Orioles: Potential Breakout Candidates
As the Baltimore Orioles work their way through the 2020 season, it’s not the wins and losses that will matter. A successful year in Baltimore is about adding additional talent to the farm system, the continued development of those assets already in the minor leagues, and seeing improvements in players at the major league level who have an opportunity to contribute down the road.
Last season, we saw an average minor league pitcher breakout and go from planning what he was going to do with his life outside of baseball to earning American League All-Star honors, finishing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, and likely becoming the 2020 Opening Day starter for the Baltimore Orioles. If John Means can replicate his 2019 success this season, the Orioles just may have themselves a valuable back of the rotation arm when this team is competitive again.
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We also saw Hanser Alberto finish among the Top 10 in the AL in batting average, this after being claimed off waivers four different times last offseason and entering 2019 with a career .182 average across three seasons with the Texas Rangers.
Anthony Santander had a breakout season last year himself, collecting 20 doubles and 20 home runs in 93 games with the Orioles, his first extensive amount of time in the major leagues. Santander hit .198 in 2018, improving that number to .261 in 2019 and finishing the season worth 1.3 bWAR.
Who are some potential breakout candidates for the 2020 season? Here are three names to watch out for as a new season commences at Camden Yards.
I should preface this by saying “breakout” could simply mean becoming a slightly above league-average player when talking about this Orioles roster. I don’t think any of these players will come close to being All-Stars, but they do have the possibility of changing the narratives currently attached to them.
Do not sleep on this Orioles bullpen in 2020. When used in the right situations, Mychal Givens is a very good reliever, Richard Bleier won’t pile up the strikeouts but he does a fantastic job of limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground, and a healthy Hunter Harvey pumping 100 mph fastballs is a welcomed sight after years of playing time lost to injury.
Few arms currently in the mix for a bullpen spot have the upside that LHP Tanner Scott does. Still just 25 years old, Scott has spent the last two seasons racking up the travel points on the Baltimore-Norfolk shuttle, producing a mixed bag of results.
During his time in Triple-A in 2019, Scott pitched to a 2.98 ERA (2.81 FIP), a .208 average against, and a 30.8% strikeout rate. Even while pitching with a juiced baseball that made Harbor Park play like a ballpark in the Pacific Coast League, Scott allowed just two home runs in 45 innings. It was the most dominant stint at any level in the minor leagues for Scott since joining the organization in 2014.
However, Scott pitched to a 4.78 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, and a .277 average against in 26 big league innings, walking nearly 16% of opposing hitters. He did end the season on a very high note, posting a 14/3 K/BB ratio and limiting opponents to a .206/.289/.294 slash line in September.
Scott’s fastball averages 96 mph, can touch 100+ mph, and ranks in the 82nd percentile in spin rate, but opposing hitters have feasted on the pitch at the big league level, posting a .509 wOBA and .659 slugging percentage against the pitch. The slider, on the other hand, is elite. Scott’s slider limited opponents to a .202 wOBA (top 20 in baseball for LHP), a .273 SLG, and a produced a 48% whiff rate. Only four relievers in all of baseball had a slider with a higher pitch value than Scott during the month of September, per Fangraphs.
For Scott to break out in 2020, he will not only have to find a way to miss bats with his fastball and harness the type of command that led to a career-low 8% walk rate in Triple-A last season, Scott will also have to get right-handed hitters out. While lefties hit .188 against Scott, righties hit .358 and owned a .469 on-base percentage. Hopefully, he isn’t a victim of MLB’s new three-batter rule or his constant command issues and can develop into a reliable piece in 2020 and beyond.
Because I strongly believe in the potential of the Baltimore Orioles bullpen in 2020, I’m going to stay in the pen to look at another breakout candidate for this season. RHP Miguel Castro came to Sarasota this month lucky to be alive after a frightening offseason robbery in the Dominican Republic. Thankful to be in camp and back with the Orioles, Castro will look to build off a strong second half last season to maintain his role in the bullpen.
Like Scott, Castro has the tools to be a reliable major league reliever, but he has yet to harness his potential and put it all together for a full season. However, he always seems to do just enough to keep some fans asking if this is the year.
Castro added two ticks to his fastball last season, pumping out a 97 mph fastball with his 6’7” and 205 pound frame. He also added approximately two mph to his slider and changeup, two secondary pitches he had a lot of success with in 2019.
Castro relied much less heavily on his fastball, throwing it just 48% of the time, about 10% less than 2018. Opponents still hit .346 with a .583 slugging percentage off his fastball, but Castro saw improved numbers with his slider and changeup, holding opponents to a .154 average with the slider and .093 average on the changeup. Both pitches produced a whiff rate north of 37%. Overall, it led to Castro finishing 2019 with a 0.4 fWAR, the highest value of his career in the majors, and a career-high 22% strikeout rate. Second half Castro cut his ERA from 5.28 to 3.72 and his WHIP from 1.51 to 1.28, all while increasing his strikeout numbers and significantly lowering his home run totals.
Were his improvements a result of a new analytical approach in Baltimore and Castro eventually settling in to changes made by the coaching staff, or did they have something to do with hitters trying to take advantage of a juiced baseball and send it to Eutaw Street? We’ll see what 2020 brings, but Castro showed enough to earn one last opportunity to stick with this team.
Maybe it’s my improved mood now that I have baseball back on my TV and I get to spend my evenings at one of the many local college baseball fields in the area, but I’m going to jump on the Chance Sisco train for a moment. I haven’t been a Sisco believer for a long while and I’m not overly confident in his ability to become a reliable threat at the plate, however, there’s still a chance that the former top prospect develops into a valuable piece for the Orioles.
Reports out of Sarasota have noted Sisco’s offseason work with highly-respected hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock after a season of struggles down the stretch for the left-handed hitting catcher. Sisco was one of a few different Orioles who struggled last season and spent their offseasons at a private facility to work on development and improvements for the upcoming year (Cedric Mullins and David Hess also rededicated themselves this winter).
Defensively, Sisco isn’t going to become anything more than what he already is. He ranked 110th out of 113 catchers in Framing Runs according to Baseball Prospectus, 74th out of 78 catchers in pop time (minimum 5 attempts) and 60th out of 78 in arm strength on throws to second base. Focusing his efforts on offense may serve him best at this point.
We all know that Adley Rutschman is waiting in the wings, but if Sisco can improve his performance at the plate, there’s a role as Rutschman’s backup available, maybe even a position change in Sisco’s future that allows his bat to see more playing time.
At 24, Sisco is still very young and able to turn things around. He slashed .292/.388/.530 with 10 home runs, a 22% strikeout rate, and a 134 wRC+ in Triple-A last year, compared to a .210/.333/.395 slash with eight home runs, a 31% strikeout rate, and a wRC+ of 96 in just as many plate appearances in the major leagues. Finding a happy medium between those two numbers should be enough for Sisco to find a home in the bigs.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University.
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