From the start of Summer Camp to Sunday, so much has changed in Orioles land over the course of a few, crazy months. Even before it began, Year 2 of Baltimore's rebuild presented challenges nobody in the organization could have foreseen, from cancer diagnoses to a global pandemic and beyond. Now that it’s in the books, the Orioles head into the offseason pointing to progress made in spite of truly unique circumstances.
That’s why it was fitting they capped their 2020 season on Sunday at Sahlen Field with a 7-5 win over the Blue Jays that featured so many representatives of that progress in starring roles.
“For us, it meant a lot. To end the season strong and with a win, we felt was important,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “More young players doing really, really good things on the baseball field.”
What will the Orioles take from 2020? The leaps taken by players such as Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Rio Ruiz -- all of whom drove in runs to turn a three-run hole into a three-run cushion in the middle innings. It will be the exposure given to pitchers such as No. 15 prospect Keegan Akin, the rookie left-hander who allowed four runs in three innings in the finale of what was an exciting eight-game cameo.
And it’ll be the fact that a year ago, the Orioles could only look around at the Major League level and see a handful of faces that might be part of their future. That number is much higher today.
“We have a lot of young talented guys who are ready to show what they got in The Show,” said Mullins, who rebounded from his lost 2019 season to emerge again as the Orioles’ top everyday option in center field. “I’m excited for all of us.”
One of the American League’s surprise noisemakers early on, the Orioles rode a hot start from several youngsters and a breakout month from Anthony Santander to 12 wins in their first 20 games. But the O’s dropped their next six straight and 11 of their next 13, sliding below .500 in mid-August and eventually out of the playoff picture, while the shape and complexion of their roster underwent significant change.
The Orioles promoted Ryan Mountcastle for good on Aug. 21, traded six pitchers for a bundle of prospects in a flurry of pre-Deadline deals, then lost Santander to a season-ending right oblique injury on Sept. 5. Mountcastle was soon joined by prized pitching prospects Akin and Dean Kremer, who turned heads as the O’s struggled over the season’s final month. Mountcastle proved even better than advertised, hitting .333 with five homers and an .878 OPS over his first 35 MLB games.
Along the way they enjoyed a career offensive season from José Iglesias, tangible steps forward from Tanner Scott, Mullins and others, and year-to-year improvement in nearly every aspect of the team. Even despite their inconsistent offense, the Orioles were a more prolific run scoring unit than they were in 2019.
Their team ERA (4.51) improved by more than a full run, and they went from having a historically bad bullpen to one of baseball’s 10 best. In his second-year managing, Hyde earned rave reviews for how he handled 2020’s unique set of challenges, and between the Draft and the Deadline deals, GM/EVP Mike Elias added nine Top 30 prospects to Baltimore’s still-improving system.
The result was several positive developments, despite the Orioles' third consecutive losing season and eventual 25-35 record. Hyde called it “a wild ride” with “so many question marks” where “you never knew what was going to happen next.”
“I just think there have been a lot of really good things from our younger players and that’s the most important thing right now,” Hyde said. “I think you had young guys step up on our team, and that’s what you’re looking for in a situation like ours, is to look down the road to see what you could look like in a couple years. And so you want your young guys to come up and hopefully they have success just to see that they can handle the big leagues.”
Said Elias: “It’s very difficult for me to label any season a success where we have a losing record and don’t make the playoffs. But I see enough positive things where we can feel good that this year was far from wasted and that there was progress made in our ultimate goals.”