Orioles

How to jump on the 2020 Orioles bandwagon

Orioles

The Orioles are, somehow, one of the best teams in baseball. Their offense ranks among baseball's best: Fourth in batting average, fifth in slugging percentage, seventh in OPS, and eleventh in runs per game.

They've managed this despite a roster devoid of star power, or really any recognizable names to speak of. Their lineup looks more like the Cleveland Indians in Major League than they do the Indians in reality. Their best player, Trey Mancini, is out for the season fighting colon cancer, and the biggest name, Chris Davis, is known more for his contract than his on-field contributions.

And yet, they've established themselves as early Cinderellas during baseball's truncated season. If the season ended today the Orioles would be on the cusp of the American League playoff picture. 

If you haven't yet, now is the time to jump on the bandwagon. And when you do, you don't want to sound like you don't know what you're talking about in front of your friends.

Here's a guide for everything you need to know to cheer for the Baltimore Orioles in 2020.

Who are these guys?

The first thing any fan needs to know about their new bandwagon team is who the players are. That's an especially tricky assignment for an Orioles fan in 2020, as the team has jettisoned most of its stars in recent years, replacing them with unproven talent. Outside of Chris Davis and Alex Cobb, most casual fans had probably never heard most of these names before 2020. So, who are these unknowns? And how did they get to Baltimore?

 

Hanser Alberto (2B) - Contact hitter who is always smiling, claimed off waivers Shawn Armstrong (RP) - Excellent middle reliever, claimed off waivers Miguel Castro (RP) - Erratic but talented reliever, acquired in a trade for Player To Be Named Later Austin Hays (CF) - Speedy, powerful future leadoff hitter who was the Minor League Player of the Year in 2017, third-round draft pick Jose Iglesias (SS) - Slick fielding former All-Star now batting third in the lineup, signed in offseason for one year, $3 million Tommy Milone (SP) - Journeyman turned Opening Day starting pitcher, signed minor league deal in offseason Renato Nûñez (3B/1B/DH) - Former top A's prospect coming off a 31-homer season, claimed off waivers Rio Ruiz (3B) - Developing power hitter at the hot corner, claimed off waivers Anthony Santander (RF) - Leads the Orioles, and all of Major League Baseball, in RBI, former Rule 5 Draft Pick Pedro Severino (C) - Tied for the team lead with 181 OPS+, claimed off waivers Chance Sisco (C) - Former top prospect who leads the team in OPS, second-round draft pick Dwight Smith Jr. (LF) - Star MLB The Show player in offseason with 140 OPS+ in 2020, acquired in a trade for international pool money Cole Sulser (RP) - Debuted last September at 29 years old, now closer for the Orioles, claimed off waivers Pat Valaika (UT) - Utility infielder who gave O's early walk-off hit, claimed off waivers twice this offseason Asher Wojciechowski (SP) - third on the Orioles in strikeouts, acquired in cash transaction

Seven waiver claims, three trades, two small free agent signings, two homegrown draft picks and one Rule 5 selection, all of whom have come together to form the core of a surprisingly competitive Orioles team. Calling this group an island of misfit toys would be an understatement, yet every one of them looks like they belong in Baltimore.

Who is the best player on the Orioles?

One of the most fun parts about this Orioles team is it's not totally clear who the best player is. Guys like Alberto, Iglesias, Nûñez, Ruiz, Santander and Severino have all had moments this season when they stepped up in major ways, and each of them has an argument as the team's best player. But the lack of an obvious star has been what makes this start so impressive, and it's afforded the O's the opportunity to give chances to players that may not otherwise have seen the field.

 

Santander leads the team in WAR according to Baseball-Reference, but Nûñez is probably the best power hitter. Santander is second in the league in RBI, but Ruiz has developed nicely with his glove this season. Every "star" brings something different to the table, and they've coalesced into something great.

As mentioned above, most of these candidates have come from very humble beginnings to their professional careers. Even Trey Mancini, who would have been the clear leader and best player on the team if he wasn't battling colon cancer, was an eighth-round draft pick. There's no true best player, and that's the way the Orioles like it.

Why is their hot start so surprising?

Without any proven stars on the team, the Orioles were projected to be bad. Really, really bad. 

Their over/under was set as low as 20.5 wins (translates to about 54.5 in a full season) and many jokingly asked who would win more: The Ravens in 16 games or the Orioles in 60. Some even suggested the O's win total might end up in the single digits. 

This is a team that had the worst record in baseball in 2018 and lost 108 games in 2019, and they brought back mostly the same roster, only without their best player (Mancini) and pitcher (Dylan Bundy). Most fantasy analysts advised avoiding all Orioles in 2020. They were a team many pundits treated like they were barely worth talking about, let alone taken seriously. If they were merely the 10th-worst team in baseball, it would have been very surprising. To be in a strong position for a playoff spot is astonishing.

How are they winning?

That unproven talent we mentioned means lots of young, hungry players eager to prove themselves. The Orioles have quickly established a reputation as relentless scrappy, a team that never says die and keeps themselves in nearly every contest. They have been a great hitting team all season, but they are especially potent in later innings, ranking as one of the best offenses in baseball from the seventh inning on.

The Orioles are clearly winning with one of baseball's best batting lineups, but the real key has been the starting pitching being merely adequate. The O's have long suffered to find quality starting pitching, and their best seasons in recent memory have come when the starters merely don't kill them. Three members of the rotation have an ERA under 5.00, and Cobb's is even under 4.00. That's been just enough to allow the lineup to do its thing. 

The Orioles have been more patient at the plate than they have in years, and as a result, they are hitting the ball with more authority. Combine that with halfway decent pitching, and they've found a winning formula.

Can they keep this up?

No one knows for sure, but the offense sure looks legitimate. The O's have one of the American League's best batting averages, which can be fluky, but they have impressed with their patience at the plate. The Orioles have ranked among the top 10 in on-base percentage and have also struck out less than past seasons, stark contrasts from the successful teams in the early part of the last decade. If they continue with this batting approach through the regular season - a much easier task in a 60-game season - then the wins should follow.

 

Will there be any other new names to learn this year?

Potentially! General manager Mike Elias is on record as saying if the team is close to postseason contention, they'll do whatever they can to win late in the year. This isn't a team planning a firesale in order to bring back future assets; they think they have real pieces contributing already. So instead of trading away players, they may even consider trading for players, if they find the right fit.

You also should see some new prospects join the big league club. Hard-hitting prospect Ryan Mountcastle recently got the call. The other big name on everybody's mind is Adley Rutschman, one of the top five prospects in all of baseball and the future face of the franchise. It's far less likely he makes it to Baltimore in 2020, especially without a minor league season this year, but if the O's are close, anything is on the table.

Why should I start rooting for them?

The O's aren't just happy to be a fun Cinderella story. They genuinely believe in themselves, which is a credit to potential Manager of the Year Brandon Hyde. Their humble confidence is infectious when watching them play, as are the big smiles that can be found on most of their faces. Everyone loves an underdog tale, especially when the underdogs think they are better than the moniker. This team continued winning schedule would make for one of the best possible stories in 2020.

The Orioles think they are here to stay, and we should all be so lucky.