The Orioles woke up Tuesday morning five games back from the Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the loaded American League East. After two games which spanned a total of 20 hours from start to finish, the Orioles remain five games back after a series split. Despite the lack of movement, there are several takeaways from the O's first trip to Tropicana Field in 2023 that I will discuss.
Takeaways from a two game split between the Orioles and Rays at Tropicana Field
1. The Bullpen Needs Some Upgrades
There is no need to sugarcoat it, the middle relievers for the Orioles have been bad recently, and those struggles continued over this series as the bullpen gave up four runs in the sixth inning Tuesday night and another three runs in three innings Wednesday. On Tuesday, Bryan Baker and Mike Baumann only recorded one out each as the O's let a 7-0 lead evaporate to 7-6 which forced the team to use their star relievers in Yennier Cano and Felix Bautista.
On Wednesday, Keegan Akin allowed two earned runs in the seventh and Brandon Hyde opted to use Cole Irvin in the eighth where he allowed an extra earned run. The Orioles have made a variety of moves recently in an attempt to strengthen the middle part of the bullpen, but some more urgent changes may be needed.
With the trade deadline in about 40 days, the Orioles have the opportunity to strengthen their bullpen from outside the organization and with the number one farm system in baseball, they have plenty of assets available to trade for strong relievers to complement Cano and Bautista. Originally, the Orioles plan was to wait for Mychal Givens and Dillon Tate to return from injury, but both players have suffered setbacks and likely will not be ready for Major League action for a while.
When healthy, Givens and Tate both offer strong middle relief options for an Orioles team that struggles to get through the middle innings of games, especially against tough offensive teams like the Rays. Baker's struggles on Tuesday are especially concerning since he has been one of the more reliable middle relief options. However, after allowing three earned runs in 0.1 innings, his season ERA dropped to 4.20 and he has particularly struggled with command.
In his debut season, Baker allowed only 3.4 walks per nine innings but that number has jolted to 5.7 in 30 innings pitched this season. A walk on Tuesday increased that number which must come closer to 2022's number for Baker to have any effectiveness or consistency. Outside of walks, Baker has had a solid season as he has struck out an impressive 11.4 batters per nine innings and has allowed only one total home run. As I wrote last summer, Baker relies heavily on his high spin rate fastballs to fool hitters and to cause them to swing through pitches. Last summer, the main issue for Baker was his ability to pitch in clutch situations but his lack of control has been a much bigger issue this season.
Outside of Baker, pitchers like Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, and Cionel Perez have all struggled recently, hurting the bullpen's effectiveness. Perez did not have the opportunity to pitch in the Trop with Hyde trusting Danny Coulombe much more in high-leverage situations but Baumann and Akin each continued their struggles.
Like Baker, Baumann relies heavily on his fastball to blow by hitters with his 6-4 frame and velocity of around 96-97 miles per hour. Also similar to Baker, Baumann has struggled with control, allowing 4.6 walks per nine innings this season. Due to injuries and other struggles, bullpen improvements will likely need to come externally since many of the internal options have also struggled in limited run in the majors.
2. It Is Time for Jordan Westburg to Take Over at Shortstop
At the end of April, it looked like Jorge Mateo was set for a breakout season which would further complicate the infield depth chart for the future. During the first month of the season, Mateo had six home runs with an unreal .353/.403/.647 slash line. However, since then to say that Jorge has cooled off would be an understatement. During this series, Mateo went 0-for-6 with three strikeouts and also had a defensive blunder on Wednesday which cost the team a run after failing to cut off a throw from center fielder Aaron Hicks.
On the season Mateo is batting .227/.266/.360 with no home runs since April 30th. Since the end of April, Jorge is 21-for-129 for a .163 batting average and almost no power or plate discipline to make up for the abysmal batting average. All of this is to say that Mateo's time as the Orioles shortstop may be coming to an end.
Fortunately for Mike Elias and company, there are several internal options who are more than ready to take over everyday shortstop duties. For one, Gunnar Henderson who has had the offensive month of his life is more than capable of playing a competent shortstop. However, the most obvious replacement is Jordan Westburg who was a second-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2020. In 62 games with the Norfolk Tide this season, Westburg has raked with a .291/.371/.570 slash line with 17 home runs and 52 RBIs.
In 91 games last year, Jordan had similar stats in Norfolk which means that he has proven over a full season sample size that he can crush Triple-A pitching and is ready for the next leap. As I mentioned, Mateo's struggles give Westburg the perfect opportunity to jump into an everyday role at shortstop. Even if he is not ready to play shortstop every day, the Orioles have options like Henderson and Ramon Urias who are also capable.
With the combination of Mateo's struggles and Westburg's dominance, it is silly that Jordan has yet to be given an opportunity in Baltimore. Every game matters for a team fighting for their first division crown since 2014 and first Postseason appearance since 2016. The indecision to move Westburg up will likely cost the O's some wins if it hasn't already. Hopefully the move that fans have been clamoring for comes sooner rather than later.
3. There Are Going to be Tough Decisions Regarding the Outfield
On the opposite end, the Orioles have a logjam that is about to get even more tight in the outfield. After a three-hit performance Tuesday, Austin Hays improved his batting average to an American League best .327 and could well be on his way to his first All-Star appearance. Aaron Hicks and Anthony Santander both hit home runs on Tuesday as well and they continue to mash.
This current outfield alone is one of the better trios in the majors, but things get more complicated as Cedric Mullins starts a rehab assignment Wednesday night in Norfolk. The Tides have two other outfield prospects in Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad who have both hit well in Triple-A and are close to the majors.
Of course, once Mullins is healthy he will return as the everyday centerfielder and leadoff hitter. There is no amount of offensive success Hicks can have to take that role away from one of the O's unofficial captains. Before the injury, it appeared that Mullins had a real shot of representing the Orioles for a second time in the All-Star Game as he hit .263/.356/.479 with a 132 OPS+. That OPS+ is only five points lower than 2021 when he had a career year and represented the American League as the starting center fielder.
Once Mullins returns, that is likely bad news for Ryan McKenna who does not get much playing time anyways but certainly will not if the O's have two capable center fielders with much better offensive potential. Similar to Jordan Westburg, Cowser has also raked in Triple-A, and it is only a matter of time before he gets the call to The Show.
In 47 games this season, Cowser is hitting an absurd .341/.473/.547 with eight home runs and eighteen extra base hits. He is also an above average defensive player at all three outfield positions but will likely man right field once he is called up. For Santander, a move to either DH or first base may be imminent once Cowser and Mullins are in the big leagues. Anthony has proven that he is too good of a hitter to be left out of the lineup.