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Five things we learned from the Orioles' pandemic-shortened 2020 season

A 2020 season that was plenty eventful for the Orioles, even in its shortened 60-game format, ended Sunday with a win over the Toronto Blue Jays that made most involved feel good about what happened.

Plenty made the season unique, not the least of which being the Orioles having a mathematical chance at making the postseason entering the final two series and still ending up with the fifth-worst record in baseball.

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But as ever, even the small sample size of 60 games leaves plenty to unpack when it comes to an Orioles organization that’s still trying to fully transition into the self-sustaining contender that executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde hope it will become in due time.

Here are five things we learned in the 2020 season about the Orioles’ pursuit of those goals, what that next contending team could look like, and more:

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Credit to the coaches and players for getting through all of this.

It takes all kinds of self-discipline and drive to get to the big leagues, and it’s clear that Orioles players and staff were able to extend that to a strange season.

There’s a reason that Elias credited head athletic trainer Brian Ebel, the team’s COVID-19 point man, and the ballpark operations staff at the beginning of his season-ending media session: this was quite an undertaking.

“We rolled into summer camp having zero clue what it was going to look like, who was going to stay healthy, how protocols were going to be followed — so many question marks,” Hyde said. “For our club, and our league, to handle things the way that they have handled them and getting to a postseason, I think is a credit to so many people not only in our organization but in major league baseball. Every day was something new, and you never know what was going to happen next. I felt like we rolled with the punches well, and it’s been a wild ride for sure.”

There were plenty who questioned whether this was going to work. Baseball had to change its plans and strengthen ballpark protocols after the Marlins' outbreak, which threw the Orioles’ schedule for a loop, but they did it, and the end goal was met in delivering a lucrative playoff schedule.

That part didn’t pan out for the Orioles, but the players will reap the benefits of the $50 million guaranteed through the expanded playoffs, and their core of young players will benefit from having gotten through what was a grueling 60-game slate against the toughest teams in baseball.

The Orioles will cut bait with their rebuild players when the time comes.

Most of the 2019 Orioles were waiver claims or otherwise inexpensive acquisitions who the team has tried to improve in hopes of them becoming part of contending teams, all while letting the talent they’re prioritizing percolate in the minors. Many of those same players were in featured roles in 2020, as well, but there’s an expiration date on the patience this team has with those players.

Simply put, the more often they hit those move-on dates, the more progress their rebuild is actually making.

This year’s unfortunate victims were Dwight Smith Jr. and Asher Wojciechowski. The former had a slow start because of his COVID-19 diagnosis in summer camp, but wasn’t performing at a level worth the team keeping him as the everyday left fielder in mid-August when Ryan Mountcastle proved he was ready at the Bowie camp. He wasn’t on the roster much longer after that.

Similarly, Wojciechowski wasn’t the same pitcher he was when he steadied the rotation in 2019, and gave way for Dean Kremer in early September. Wojciechowski, too, didn’t last much longer.

There might not be too many players on tap for this in 2021, unless Ramón Urías proves irrepressible and Hanser Alberto gets too expensive. There’s no one at third base in the high minors who can push Rio Ruiz for that spot. But whenever those players who the Orioles feel are the future fixtures at a position prove they’re ready, the team will be comfortable clearing a path for them.

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This team might have a bullpen again.

A lot of credit for the pitching staff’s improvement goes to the starters, who weren’t routinely pitching into the sixth and seventh inning until late in the season, but also weren’t leaving in the second or third inning nearly as often as they did in 2019.

But there was real improvement in a lot of the relievers, and that’s a credit to pitching coach Doug Brocail and bullpen coach Darren Holmes, along with director of pitching Chris Holt, for creating real plans for each of them to thrive.

It’s not necessarily all of the Triple-A pitchers who have been up and down for years who set off what proved to be some misguided optimism out of the first spring training, though Evan Phillips did have a nice run before his injury.

Mostly, this included pitchers such as Tanner Scott, Paul Fry and Shawn Armstrong — all of whom had established that they at least belong in the majors — taking major steps forward. Add former top draft picks Dillon Tate and Hunter Harvey into the mix, plus some steady long relievers such as César Valdez and Travis Lakins Sr., and this bunch went from beleaguered to big league in a pretty short time.

Considering how this organization develops pitching now, and the volume of arms they could have to work with in the coming years, finding former starters who can pitch in their bullpen might not be a problem. That alone will lead to improvements in their record, as we saw this year.

The player development staff is in a good position for major leaps next year.

The hallmark of the Orioles' first season of the Elias era was the improvement of the minor league pitching almost across the board, and that showed again in spots.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a full minor league season to see the work of farm director Matt Blood’s new crop of hitting coaches play out in the box scores across the affiliates every night. But what we did see briefly in minor league spring training and again when the Orioles talked about how they were working with players at the secondary camp means there’s quite an infrastructure in place for major steps forward, no matter what the minor league landscape looks like in 2021.

The last two drafts for Elias and scouting director Brad Ciolek have emphasized developed college bats, the kinds with the swing, size and profile that they feel can grow into big-time major league hitters. In the past, the Orioles have always had one or two affiliates with a bunch of filler in the lineup.

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With the cream of the holdovers still in the mix and a dozen well-regarded young hitters from the past two drafts to spread out over the low minors next spring, that won’t be the case. And the damage they do will probably be striking.

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Dan Duquette didn’t leave the cupboard bare, and that’s going to be what fuels any near-term improvement.

In the meantime, the debuts of this summer for the Orioles brought focus to something that was true a few years ago, though certainly not to the extent it is now: The Orioles' farm system has been steadily improving for a while, and a lot of the players who are proving that came into the organization under former executive vice president Dan Duquette.

The Orioles' next true homegrown star might still prove to be Adley Rutschman, the first pick of Elias' first draft. But if Rutschman joins a competitive Orioles team in late 2021 or 2022, it will be because players such as Anthony Santander, John Means, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins are the kinds of building blocks to which Hyde so often refers.

All of those players came to the organization under Duquette, and players such as Yusniel Diaz and Duquette’s last two first-round picks, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, will be part of that, too.

There’s certainly a case to be made that these players are better than they would have been without the analytics infrastructure in place now, or without the new player development methods, or even without the patience to ensure they’re good and ready for the big leagues before bringing them to Baltimore.

But for all the misses the Orioles did have when it comes to drafting and developing, the legacy of the end of the Duquette era is going to be one that provided quite a foundation for whatever happens next.

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