Eleven Orioles to watch to open 2021 season

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Entering Year 3 of the Mike Elias era, the Orioles have indeed made progress in a long and painful rebuild despite a fifth straight losing season feeling all but certain in 2021.

A look back at that 2019 Opening Day lineup reminds us that Baltimore is now featuring more youngsters with a chance to fit into the long-term plans. A bottom-of-the-barrel payroll and a major league roster with still far too many placeholders shouldn’t discount a future looking more promising with a farm system many now rank in baseball’s top 10. And we’re likely to see more young talent debut at Camden Yards as the 2021 season progresses.

But the Orioles still have a long way to go, making thoughts of following another 162-game marathon a daunting endeavor for a fan base that’s enjoyed just 12 winning seasons since the club’s last World Series championship 38 years ago and only four this century. Focusing on the individual performance of young players who could factor into the future is the most practical approach to both maintaining one’s sanity and trying to enjoy a season sure to feature too many nights in the loss column.  

Below is a ranking of the 11 players on the Opening Day roster I’ll be watching most closely to open the season:

1. Trey Mancini

I have no idea whether the 29-year-old will still be in Baltimore next year, let alone whenever the Orioles are ready to contend again. But that doesn’t matter. Baseball is ultimately about human beings and entertainment, and there isn’t a better story than Mancini’s courageous return from stage 3 colon cancer. Frankly, we all need such inspiration after the many hardships stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year now. Mancini is the first to say he wants to remind everyone about how damn good a baseball player he was before his diagnosis and still is today. He set career highs in home runs (35), doubles (38), hits (175), walks (63), runs batted in (97), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.899) in 2019. I certainly won’t bet against Mancini being the same imposing figure at the plate — or even better — as he becomes the regular first baseman in his 2021 return.

2. Ryan Mountcastle

The 24-year-old made it look easy upon arriving in the majors last August, batting .333 with five homers, five doubles, 11 walks, and an .878 OPS in 140 plate appearances and playing respectable defense in left field. Expectations are understandably high for the rookie’s first full season, but his .398 batting average on balls in play last season suggests some regression to the mean. A key to offsetting that will be whether the improved plate discipline Mountcastle showed in his small sample size carries over to 2021 after he drew very few walks in the minors. 

3. Austin Hays

We’ve been talking about the 25-year-old’s potential since he made his major league debut late in 2017, but injuries and inconsistency have left Hays in purgatory between being an exciting prospect and a productive major leaguer. Though he was Baltimore’s best player during Grapefruit League action with a slash line of .392/.446/.745 and nine extra-base hits in 56 plate appearances, the time is now to show he can both stay on the field and make an impact over a full season. His above-average defense plays at all three outfield spots, only adding to his potential value.

4. John Means

The Opening Day starter and 2019 All-Star pitcher is critical to both the present and the future. A current rotation uncomfortably short on experience needs some stability and innings at the top if the Orioles are to navigate a 162-game schedule with any semblance of functional competitiveness. But Means, who turns 28 later this month, also has the opportunity to be a dependable anchor for the future as talented pitching prospects arrive in the coming months and years. The lefty had a challenging 2020 on and off the field, but increased velocity and a strong September against some contending clubs create optimism that he can hit another level this year.    

5. Dean Kremer

The 25-year-old right-hander was very impressive in his first three major league starts — two against the Yankees and one against Tampa Bay — last September with a 1.69 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 16 innings, but he needs to cut down on the walks, which were again an issue this spring with eight free passes in 15 2/3 innings. When the Orioles optioned lefty Keegan Akin to Triple-A Norfolk after his spring struggles, you wondered if Kremer might also be on thin ice with a 6.32 ERA in the Grapefruit League, but he begins 2021 as the No. 5 starter. You’d love to see one of the key acquisitions in the Manny Machado trade become a rotation mainstay this year.

6. Anthony Santander

Being voted the 2020 Most Valuable Oriole despite missing more than a third of the abbreviated season with an oblique injury reflects how impressive Santander’s power was with 25 extra-base hits in 165 plate appearances. However, his injury history and the collection of outfield talent in the system leave you wondering if Santander will be in Baltimore for long, a perception that wasn’t helped by some trade speculation over the winter. In addition to simply staying healthy, the 26-year-old owns an unimpressive .292 career on-base percentage, making it more notable that he drew 10 walks in 39 plate appearances in Grapefruit League play. Santander showing more plate discipline would make him even more attractive to the Orioles or a potential trade partner.

7. Tanner Scott

No one has ever doubted his power arm, but the 26-year-old lefty was nothing short of terrific in 2020, posting a 1.31 ERA and striking out 23 batters in 20 2/3 innings. A fastball spin rate in the 99th percentile makes his mid-to-upper 90s velocity that much more difficult to handle, but matching that with a biting slider gives Scott the potential to thrive in high-leverage situations. Scott held batters from both sides of the plate well under a .200 average last season and will now have the chance to prove he can throw enough strikes to dominate over a full season.

8. Cedric Mullins

The 26-year-old outfielder got his career back on track last year after a nightmare 2019 that saw him demoted all the way down to Double-A Bowie. Now exclusively hitting from the left side, Mullins hasn’t shown much power at the major league level, but his speed, defense, and terrific bunting ability make him fun to watch and an attractive fourth outfielder at the very least. How he adjusts to hitting against left-handed pitching will determine whether Mullins sticks as an everyday player, but a .749 OPS in 55 spring plate appearances easily secured his roster spot.

9. Bruce Zimmermann

Entering spring training, the Ellicott City native looked more like a candidate to pitch in long relief, but 10 strikeouts and one hit allowed in nine scoreless innings to start the spring landed him the No. 3 spot in the rotation, both a credit to his performance and a reflection of how far the Orioles still have to go with their pitching. The lefty Zimmermann, 26, has shown increased velocity from his first two major league appearances last September, so it will be interesting to see if some of the comparisons to Means from a couple years ago come to fruition. 

10. Dillon Tate

Acquired in the Zack Britton trade, Tate, 26, couldn’t find his footing as a starter in the minors, but a mid-90s fastball and a good slider give him the potential to be an impact reliever. The right-hander posted a rock-solid 3.24 ERA in 16 2/3 innings last season, but an unsustainable .190 batting average on balls in play from opponents and a rough spring — six runs allowed in six innings — are reasons for some concern entering 2021. This feels like a pivotal year for Tate to try to become a factor in the late innings, especially with Hunter Harvey currently on the 60-day injured list.

11. Ramon Urias

Yes, this is a deep sleeper. A waiver claim from St. Louis in February of 2020, the 26-year-old middle infielder became more relevant after the Orioles released projected starting second baseman Yolmer Sanchez at the end of the spring. Urias could find himself in a platoon — Rio Ruiz was the surprising Opening Day starter at second base — but his .793 OPS at the Triple-A level in 2019, years of success playing in the Mexican League, and a 9-for-25 clip with the Orioles last September make him somewhat interesting if his defense holds up at second base. His 8-for-43 spring didn’t help his case, but the Orioles apparently saw enough to take him north while Jahmai Jones and other young infielders continue to develop down below.