It might be hard to give the Orioles credit for much this year, but their timing during this final stretch of an otherwise lost season has been impeccable.
Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini has put a bow on his terrific season with a big offensive surge during the past couple of weeks, hopefully reminding the front office what he means to the organization and what he could mean to Mike Elias’ long-term rebuilding project.
Chris Davis hit a game-winning home run in what might have been his final at-bat at Camden Yards, then appeared to hit another one in the 12th inning Monday night in Toronto before the Blue Jays rallied to tie the game and eventually win it in the 15th.
Center field prospect Austin Hays isn’t wasting the chance to make a great last impression. He delivered a tour de force performance Monday night and has used his surprise September call-up to remind everyone that he’s still the multi-tooled young player the team was raving about two years ago.
Even veteran Jonathan Villar has saved his best for last, as if he wants to make sure everyone remembers what he brings to the table with his tremendous energy and raw talent.
None of this changes the narrative that has grown around the organizational effort to build a consistent contending team from the bottom up. Elias made it pretty clear during his pregame news conference Sunday that the long-term plan really isn’t subject to the short-term fluctuations of performance that have occasionally given the Orioles the look of a more capable team than the losing record starkly indicates.
So, there’s no sense waiting for Elias to throw the dwindling fan base a bone with an exciting free-agent acquisition this winter. He’s more likely to deal away someone such as Villar to avoid spending real money on what promises to be another decidedly sub-.500 season next year.
Still, for the fans who have stayed on board through the last two harrowing seasons, some upbeat September storylines combined with the unexpected success of young players such as Hanser Alberto, Rule 5 draftee Anthony Santander and Hunter Harvey has provided a reason to stay engaged as they wait for the next group of young players to step up to the big league level.
Maybe Elias knew exactly what he was doing when he chose not to bring up top hitting prospect Ryan Mountcastle when the roster limit expanded. The young slugger spent the whole season at Norfolk and crushed Triple-A pitching on the way to being named International League Most Valuable Player and the Orioles’ Minor League Player of the Year.
If it was just about that, he certainly deserved to be called up, but now he is one of the players that fans are going to be clamoring to see in the Orioles’ everyday lineup at some point next season. If Mountcastle had come up and struggled in September — as Hays did when he came to the big leagues after his terrific 2017 minor league season — it would not have altered his status as a terrific prospect, but it would have cost the team a chance to maximize the impact of his arrival in 2020.
Since the Orioles are not going to burn any significant payroll to add players who might make another losing season a little less painful, they’ll need some minor league star power to keep the paying customers at least mildly entertained.
Manager Brandon Hyde also telegraphed the club’s intention to put more pain before gain next season when he pointedly asked the fans for their patience during a couple of his news briefings over the past few days.
He didn’t really need to do that. Fans already are well aware that next year will be more important because of its impact on the 2021 draft — even if Elias insists that he’s not chasing draft position ― than its impact on the American League East race.
The trick is making it not seem so obvious.