While the rebuilding Orioles have been busy proving there are times when winning is not the only thing, Double-A Bowie, Low-A Delmarva and the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles have been demonstrating a brighter future might not be that far away.
Those three affiliates all reached the playoffs and a couple of them set league records along the way, validating the widespread opinion that the depth of the organization’s minor league talent has improved significantly.
While the Orioles have struggled for years to stay out of the bottom third of the minor league talent rankings, they are currently ranked ninth in that department by Baseball America.
The case can be made that winning actually mattered more in the minor leagues this year than in the majors, though you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone at Camden Yards to say that in public.
The Baysox, whose season ended Friday night when they lost Game 4 of the Eastern League Championship Series to the New York Yankees’ Trenton affiliate, got a taste of playoff pressure after staging a tremendous turnaround during the second half of the regular season.
That, according to young manager Buck Britton, will serve them well as they continue to work toward the day when some of them are part of the major league club’s competitive renaissance.
“As much as it’s about development, once you get to this stage, allowing these prospects that are going to play in the big leagues to have some pressure situations and play in these big games I think is only going to help them in their development,” Britton said.
The Baysox might have fallen short of their ultimate goal. But their ability to shake off a disappointing start and win 46 games on the way to the second-half playoff berth exemplified the encouraging system-wide uptick that followed the productive amateur draft in June.
“What a ride,” Britton said. “You know, 7-23 to start things off, to be standing here in the championship series, it didn’t go as well had planned, but it’s nice when you’re with a group of guys and they become family.
“You celebrate with them. You hurt with them. It’s been a great ride and I hope that the fans see that there’s some talent here. I know the situation right now in the big leagues, but I think things are going to start turning up for us.”
Whether anyone will remember in two or three years what the Baysox and the other minor league affiliates did this season, there is something to be said for developing players in a winning environment. And during a hardcore rebuilding effort, the major leagues probably don’t look that far away.
“Yeah, I think so,” Britton said. “Everybody in there’s dream is to play in the big leagues and there aren’t a lot of places with this much opportunity, so I think there are guys in there really wanting to show they can play. Hopefully, when a door opens, they are ready to step in and make a name for themselves.”
Much of the focus the past few months has been on the early progress of top overall draft choice Adley Rutschman, who worked his way up to Delmarva over a short period and might show up in Bowie sometime next season. But the the system’s top-10 talent ranking isn’t the result of just one player.
Come spring training, Orioles fans will be eagerly tracking the progress of top hitting prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who was conspicuous by his absence from the expanded major league roster this September, as well as Double-A outfielder Yusniel Díaz and several young pitchers.
The big takeaway from Friday night’s loss was the long home run that center fielder Cedric Mullins hit off rehabilitating Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances. Mullins made the Opening Day major league roster and didn’t make it through April before continuing to struggle at Triple-A Norfolk. But he went back to Bowie and rediscovered his swing in August.
“I’m starting to get that groove back where I’m starting to drive the ball,” Mullins said.
Though his confidence had to be shaken by his fall from grace last spring, he said he’s confident he’ll be ready to compete for a return engagement when major league spring training begins in February.