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Digging Up Fantasy Value in Baltimore

In every season there are teams who initially appear so bad that we give up all hope of fantasy value. In 2019 one of those teams was the Baltimore Orioles, who had a very different lineup to last year. 2018 saw the Orioles move on from Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, and Adam Jones followed them out of the door in the offseason. What was left was considered by many to be a lineup that for the large part fantasy owners wanted nothing to do with.

However, the first weekend of the season saw a more than promising showing from this relatively young lineup. On the one hand it may just be one weekend, but on the other hand, the signs of life should give fantasy owners scouring the waiver wire some hope. As an added bonus there seems to be some real fragility in the pitching staffs of the AL East. Not much was expected of the Blue Jays, but the struggles of the Red Sox and Yankees to open the season were somewhat more surprising.

Let's take a look at where we might find value among this Orioles lineup.

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Jonathan Villar, 2B/SS

Villar was not short of value when the season opened. In fact, his NFBC ADP in the week prior to the season was just inside the top 80. He has backed that up with a nice start, hitting for a .294 batting average with one home run and a stolen base. There is no great value here, but it is nice to see Villar performing out of the gate.

 

Trey Mancini, 1B/OF

I told you all about the value Mancini offered in the preseason, and this could be your last chance to buy low. Mancini already has two home runs and is hitting for a .500 batting average through the first four games. If we are picking holes, the four strikeouts to zero walks is not ideal, but Mancini is off to a flying start. You are unlikely to find him on the waiver wire in many leagues, but he is someone you may still be able to trade for if his owner is sleeping on this start.

 

Dwight Smith Jr., OF

Smith is perhaps the most interesting name outside of Mancini and Villar. Coming into the season, and as of today, Roster Resource has Smith slated to be in a platoon for the Orioles. However, it was interesting to see him start against both left-handed starters the Orioles have faced so far, James Paxton & J.A. Happ. The issue with making a decision on Smith, either way, is that everything in his major league career is a small sample size. Across his three major league seasons, he has just 121 PA, with 91 of those against right-handed pitchers and 30 against left-handed pitchers.

In those 30 PA against left-handed pitching, he has struggled, with just a .239 batting average and .308 wOBA. However, if you go back and look at his minor league splits from 2017 and 2018 then we see a different story. In 2018, Smith hit .261 against lefties, as opposed to .268 against righties. The power was less against left-handed pitching (SLG .374 vs. .446), but it was not overly concerning. In 2017, he actually had a better batting average and SLG (.316 & .436) against lefties than he did against righties (.266 & .380). Those numbers mean that it is too early just to assume Smith is going to be a platoon option for the Orioles.

If Smith does play every day, then there is some reason for optimism. So far this season, he has hit in the second spot in the order and has completed every game bar the season opener, where he came out in the eighth inning. In mixed leagues, his value is limited by the relative lack of power or speed, hitting just 14 home runs and stealing 17 bases in the minors in 2017 and 2018 combined. However, at age 26 there is still time for development in his skill set, although he will need to reverse the early trend of a drop in exit velocity to realize it. In AL-only leagues Smith could offer a solid option, potentially playing close to every day, hitting second and with the possibility of double digits in both home runs and steals. Nothing that will blow you away but still valuable in those deeper formats.

 

Cedric Mullins, OF

Mullins has started three of the Orioles first five games, hitting leadoff in all three. However, he has so far sat against both the left-handed starting pitchers, with Villar hitting leadoff in his place. In both games in which he didn't start, he entered the game later, once as a pinch hitter and once as a defensive switch. With the Orioles seemingly still unsure of their optimal lineup, and Smith hitting strongly to open the season, it appears Mullins is in a platoon for the foreseeable future. If the young switch-hitter can get full time at bats, then there is room for optimism.

In the minors, Mullins demonstrated the ability to hit for power, and he stole 30 bases in Single-A in 2016. Last season, he hit a combined 15 home runs and stole 23 bases across three levels. In his 191 PA debut in the majors in 2018, he hit four home runs and stole two bases. His contact was an issue as he hit .235, and in 58 major league PA against left-handed pitching, he owns a .149 batting average. It may be a small sample size, but it appears to be an issue for the Orioles and therefore damages his fantasy value. Mullins has less immediate value than Smith, but if he can prove himself against left-handed pitching, he has far more upside of the two. Depending on your injury situation and immediate needs, Mullins is the better stash, with Smith the better option if you need someone to contribute AB immediately.

 

Joey Rickard, OF

Rickard has not started 2019 in an ideal way, with just one hit in his 12 PA. The bright side is that the one hit was a home run. However, when you are a hitter who returned a .241 and .244 batting average in the last two seasons respectively, those kinds of starts can cost you playing time quite quickly.

From a fantasy perspective, Rickard is another hitter with a relatively low ceiling. His 10 home runs between Triple-A and the major leagues is a career-high in any calendar year, and he has not stolen more than eight bases in a single season since stealing 23 across three levels in 2015. The relative low ceiling and lack of consistent batting average place Rickard third, behind Smith and Mullins as deeper options in the Baltimore outfield.

 

Rio Ruiz, 3B

Ruiz has struggled out of the gate this season, hitting just .211 with no home runs or stolen bases through the first five games. However, Ruiz, who hit 20 home runs combined between Triple-A and the majors with the Atlanta Braves, has been a consistent presence in the Orioles lineup this season, regardless of the pitcher. Ruiz has also hit fifth in the lineup in four of his five games this season, putting him in a prime spot in the order for delivering RBI over the remainder of the season. Currently, the low batting average in the major leagues, .191 in 215 PA, means that Ruiz has next-to-no fantasy value. However, if he can make more consistent contact, and remain an everyday player, then his potential to hit double-digit home runs could become valuable in deeper AL-only leagues.

 

David Hess, SP

Hess's first start against the Blue Jays yielded extremely promising results. He struck out eight hitters over 6 1/3 innings, surrendering zero hits and just one walk. He was also reasonably successful in a relief appearance against the Yankees, striking out two in two innings, but did allow two walks and a single hit. The two outings have flashed a lot of promise, but both have factors which reduce their impact for his value going forward somewhat.

The relief outing is tough to judge, as coming in as a reliever is extremely different to starting and cannot be directly translated to future success against a similar team if he was to be the starter. As for the outing against the Blue Jays, the issue is that it is apparent at this early stage in the season that judging a pitcher against the Blue Jays offense may be a tough thing to do. The Jays offense has struggled out of the gate, hitting for a combined .182 batting average with a .307 slugging percentage.

Hess is worth a speculative pickup in AL-only formats, but caution should be exercised given his track record of lacking high strikeout rates. Additionally, he will also see a number of starts this year either in offense-friendly parks, or against offenses which are expected to be among the best in AL.

 

Closer

The closer situation has been somewhat of a mess for the Orioles this season, with four different pitchers having a save and every reliever allowing at least one run. Castro got the save Tuesday evening but gave up a home run in the process. Despite not having a save under his belt, Givens could still be the next man given the opportunity. After pitching twice in two days against the Yankees, Givens may not have been available on Tuesday in the save situation. However, he was used in the eighth inning of their win over the Yankees on Saturday, and their manager, Brandon Hyde, has gone on record as saying they are not declaring a traditional closer at this stage. Until a clear favorite emerges from the pack, this remains a situation to steer clear of if possible, as no single candidate stands out above the rest.

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