Say what you will about the Orioles’ start to the season; optimistic or pessimistic, reasonable or not, it will probably say more about the opinion holder than the team itself.

It’s hard to argue, though, that this season doesn’t seem to be going according to plan. Their roster decisions coming out of spring training were made in large part because of the slew of left-handed pitching they’d see early in the season, with top prospect Jackson Holliday remaining in Triple-A to finish his development and right-handed-hitting bench options kept at several spots given the inherent platoon advantage.

As the Orioles lost the fourth of their five games in which a lefty started for their opponent Sunday, that approach is looking wobbly. Their offense is scuffling at a time when their Triple-A affiliate enjoyed as eye-popping an offensive week as a club could have.

One rival scout who was in Charlotte for the Norfolk series there last week, one in which the Tides scored 71 runs, referred to the conditions in which they did so as “a perfect storm.” The same can be said of the winds and currents swirling around this club and the prospects on the periphery of it.

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You don’t see these circumstances often. Sooner rather than later, the Orioles will have to pick a path out of it.

Let’s start with the major league club, which after dominant wins in its first two games of the season is now playing exclusively coin-flip games or losing rather meekly. Still, the Orioles are 5-4, and every word written before or after this comes with the acknowledgement that we’re talking about incredibly small samples here.

But that’s kind of the point. The Orioles know the margins between the postseason and missing out, between a good season and one that won’t be considered so, are slim. They know there are plenty of good teams in the AL that they’re competing for playoff spots with.

That knowledge means that every win or loss matters, be it in April or September, and that’s part of why they constructed the roster the way they did. Even stripping out the potential for ulterior service time-related motives with Holliday, which I’m willing to do to some extent, his inexperience and relative lack of success against lefties in his one-plus year in the minors were major reasons he was left off the club, by its telling.

With their early-season opponents all boasting left-handed starters, the Orioles kept Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo as their bench players to better match up from a platoon sense. They pummeled lefty Patrick Sandoval on opening day and have lost all four games they’ve faced a lefty starter since, Sunday included.

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As a club, they have a .536 OPS against lefties, tied for fourth worst in the league. Mateo is hitting them quite well, but many others who are supposed to aren’t, including Urías, Jordan Westburg and Austin Hays. More broadly, they just aren’t hitting well as a team. When Brandon Hyde was asked about their offensive progress after those first two games, he pointed out how hard it was to sustain the kind of patient, productive at-bats the Orioles strive for as a club.

He noted it was in and out a year ago before it went away for good down the stretch, and they’re already in a stretch where it’s not going well for many of their hitters. The benefit of the doubt is a fickle thing. Which players receive it and which do not isn’t a science. But patience isn’t always abundant in these parts. Remember that Cole Irvin made three starts before he was optioned to the minors in 2023, 13 games into the season.

If the Orioles feel they need a spark or that some kind of change is in order, there are obviously plenty of options. Norfolk’s prospect-laden lineup has overwhelmed Charlotte over the course of six games this year, described by the rival scout — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on other teams’ players — as such: “The Charlotte ballpark is a bandbox, everybody hits well there, pitchers don’t pitch well there, but it’s more than that. [Chicago’s] pitching is bad at the big leagues, so Triple-A is brutal. … To put it bluntly, Charlotte is just bad and Norfolk is just a bunch of guys that are major league ready.”

Holliday had three extra-base hits and a .333 average with a 1.085 OPS, thanks to his 10 walks on the week. The scout posited that, at just 20 years old, he takes the best at-bats in all the minors. The impact of his teammates was a bit more emphatic.

Heston Kjerstad hit six home runs with a 1.753 OPS, Kyle Stowers hit five home runs with a 1.319 OPS, Connor Norby had a 1.276 OPS with three home runs, and all Coby Mayo managed was one home run, albeit a massive one, as he amassed 11 hits with a 1.130 OPS.

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The scout has plenty of background with the Orioles’ prospects, so it wasn’t his first look. He said Kjerstad “had the most comfortable at-bats I’ve ever seen in my life.” He was impressed with the consistent quality of Stowers’ contact, with Norby’s revamped offensive game and with Mayo’s power profile.

Baltimore Orioles right fielder Heston Kjerstad (13) runs to third base during a Grapefruit League game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at LECOM Park on February 25, 2024. The Orioles beat the Pirates, 2-0, during Sunday’s game.
Heston Kjerstad has 25 RBIs in nine games at Triple-A Norfolk. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

He also acknowledged the caveats that don’t fit as neatly into the hype around Norfolk’s week. In addition to the ballpark, he noted that Charlotte was calling up — and using — pitchers from A ball during the week to cover innings. There were also two appearances on the mound for infielder Danny Mendick, who predictably gave up seven runs.

“Every game you thought you’d seen it all and the next game would happen and you’re like, ‘What the heck?’” the scout said. “Yes, it’s an easy ballpark to hit at, but they did what they were supposed to do.”

He also noted that Holliday didn’t put a foot wrong at second base, positing he’d be at least a plus defender there with the potential to play the position well immediately. He has only eight plate appearances against lefties, with a 1.375 OPS thanks to his opening day home run off one, and has not struck out against a lefty, either. Just three of the eight balls he’s put in play against lefties have been hit hard though.

All of the focus is on him, naturally, but it’s also possible that the Orioles keep him in Triple-A even if their desire to make a change is urgent, instead opting for someone like Stowers or Kjerstad — both left-handed sluggers with corner outfield profiles — for bench or platoon roles. There may be a trade market for Urías or even Mateo in a way there wasn’t a few weeks ago at the end of spring training with the sadly high amount of injuries around the game.

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There was an undercurrent to the Orioles’ early-season decisions that winning as many games as possible early was worth more than the experience Holliday would get against the high-level lefties his resume lacks, even if the Orioles would benefit from that experience happening as quickly as possible for the purposes of him adjusting and settling in later in the season.

They might face just one lefty starter in their next three series. The approach they took to beating the ones they faced early didn’t work out as they’d hoped. The near-term point of what they did was to bank as many wins as possible early for what could be another grueling playoff race. If they pivot, there are certainly options — and good ones.

Those alternatives may not be as good as they’ve looked so far. The same can be said about how underwhelming the players the Orioles might look to shuffle out have been. Perfect storms are called such because of the unique circumstances that cause them. Nothing is normal about the Orioles right now, and standing pat might be the most perilous option of all.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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