scrolls through Twitter. This wasn’t a relaxing trip, but it was a restorative one, and I find myself very much looking forward to a full slate of games Tuesday.

Before I leave that trip behind though, let’s talk about the team I watched at New Comiskey -- you can’t make me call it something else -- last week. Oh, no, not that one, they’ve gotten plenty of coverage here for a sub-.500 squad. No, I mean the Orioles, who used four pitchers in throwing a nine-hit shutout of the Sox on a gorgeous night on the South Side. The White Sox are a bit shy of major league players at the moment, and the lineup they started was light on OBP in the bottom half, but shutouts are shutouts.

The Orioles walked just three of the 38 batters they faced, striking out ten. Dean Kremer scattered seven hits over 5 2/3 innings. Felix Bautista, who just looks like a dominant reliever, entered a jam in the sixth, whiffed Seby Zavala to get out of it, and tacked on two more strikeouts in the seventh. Jorge Lopez, surprise closer, entered the ninth with the tying run on deck and struck out Tim Anderson and Andrew Vaughn on seven pitches combined.

The pitchers weren’t the only impressive Orioles on this night. Adley Rutschman hit a rocket of a two-run homer, part of an ongoing hot streak that has put his 8-for-56 start in the rear-view mirror. Rutschman has hit .327/.373/.673 with just seven strikeouts in 59 PA since June 10. I pegged him for AL Rookie of the Year and he just might win it from behind, though the competition -- Julio Rodriguez, Jeremy Peña, Bobby Witt Jr. -- is fierce. Behind the plate, Rutschman has nailed two of six runners stealing, and in early returns is 17th among 71 catchers in framing runs (min. 250 pitches). The wait for Rutschman was certainly longer than it needed to be, but he’s here now and he’s going to be the Orioles’ best player in the 2020s.

It’s an odd thing to take away from a game in which the team allowed nine hits on 24 balls in play, but the Orioles’ defense made a big impression. Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander each made a play on balls hit over their heads with a runner on base, preserving the shutout while showing strong range. Austin Hays made two great plays, first throwing Gavin Sheets out at home in the fifth, then the play of the night, a diving catch on the right-field line to rob Jake Burger of at least an RBI double and maybe more. By Defensive Efficiency, a simple measure of batted balls turned into outs, the Orioles have their best defense since 2015. 

That Hays catch rescued Dillon Tate, who along with Bautista and Lopez threw 3 1/3 innings of the shutout. The Orioles’ bullpen, a laughingstock in recent seasons, is the biggest surprise of 2022:

No Longer For the Birds

         ERA   Rk     FIP   Rk    fWAR   Rk
2022    3.05    3    3.59    6     4.0    2
2021    5.70   30    4.87   30     2.5   18
2019    5.79   30    5.38   30     1.0   22
2018    4.78   27    4.59   28     2.7   18

(Thanks, FanGraphs)

Orioles relievers have thrown more innings than any other team’s. Of the five teams who have asked at least 300 innings from their relievers, the Orioles have the lowest ERA and by far the lowest FIP. They’re getting both volume and run prevention from a group of pitchers who, even today, wouldn’t get recognized across the street from Camden Yards. 

I’ve named eight Orioles so far, and just two are older than 27 this year. None are even 30 yet. Every one of the hitters has been at least average -- Mullins exactly so with a 100 wRC+ -- and every one of the pitchers has been above-average, albeit in very small samples. This is normally a reason to get excited, and surely it’s been more fun for Orioles fans, but we’re still a year early. None of those eight may be 30 yet, but just two, Rutschman and Hays, are younger than 27. Rutschman is 24, which is old for a superstar rookie these days. Grayson Rodriguez, whom we expected to see in Baltimore right about now, is 22 and will enter his age-23 season having yet to throw 105 innings in a year as a pro. That makes it hard to rely on him next year. DL Hall has walked 28 men in 38 1/3 innings at Triple-A. Gunnar Henderson may end up topping prospect charts in six months -- he turns 21 tomorrow and has wrecked Double-A and Triple-A this year.

What I’m getting at here is that at 35-40, the Orioles have been the most entertaining they have been in a long time. And at 35-40, the Orioles are still best served by focusing on 2024 and beyond. They’re not good enough now, and they are unlikely to be good enough in 2023, though they will likely be a sexy sleeper pick this coming winter. The next month is the time to figure out which of the players responsible for this surprising half of baseball might be on that ’24 team, and which ones should be traded for players who will. I think you can go forward with Rutschman, Mullins, Hays, and Ryan Mountcastle as the core from this roster. I would keep Bautista and probably Dillon Tate from the pitching staff, though in truth, neither Kremer nor Keegan Akin is going to draw much trade attention, so you can continue to let them develop.

That leaves a pretty good list of trade chits:

-- Pop-up closers should always be dealt. Jorge Lopez had a 6.04 career ERA and a 5.15 career FIP coming into this season, and while he’d been better in relief, including late last year, he doesn’t project as a long-term solution. He’s 29 now and a free agent after 2025. Look around at the bullpens of some contenders -- looking at you, Twins -- and tell me you can’t cash in Lopez for more than he is reasonably worth. 

-- I have always liked Anthony Santander, and he’s playing well this year: .239/.332/.433, though with not much value outside the batter’s box. Like Lopez, he’s a free agent after 2025, and with the Orioles having Mullins and Hays, I don’t think they need to lock up an entire outfield. They’ll need a spot or two in the lineup to fit the free agent stars they should be looking to sign in the next few seasons. Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad may also be putting claims on left field by 2024. Santander could look good to a contender looking to hedge its bets on 2022 by acquiring a player they can control for additional years, perhaps the White Sox or Giants.

-- Trading Trey Mancini will be a hard thing to do. He’s the longest-tenured Oriole, he’s been productive, and his battle with cancer has inspired fans both in and outside of Baltimore. He’s also 31 next year, with a .429 SLG since his return, and while he can fake it in an outfield corner, he’s mostly a DH/1B. If Carlos Santana can bring back a pretty good return in trade, Mancini should be able to as well.

If the Orioles choose to keep him, though, they really should try to work out a two-year deal before the trade deadline. We still don’t know if there will be a qualifying-offer system, but if there is, stapling a draft pick to Mancini would wreck his market value, and I don’t think the Orioles want to do that, or lose him for nothing otherwise.

-- Jordan Lyles can be set outside Camden Yards with a “Free to Good Home” sign.

We can now say with confidence that the Orioles are back on their way up after a miserable five-year stretch. The next step is to take advantage of the good play of the players who are not long-term Orioles to help make the mid-decade teams a little better. The AL East is no joke and isn’t likely to become one. Even with the expanded playoffs and more balanced schedules, the Orioles won’t have the luxury of building a .500 team and hoping to catch some variance. They have to aim for 90 wins, and that effort should continue in July.