Myriad Orioles Thoughts: June’s vibes; bullpen relief; the Gunnar Henderson train

June 2022 is in the rearview mirror, and for the first time since August 2017, the Orioles have had a winning month.

They went 14-12, posted one four-game winning streak and had series victories over the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox, both 2021 division winners.

There is some significance to the Orioles’ strong June. The goal of this club is to be a consistent contender. And if the Orioles stayed on a .539-win clip all season, they’d finish with 87 victories and be in the American League wild-card mix.

It’s only one month above .500, but it has seemingly energized a beleaguered fan base and an inexperienced clubhouse. Go to Chicago and win three of four or beat a Tampa Bay club that flummoxed you all last year and a team can’t help but feel more confident.

Plus, the Orioles are winning in exciting ways. Making comebacks. Holding on to slight leads late in games. Playing good defense and, most important, pitching well.

So, enjoy this ride. It’s been a long time coming. But …

Here’s the reality portion of this piece:

The Orioles had a winning June. But the AL East didn’t stop humming along at breakneck speed. The Boston Red Sox were 20-6 in June, gained six games on the Orioles and didn’t even have the best record in the division. That belonged to the New York Yankees, who won 21 of their 27 June games.

This is what I’m referring to when fans ask me if the Orioles will be contenders next season. Or whether they’ll be .500 this year.

I can’t see it. Not in this division. Not yet. It’s just that brutal.

The Orioles (35-42) are 15-19 against the East, which includes winning five of eight so far against the Red Sox and giving the Yankees a fifth of their losses this year. The Orioles are 20-23 against everyone else.

Next year, MLB is enacting a more balanced schedule, meaning the Orioles won’t be forced to play the AL East 76 times a season. And that surely will help.

The Orioles, however, will still reside in the AL East. And that means they’ll have to be significantly better to climb out of last place.

Additionally, they aren’t done with the rebuilding part of this franchise plan. There will be more trades of talent at the deadline and in the offseason. Older, more expensive players will be dealt for younger, cheaper ones who have a chance of being contributors in a couple of seasons.

Therefore, the challenge for this inexperienced club — and especially the pitching corps — to keep this pace throughout the rest of the season will be daunting, given that few of these guys have endured a 162-game season at the MLB level.

The bottom line is that the Orioles played good, inspiring ball in June. It was their best monthly run since Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop played for this club.

That’s a nice feather in this organization’s worn ballcap. But the jury is out on whether it’s a trend or a blip.

Pitching, relief pitching and more relief pitching

Through June last year, the Orioles were 27-54. This year, they are 35-42. That’s 10 games better in terms of the standings (due to the late start in 2022, the Orioles had played four more games by this time last year).

Why the difference in records?

The pitching is so much better. No question.

Consider the Orioles’ ERA through three months last year was 5.44 and it’s 4.03 this year. The starters’ ERA was 5.99 to start July 2021 and is 4.80 now. The biggest difference is the bullpen, which has gone from a 4.82 ERA at the end of last June to 3.16 this year – one of the best marks in baseball.

There has been a change in personnel, but there has also been a major shift in philosophy and execution. The Orioles, especially their relievers, are throwing more strikes. Through this point in 2021, the Orioles’ bullpen had walked 144 batters in 328 1/3 innings. This year, the relievers have issued 110 walks in 318 2/3 innings. That’s 34 fewer walks in roughly a 10-inning difference.

The bullpen walks are down, but the innings are up. That’s one reason I’m cautious about the 2022 club’s record as the season progresses. General manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde and pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes deserve credit for getting this much out of the bullpen. But it’s unrealistic to think, with so much usage, that this group will maintain a low-3 ERA all year — at least not unless the rotation suddenly goes deeper.

What these relievers have done has been impressive. Keeping it going through the dog days of the season, with the innings mounting, would be tremendous.

All aboard on Gunnar

I like to check in with scouts throughout the season to hear whether what they are seeing matches up with the numbers certain prospects are producing. The opinions from one scout to another can differ, sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly.

But I haven’t found one yet who’s not on the Gunnar Henderson Train — and that was before Henderson hit for the cycle at Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday, then turned 21 on Wednesday.

Henderson slashed .312/..452/.573 with eight homers in 47 games with Double-A Bowie, then was promoted to Norfolk, where he has slashed .324/.446/.608 with five homers in his first 20 games. He had 57 walks and 56 strikeouts this season — which is excellent.

Not many scouts are going to criticize someone so young with such lofty numbers at the top of the minor-league hierarchy. But they normally find something they don’t like, and often that’s on the defensive end.

Considering Henderson is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and is still filling out, the whispers have been about his moving off shortstop when he gets to the majors.

But three scouts I talked to recently all believe the 2019 second-rounder can play shortstop at the big-league level. Maybe Henderson gets shifted to third to make room for a slicker, showier shortstop, but it won’t be because Henderson can’t handle it, I’ve been told.

There are plenty of reasons — money, roster construction, development — to let Henderson stay in Triple A for the remainder of this year. He’s banging the door down, though, and will be in Baltimore, assuming he stays healthy, soon enough.

The minor-league-production dilemma

I’m not going to harp on this too much, because I’ve been clear about my concerns. But the Orioles system is playing out the way many expected this year: really good bats, a shortage of high-ceiling arms.

The offensive prospects the Orioles are counting on are, for the most part, doing what’s expected. Or better. In limited Triple-A at-bats, Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Terrin Vavra and Yusniel Diaz have all raked for the Tides. And Kyle Stowers, with steady output, has put himself into the Orioles’ outfield mix if an injury or trade opens a spot.

Because of promotions this week, the Bowie Baysox lineup is now stacked with some of the Orioles’ more heralded position players, including last year’s top two picks, Colton Cowser and Connor Norby, as well as Cesar Prieto, Coby Mayo, Hudson Haskin and Joey Ortiz, among others.

As for the organization’s pitching, it’s been a mixed bag. Grayson Rodriguez (lat strain) may not throw again competitively in 2022; D.L. Hall is building up at Norfolk and has a 5.17 ERA in 10 starts; Kyle Bradish posted a 7.38 ERA in 10 starts for the Orioles and is on the IL.

There have been bright spots. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who both took major steps backward last year, have been legitimate contributors for the Orioles. And some less-heralded starters in the minors, such as Drew Rom, Ryan Watson and Zach Peek, for instance, have shown promise. Injuries also have derailed some pitching prospects with upside this year.

Players develop at their own pace. And the Orioles may have a few late bloomers or quick movers who help the rotation in the next couple of seasons. That happens.

But, for now, the difference between the offensive players in this system and the arms continues to be stark.

(Photo of Brandon Hyde and Jorge Lopez: Terrance Williams / Associated Press)

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