Zimmermann and Akin say they are healthy and a full go for spring

bruce zimmermann pitches black

On the final day of Birdland Caravan and at the final event of the three-day run, reporters caught up with four pitchers who will look to break north with the Orioles in April by winning roster spots in spring training. That group included lefties Bruce Zimmermann, Keegan Akin and Nick Vespi, and right-hander Mike Baumann.

All four spent some, or in one case, a lot of time in Baltimore during the 2023 American League East championship season, but Zimmermann and Akin are coming off injuries. They pronounced themselves to be healthy and a full go when spring training starts in a couple of weeks.

Zimmermann, who had a 4.73 ERA in seven O’s games last year while pitching most of the season in Triple-A, had core muscle surgery Oct. 19 in Philadelphia.

That was about three weeks after he pitched two scoreless innings versus Boston for the O’s in Game 161 at Oriole Park.

“The surgery went real well,” the Baltimore-area native said of the October procedure. “Really grateful I had one of the top doctors that has worked on a few other guys on the team. Rehab went really well. Been down in Florida for about two weeks now to get an early start and get in front of the training staff and that has been going really well. I should be full go when pitchers and catchers report.

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Ortiz shows he is more than a glove-first prospect, plus other Birdland Caravan notes

Joey Ortiz greys

Orioles infield prospect Joey Ortiz, who made his major league debut in the 2023 season, may have finally shed that “glove-first” label. While his glove is still strong and he gets 70 fielding grades and 55 for arm strength by Baseball America, he also produced an .885 OPS in 88 games at Triple-A Norfolk last summer.

“Yeah, definitely, I feel like my whole career I’ve been labeled as glove first,” Ortiz said Friday at the Warehouse during Birdland Carvan. “Now for my bat to finally come through is nice. Been a lot of work, trusting in the coaches and what they are helping me with and me believing in myself as well.”

Ortiz hit .212 in 34 plate appearances over three stints with the Orioles. A true shortstop who has also played some second and third base, he said he’s up for it if the club needs him in a utility role this coming season.

He put up a batting line of .321/.378/.507/.885 for the Tides with 30 doubles, four triples, nine homers and 58 RBIs.

Rated as the No. 95 prospect in the 2023 debut of the Baseball America top 100, he is now the O’s No. 7 prospect. They have six players in the new top 100, so Ortiz just missed making the list.

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Birdland Caravan notes with Means, Mountcastle, Cowser and more

John Means

On the first day of Birdland Caravan, where reporters got the chance to interview some players and coaches at the Warehouse, lefty John Means pronounced himself healthy and ready to take on a full season innings load in 2024.

Means returned from Tommy John surgery to get back on a big league mound on Sept. 12 and went 1-2 with a 2.66 ERA in four starts down the stretch. He pitched a huge game Sept. 23 at Cleveland allowing one hit and run over 7 1/3 innings. But he missed the AL Division Series when his surgically repaired left elbow became sore leading up to the series with Texas.

“It was just tight (then), and they looked at the MRI and they told me to take a break on it. Build up in the offseason and be ready to go. I feel really good, really good (now). Had a nice build up this offseason and should be ready to go.”

After throwing 45 1/3 innings in 2023 counting minor league rehab games, can he take on a full-season innings load this season?

“Yeah, I’m ready to go. I’ll be ready,” Means said.

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It will be something front and center throughout spring training

Jackson Holliday futures jersey

It will be, barring a real surprise, the most interesting aspect to track in spring training. And that is, can Jackson Holliday, who turned 20 on Dec. 4, make the O’s Opening Day roster?

Not only can he, but I would put the odds now in his favor.

Before an interview session during the Winter Meetings, I would have probably called it 50-50 at the very best, but then there was the quote heard ‘round Nashville and the one that got all Baltimore reporters’ attention at that event.

"It's definitely a very strong possibility,” Elias said during an interview session in Nashville when asked directly if Holliday could make it on OD? “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but he had a historic first full season in the minors. Probably, you have to go back into, like, the '80s or '90s to find something similar to that, in my opinion, for an American kid out of high school. Got to Triple-A. Wasn’t there a huge amount of time, didn’t tear the cover off the ball, but he more than held his own and did well.”

And everyone who said he didn’t tear up Triple-A, it was just 22 games counting the playoffs and his .796 OPS was solid. Make no mistake, he more than held his own and looked like he belonged.

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Remembering that time two future O's battled for a minor league batting title with a unique ending

Trey Mancini

You can say the topic you will read about here today is pretty random and I can’t argue that. I had no expectation of what I would write about today yesterday afternoon but would have not figured on this. It was a conversation in the comments section yesterday about what it takes for a player to qualify for league leader stats that jogged my memory.

It needs a good jogging often.

But I remember the 2015 Double-A minor league season when one player hit .359 but didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the Eastern League leaders. But an 0-for-29 he never really actually took led to him winning the batting title that year.

This story does have Orioles ties.

The player that won that batting title by taking an 0-for-29 that never really happened was Trey Mancini. The player he beat out for that batting title was Adam Frazier, a 2023 Oriole.

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Ryan Mountcastle's late-season plate discipline produced impressive results

Ryan Mountcastle

For a player that has been a key member of the Orioles’ everyday lineup for three full seasons after playing 35 games in the shortened 2020 season, there are many opinions about first baseman/DH Ryan Mountcastle. He can hit the ball hard and far and set an O’s rookie record with 33 homers in 2021, but fans are often divided on whether he will be a sure-fire future slugger for this club or someone that might not quite reach his potential.

His 2023 season was interrupted twice by injured list stints and the first one when he dealt with vertigo and missed time from June 13-July 8 caused some real concern. For the year, Mountcastle was limited to 115 games and 470 plate appearances.

Yet he produced his best full-season batting average of .270 and OBP with the club at .328. He also had a 7.9 walk-rate, topping his mark of 2021 (7.0) and 2022 (7.1). His OPS of .779 produced an OPS+ of 117, which was better than what he posted in 2021 (114) and 2022 (108).

The time missed in addition to the challenge of hitting one out to left field at Camden Yards left his homer total at 18 after he hit 33 in 2021 under the old dimensions and 22 in 2022 with the new ones.

Mountcastle was really struggling when he went to the IL due to vertigo. He batted .231 with an OPS of .691 in the first half and .322/.893 in the second half. That was a big difference and a big finish to his season even though he went on the IL in September also with left AC joint inflammation.

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Key offseason topic still front and center: When to trade the prospects?

Heston Kjerstad

If on Opening Day the Orioles infield was Ryan Mountcastle, Jackson Holliday, Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, that would be formidable. Four players that have been top 100 prospects at one time and two that made it to No. 1.

But that would leave no room for others to include vets Jorge Mateo, Ramon Urías and Ryan O’Hearn who are on the 40-man infield and yes of course someone could DH. But it would also leave no room for Joey Ortiz in that infield, or Coby Mayo, or Connor Norby.

The O's organization is deep and filled with prospects at the higher levels after they produced eight Baseball America top 100 players in January of 2023 and six this year.

So yes, one way to alleviate a so-called logjam of talent is to trade from a surplus. This topic dogs the Orioles, who should be able to take a bow or two for the great farm system they have compiled. But at the same time, they get constant questions about how they are going to deploy all that talent.

I recently talked to Baseball America editor-in-chief JJ Cooper on this most interesting challenge for the club.

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What expectations will fans have for the 2024 season?

elias celebrates playoff clinch

After their best season in years, one that saw the Orioles win in April and keep it going all year, one that saw them in the playoffs and one that saw them win postseason honors too, what do they do next?

How about keep winning and go deeper in the playoffs next time?

That sounds fair and would be a reasonable expectation for the 2024 season.

You might think, after 101 wins, the Birds had a year when everything broke right. Not exactly.

First, the Tampa Rays got off to a 13-0 start in early May were 29-7. They led the division by six games on the Fourth of July. But the Orioles produced more fireworks from that point on.

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A few facts and opinions about prospects and the O's playoff chances

jackson holliday

Today let’s throw out a few more facts about the Orioles and drop in an opinion or two to discuss them. Here we go.

Fact: Juan Soto made the majors after just 122 games on the farm and Jackson Holliday has played 145 minor league games through the 2023 season.

Fact and opinions: It’s true, and Baseball America’s JJ Cooper made that point this week when discussing if Holliday could start the 2024 season on the O’s roster. “Juan Soto was way less experienced when he stepped into the Nationals lineup than Jackson Holliday is right now," Cooper said.

First point here is that just because the great Soto did it doesn’t mean anyone can. But Holliday is not just anyone. This week he became the third Oriole in three years to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason Baseball America top 100 list after Adley Rutschman in 2022 and Gunnar Henderson last year.

But Cooper, as he usually does, makes a very good point.

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After three straight years with the Baseball America No. 1 player, could O's extend streak?

basallo

When I interviewed Baseball America’s JJ Cooper this week to talk about the Orioles making history in the BA top 100, becoming the first team to have three No. 1 players in three straight years, he had an interesting comment.

“It’s hard to imagine we are going to see this again anytime soon,” he said.

To that point, many in Birdland may have thought “unless the O’s Samuel Basallo (No. 10 right now) makes it four in a row for the Orioles this time next year.”

And that was my follow up to Cooper in that interview. Well, what about a Baltimore four-peat this time with Basallo in 2025?

“It is absolutely a possibility,” said Cooper noting that several players ranked ahead of Basallo currently in their new top 10 are likely to graduate from list eligibility during the new season and he could move up several spots based on that alone. 

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An Oriole three-peat: Three years, three different No. 1 ranked prospects

Jackson Holliday

It was not unexpected as O’s prospect Jackson Holliday ended last season as the sport’s No. 1 ranked player. But when Baseball America released a new top 100 list on Wednesday, the Orioles officially became the first team in the 35-year history of their list to have the No. 1 player for three straight seasons.

Three years, three different No. 1 players.

Catcher Adley Rutschman was No. 1 in the initial list release of 2022, infielder Gunnar Henderson was No. 1 in 2023 and now Holliday in 2024.

In 2022, Rutschman went on to post an OPS of .806 for the Orioles and he finished second for AL Rookie of the Year and was 12th in the AL MVP voting. Last year, Henderson posted an OPS .814, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finished eighth in the MVP voting.

With the poll release last year, the Orioles then become the first team to ever have two players from the same draft class be No. 1 in consecutive years, with Rutschman and Henderson drafted in 2019. The only team previously with two straight years with two different players getting to No. 1 before 2023 was St. Louis, with J.D. Drew in 1999 and Rick Ankiel topping the ratings in 2000.

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Warm thoughts of baseball can help on a snow day in Baltimore

John Means vs CLE

If you live in the Baltimore area, you were out of practice shoveling snow. Not anymore. What a pleasure to get some reps in after the snow overnight Monday into Tuesday. I had almost forgotten how no fun that is.

It does make one say at least once during the shoveling, probably in their head to themselves, “I can’t wait for warm weather and baseball.”

You don’t need to shovel rain or heat.

If seeing something white that wasn’t a baseball made you think even for a second about the 2023 Orioles season, you probably had some warm and nice thoughts at least.

Some have asked me my favorite moment of last year and there is not one really. It’s a blur of good memories and fun times, covering a team that proved it was very good and kept answering every challenge. Until the very end.

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Hearing from two players in the O's new international signing class

Koby-Perez

If you add up the top two bonuses the Orioles handed out on the first day of the international signing period yesterday, they add up to $2.25 million. The club signed 16-year-old shortstop Emilio Sánchez from the Dominican Republic for $1.3 million. They added 16-year-old outfielder Stiven Martínez of the Dominican Republic for $950,000.

On Jan. 15 of last year, they signed infielder Luis Almeyda for $2.3 million. So, in terms of the dollars to the top international signee, that went down for the Orioles in 2024.

What does this mean?

Well, we will find out over many years how all these players grow, play and develop. Who reached the majors and who does not.

But the Orioles under vice president of international scouting and operations Koby Perez have signed some outstanding talent. And they feel really good about this class, no matter the final dollar numbers.

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Sánchez, Martínez, García, Nuel head up O's latest class of international signings (updated)

Koby-Perez

With catcher Samuel Basallo now ranked as the club’s No. 2 prospect by Baseball America and with MLBPipeline.com ranking seven O’s international prospects among the club’s top 28 prospects already, the Orioles unveiled a new international signing class today.

The class of 19, per the O’s announcement, is headed up by shortstop Emilio Sánchez, outfielder Stiven Martínez, shortstops Elvin García and Jemone Nuel, right-handed pitcher Yaki Mondesir, outfielder Ángel García and right-hander Esteban Mejía.

Sánchez, 16, was born in San Juan De La Maguana, Dominican Republic, and agreed to a bonus of $1.3 million, per various sources. That is the fifth bonus of $1 million or more the club has handed out to an international amateur since 2021. It ranks as tied for third-most in dollars by the club under the Mike Elias front office. The highest bonus was the $2.3 million by infielder Luis Almeyda last Jan. 15 and outfielder Braylin Tavera signed for $1.7 million in 2022. Basallo also got $1.3 million when he signed on Jan. 15, 2021.

Sánchez is ranked 30th by MLBPipeline.com and No. 31 by Baseball America, which lists prospects by bonus amount. He gets 50 tool grades across the board via MLBPipeline but a 55 for his hit tool. He is considered to have a solid approach with good bat speed. The O’s report says he has a chance to be an everyday player capable of plus offense with average defense. He will begin his career at shortstop but could move to third base as he physically matures and gets stronger.

Martínez, 16, an outfielder from the Dominican Republic, signed for a bonus of $950,000. The O’s believe he has the potential to be a five-tool player. He is ranked as the No. 28 international prospect by MLB Pipeline, where he gets 50 grade tools across the board except a 55 for his power. He carries a plus arm and big raw power and is one of the youngest players in this class. Defensively, Martínez has a very strong arm with proper mechanics and an on-line carry. Some scouts project him as a corner outfielder.  

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How more first-pitch swinging could help at least one Oriole

Adley Rutschman

The Orioles All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman had such a good season in 2023 that MLB Network recently ranked him as the No. 1 catcher in the sport right now. Hard to be better than No. 1.

Despite that, Rutschman, who will turn 26 on Feb. 6, could still finding another gear for his offense and he is coming into what should be his most productive years as he gets closer to age 30.

Over 154 games last season he batted .277/.374/.435/.809 with 31 doubles, a triple, 20 homers, 84 runs, 92 walks and 80 RBIs. His strikeout rate dropped from the year before from 18.3 to 14.7 and his walk-rate, already strong, held steady at 13.8 to 13.4. In addition to being an All-Star, he won a Silver Slugger award and was ninth in the AL MVP vote after finishing 12th the year before.

Rutschman now has two .800 OPS seasons on his resume with an .806 OPS in 2022 for an OPS+ of 131. His OPS in 2023 was .809 and his OPS+ was 128.

In addition, several of his Statcast defensive metrics are solid. He was ninth in the majors in the Statcast blocks above average metric. He was 11th in their framing stat and tied for 12th with a 1.91 pop time on throws to second base. Only five catchers topped 1.90. He was just 23rd in the metric they call caught stealing above average. He threw out 31 percent of base stealers in 2022 and 22 percent last year.

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Some team over/unders, plus some arbitration math

santander 2-hr night v. TOR

Take it for what it's worth, but oddsmakers are anticipating the Orioles take a big step back in their win total for the 2024 season. BetOnline.ag this week put the over-under for Orioles wins at 87.5.

The Orioles won 101 games last year, blowing by preseason over-under totals in the 76- and 77-win range predicted by multiple outlets.

So this is a projection for a lot more than a year ago, but still many fewer than the actual total from the 2023 season.

Going by current listed totals, BetOnline.ag has the Yankees with the most wins in the American League East in 2024, followed by Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston.

And while Boston would finish last in this listing, its 80.5 total is much more than the number of wins they forecast for other projected last-place clubs, including the Chicago White Sox (63.5), Oakland Athletics (57.5), Washington Nationals (65.5), Pittsburgh Pirates (72.5) and Colorado Rockies (60.5).

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It can be frustrating waiting for a trade that may never come

MIke-Elias-2022-Winter-Meetings-2

One word for the MLB trade market right now would be frustrating. Frustrating for fans and maybe even front office execs alike that, while we have rumors, we have so much less actual movement and action.

The rumors about right-hander Dylan Cease never seem to end yet nothing so far has led to a move.

What might create further frustration here is that neither the Orioles or the Chicago White Sox need to make a move. They can simply keep what they have and go at it in the 2024 season. In the case of the White Sox, they could trade Cease next month, at the trade deadline, next winter or maybe never. And as for the Orioles, they may already have enough pitching.

The White Sox's Chris Getz was promoted to the general manager position on Aug. 31 and is going to want to make sure he makes the right deal if he trades Cease, a pitcher who was second for the AL Cy Young Award in the 2022 season.

Getz addressed the Cease trade talks with Chicago reporters this week.

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MLB execs survey was a real positive for the Orioles

Adley Rutschman

We already knew that the Orioles produce young talent about as well as any team in baseball and that the club's farm system is No. 1 in the sport. But it's nice when the industry provides further confirmation of all this.

And this week, the Orioles got further confirmation in a four-part series of articles on MLB.com and MLBPipeline.com. The outlet surveyed from office execs, members of scouting and analytics and player development.

And just about everywhere you looked, the Orioles were doing pretty well.

In the first part of this series the execs were asked who will win the AL and NL Rookie of the Year awards? Last year they tabbed Gunnar Henderson of the Orioles and Arizona's Corbin Carroll to win, and both did in 2023.

This time the execs provided 36 percent of their AL votes for outfielder Evan Carter of Texas and 30 percent to O's prospect Jackson Holliday. The Orioles Heston Kjerstad was listed in the also getting votes category.

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O's new Dominican Republic facility set to open on Tuesday

Koby-Perez

The Orioles' international program took another step forward today with the announcement that the club's new complex in the Dominican Republic will officially open Tuesday. The Orioles will host an opening ceremony for the new state-of-the-art training academy in Guerra, Dominican Republic, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. AST.

Several dignitaries and current and former O's players will attend, as will executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and the club's vice president of international scouting and operations Koby Perez.

Said Elias: "This grand opening marks another major milestone in scouting and player development that will keep our minor league pipeline flowing and preserve winning baseball in Baltimore for years to come.”

The 22.5-acre complex is home to the Orioles’ regional facility for Caribbean, Central and South American player development operations, and includes three full fields, a sports turf agility field, batting and pitching tunnels, administrative buildings, dormitories, and educational facilities. The complex will house more than 100 players, coaches and staff, providing dormitory-style rooms and entertainment spaces and includes three classrooms and a computer lab, which will provide on-site learning and an education plan for each player, as well as a dining room that will offer daily nutritious meals.

“This academy is the culmination of years of hard work by so many people, and I am grateful to everyone who made this a reality,” said Elias. “For the last several years, one of the main goals of our partnership group and front office has been to excel in Latin America, and I am very pleased by what we as an organization, led by Koby Perez, have accomplished in this sector."

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Will the O's need to hit more homers in the 2024 season?

Gunnar Henderson

Earlier this week, in a blog about the Orioles 2023 offense, it was noted that while the club finished fourth in the American League scoring 4.98 runs per game, they were not rated that highly in some other stats like team batting average (sixth), OBP (tied for seventh), slugging (seventh) and team OPS (eighth).

The Orioles were very strong, leading the American League and all of MLB in batting average (.287) with runners in scoring position and team OPS (.837) with RISP. Those are real strong numbers and could well be hard to duplicate.

One area on the stat sheet that the club could hope for some improvement would be in hitting homers. The Orioles have hit fewer homers in two seasons now that the left-field wall is much deeper at Camden Yards. But they actually moved up a bit in team rankings in the AL in homers, despite hitting fewer.

Here is the look at the last four full seasons for the Orioles, two before the wall was moved back and two after.

In 2019 the O’s hit 213 homers to rank 12th in the AL. In 2021 they hit 195 to rank 10th. In 2022, after the wall was moved, they hit 171 but that was eighth and last year they hit 183 and that rated ninth in the AL.

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