Inbox: What to expect from young O's in '21

January 8th, 2021

Welcome to 2021! Sometimes the new year brings big changes, but not when it comes to the Orioles Inbox. Don’t worry: We’ll still be taking the time to answer your questions regularly up to the start of Spring Training and beyond.

With that, let’s dig into the mailbag. Unsurprisingly, many of this week’s inquiries focused on what to expect from the O's in the new year.

What are Ryan Mountcastle’s chances of winning the 2021 American League Rookie of the Year Award? Who is anticipated to be his main competition?
-- Andrew W., Albany, N.Y.

Our prospect guru Jim Callis pegged Mountcastle as the early frontrunner for the award in September, and I see no reason to disagree with that today. That said, the Rookies of the Year can be straightforward (Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2018, for example) or notoriously difficult to predict. (Who saw '20 NL ROY Devin Williams coming?) It’s impossible at this juncture to foresee how clubs will handle their top prospects over the course of a 162-game season -- Adley Rutschman, anyone? -- or which dark-horse candidates will emerge.

Still, Mountcastle looks like a strong bet in a talented field that includes Indians righty Triston McKenzie, Red Sox slugger Bobby Dalbec, White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal, White Sox righty Dane Dunning, Blue Jays righty Nate Pearson, Tigers righty Casey Mize and others. Mountcastle will outpace them all easily if he recreates his performance in 2020, when he hit .333/.386/.492 with five homers in 35 games, over an 162-game sample. But that might not be realistic.

If Mountcastle does, it would be quite an achievement: The O’s haven’t had a ROY since Gregg Olson in 1989. I think they’d simply be happy with Mountcastle, given the chance at everyday big league at-bats, building on his 2020 success both at the plate and in left field.

What does the rotation look like to start out the season? John Means, Alex Cobb, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and ... who? Do you think we'll see Michael Baumann or Zac Lowther make the team out of Spring Training?
-- Anj, Bel Air, Md.

Let’s use this question to talk about the rotation as a whole. I think it could be the Orioles story of 2021.

Barring injury, the O's will have Means and Cobb at the top, with Kremer and Akin getting every opportunity to claim mid-rotation roles out of Spring Training. The competition will come for the fifth starter and depth roles, with Jorge López, Bruce Zimmermann and Rule 5 pick Mac Sceroler vying against each other. Top 20 prospects Baumann, Lowther and Alexander Wells are all on the 40-man roster, hinting at 2021 debuts. But I don’t think that will come out of camp, since none have thrown a pitch at the Triple-A level.

That’s an important factor for a rebuilding organization that believes it still has time to reach its competitive window, and it's especially pertinent, since neither Baumann, Lowther nor Wells threw a competitive pitch outside of intrasquad action in 2020. I don’t see them being pushed too hard at Triple-A, either, for this reason -- everyone with even a hint of prospect status will be on an innings count in '21. That’s going to make depth even more necessary than usual, and it'll force teams to get creative in how they handle the workloads of their entire staffs.

Translation: For the prospects in question, there should be opportunity and need. 2021 is their year.

What’s the word on Heston Kjerstad? Will he be ready to go for Spring Training?
-- Joe T.

That’s the expectation, yes. After the O’s selected Kjerstad No. 2 overall in the 2020 Draft, he was held out of alternate training site and instructional camp action due to what the club repeatedly called a “non-sports related medical issue.” So by the time Kjerstad reports to Spring Training, it will have been more than eight months between Draft day and the Orioles actually doing hands-on work with him. That’s significant development time to make up for an important prospect. For that reason, I expect him to get more focused instruction this spring than a recent draftee usually would.

Is there a prospect you've heard the team talk up who isn't spoken about much nationally?
-- Waj

The answer here is shortstop Gunnar Henderson, the O’s No. 6 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. The Orioles love what Henderson, their supplemental-round pick in 2019, showed them in controlled environments this spring and summer, often impressing against pitchers significantly older than him. He handled everything thrown at him, according to people who were there, even showing enough athleticism to hold his own in center field at times.

It’s not difficult to see why Henderson, 19, excites the O’s development people. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, he's big. As a former Alabama All-State basketball player, he's athletic. And he can flat-out play, with impressive (and improving) raw power for his age and one of the system’s strongest throwing arms. At this point, Henderson might have more upside than any O’s position player prospect not named Adley Rutschman.