The Orioles, like every MLB team, had a strange 2020. The season was cut short, games were played in front of fans, and perhaps most importantly for this organization in particular, the minor league season was canceled.
The Orioles, unlike most MLB teams, are in the middle of an intense, years-long rebuilding process. For them, the minor league system is the most important aspect of their organizational future, so missing out on that development time for guys like Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall was crushing.
GM Mike Elias and the front office are confident that their instructional camp in Bowie was a successful alternative in terms of getting their top prospects reps this year, but it just isn't the same as playing real games. That's why the Major League debuts of a few key prospects became even more exciting than usual in Baltimore this season.
Three names stand out among the players to make their MLB debuts in Baltimore in 2020: Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Ryan Mountcastle.
Those three ranked among the top 10 Orioles prospects in the minors, according to most evaluators, and they each have the potential to play a role in the future core of the next contending O's roster. And, excitingly for fans in Charm City, each found some immediate success when called up this season.
In our look back on the Orioles' 2020, it's impossible to ignore the first seeds of the next great Orioles team beginning to bloom. Let's run through how those three names fared in their first chances at the big league level.
The most exciting name for Orioles fans in 2020 was Ryan Mountcastle, and it's not hard to see why. Mountcastle debuted on August 21, and he was arguably the team's best player from that point through the end of the season.
The first baseman/outfielder hybrid has long had a bat considered Major League ready, and he proved right away why he had earned such high regard from evaluators. Mountcastle hit five home runs in 126 at-bats, with a .333/.386/.492 slash line and an OPS+ of 140. Those would be excellent numbers for any hitter in baseball, let alone a rookie seeing Major League pitching for the first time in his life.
Mountcastle also performed better in the field than expected. He'll never win any Gold Gloves, but he doesn't have to if he can provide so much value with his bat while simply providing adequate defense. Like all players in 2020 -- especially rookies -- the sample size for Mountcastle is very small. But this was as exciting a debut an Orioles hitter has made in years.
His strong start also thrilled the coaching staff.
“I’ve been really impressed with Ryan, in every aspect,” manager Brandon Hyde said after Mountcastle's first several games. “How he’s carried himself, maturity, his athleticism. I liked his at-bats, he’s trying to stay on the baseball. I think he’s swinging the bat better than I’ve seen him, and he’s playing defense better than I’ve seen him, and he’s getting down the line better. I think that there’s a lot to like about Ryan.”
As enthusiastic as he was to make his debut, and as much promise as he showed off, Mountcastle admits he isn't close to being a fully-developed player just yet.
“I feel like I’m ready to go,” Mountcastle said after getting the call to the big leagues. “This game is tough as it is, so you’re going to be developing your whole career, trying to be the best player you can be. For right now, I’m ready to go.”
Mountcastle will soon be joined in Baltimore by Rutschman, Heston Kjerstad and other great-hitting prospects. But his debut was the first sign of things to come, and he looks like a foundational building block for the Orioles lineup of the future. And that makes it one of the most exciting, important events of the Orioles' 2020 calendar.
Kremer only made four appearances (all starts) with the Orioles in 2020, but it's almost a shame he wasn't held to three. His fourth start came against the Red Sox, and in it Kremer allowed seven earned runs in just 2.2 innings.
But Kremer's first three starts? Historic.
The Israeli citizen (first in MLB history) shined in three stellar starts to begin his career, his first two coming against the Yankees. Across 16.0 innings, Kremer struck out 20 batters, held batters to a .145 batting average and recorded a 1.69 ERA. He was remarkably consistent, too, becoming the second rookie ever to throw at least five innings with one or no runs, four or fewer hits and at least six strikeouts in each of his first three games.
It's a cherry-picked stat, but it still highlights how impressive Kremer was to begin his career. And he was just as excited to be in the majors as fans were to see him there.
“It’s a dream come true,” Kremer said after his debut. “We practice every day for years to get to this point. Just to have had it is a dream come true.”
Kremer came to the Orioles by way of the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, so he isn't technically a homegrown talent. But he does look like an early success story of the Orioles' new pitching development system -- though it is important to emphasize that it is definitely still early. Four starts does not make an ace.
But it's still a promising debut that had fans in Baltimore excited for each Kremer outing. He'll have every opportunity to build off his first month by making the Opening Day rotation in 2021, and fans will be able to watch his outstanding fastball-curveball combination once more.
Akin was the lowest-ranked of the three entering the 2020 season, and he found less immediate success than Mountcastle and Kremer, but he still looked like he belonged in the big leagues.
The big southpaw scuffled in his debut out of the bullpen against the Nationals but made seven more appearances after his debut, including six starts. In those games, Akin had a 3.97 ERA, striking out a ridiculous 34 batters in 22.2 innings. Akin wasn't known for his superb swing-and-miss stuff, so those numbers are very impressive.
He did walk nine batters, which is a little high for so few innings, and that could still hurt him moving forward. But overall, his numbers have to be considered encouraging. And three of his six starts came against the vaunted Yankees and Braves lineups, and two others against Toronto, so he wasn't feasting on subpar competition, either.
Akin's future with the team is likely in the back half of the starting rotation or as a long reliever out of the bullpen. He doesn't look like a future All-Star, but for a franchise that has struggled to develop decent pitching for so long, it would be a pleasant change of pace to see Akin develop into a successful Major League player. And like the others mentioned here, he took some important first steps toward that goal in 2020.
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