xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Five things we learned from the Orioles’ 2021 season

With a slew of coaching moves but nary a waiver claim, the Orioles’ offseason began in earnest Monday, with plenty to unpack from another difficult year at the major league level.

The 110-loss Orioles had bright spots, to be sure. They also had flaws that played out on a nightly basis, some so significant that the idea of developing players talented enough to overcome them seems difficult to fathom.

Advertisement

Slowly, though, the Orioles are building toward something better. And with that in mind, there’s plenty that can be gleaned from even such a dismal season.

Here are five things we learned from the 2021 Orioles season:

Advertisement
Advertisement

Losing really takes a toll

Manager Brandon Hyde took over a 115-loss team and has gone 131-253 since, meaning the Orioles have lost two out of every three games they’ve played since the start of 2018. But to put the blame on him — or anyone else — is a fool’s errand. Ultimately, it’s been a drag for anyone involved, interested or invested in this team.

Three years in, a line in the sand has been drawn: You’re either a full-throated supporter of the effort to build the next great Orioles team, or you’ve seen enough losing to be skeptical that a better future is ahead.

Though they express it in different ways, both sides just want the Orioles to be good again. Those who are pro-rebuild take executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ word that this is the only way to do it. The others look at the revenue-sharing money the team receives, the television network it owns and the qualified major leaguers who hit free agency each year and wonder what’s so complicated about spending to win.

Both sides get embarrassed when the team gets browbeaten for losing double-digit games in a row, or playing in front of a near-empty stadium, or having one of the worst statistical pitching seasons in modern baseball history. They all deserve better. Only one half actually believes that it will get better, though.

Advertisement

The Orioles are trying to execute a rebuild in the highest degree of difficulty imaginable.

Every year, 20 of the most talented 2-year-old thoroughbreds in the world gather for the Kentucky Derby, each with a team behind them that believes they have a chance to win.

Every year, one of them finishes 20th.

The Orioles can relate to that last-place horse. The club can get their operation up to speed on data analysis, technology, scouting and player development; yield the best players possible from those efforts; and still finish last in the American League East.

There’s a massive gulf between the Orioles and their four direct competitors in the division: the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, plus a Toronto Blue Jays team that won 91 games. And none of them look particularly vulnerable to a challenge from a team that’s rebuilding.

The Yankees and Red Sox already develop players well and spend big to supplement their rosters. The Rays have a veritable pitching factory and are constantly tweaking their roster so it’s the most competitive their budget can manage. The Blue Jays have a dynamic young offense and are willing to spend on pitching to back it up.

The Orioles are bound to close that gap in the coming years. But unless any of these teams stumble, they might still be unable to crack the upper levels of the division. That’s a scary thought.

Orioles starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann, foreground, reacts on the mount as the Blue Jays' George Springer, back right, rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the first inning on Sunday in Toronto.
Orioles starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann, foreground, reacts on the mount as the Blue Jays' George Springer, back right, rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the first inning on Sunday in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/AP)

They’re leaving with more long-term building blocks than any previous season of this rebuild.

Cedric Mullins’ season needs no review; it was simply one of the best in recent Orioles history. Ryan Mountcastle tanked in April and then spent the rest of the year compiling a 126 wRC+. Austin Hays can be an elite corner outfielder defensively, and hit well enough in the second half. After the losing streak-ending win against the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 25, he hit .314 with a .979 OPS and nine home runs in 37 games.

Anthony Santander, who battled an ankle injury all season, and Trey Mancini, who admirably grinded after missing all of 2020 receiving treatment for colon cancer, could still be important assets going forward. The Orioles, however, aren’t in the phase where they’re interested in carrying salaries far above the league minimum, putting both of their futures with the team in question.

In Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo, there’s at least a utility infielder who can actually contribute offensively.

On the pitching side, it remains John Means and maybe a few relievers who qualify as long-term building blocks. Hyde has put Rule 5 draft pick Tyler Wells in that category amid nightmarish second halves for Paul Fry and Tanner Scott. Gold stars for Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate for being as versatile and dependable as they were, even if the results weren’t always there.

Few of these players on either side of the ball are the type to carry a team to a championship. The Orioles hope there are one or two such players on the farm. But each of the players mentioned above can be part of a winning team when the time comes, and that’s all the Orioles are really searching for.

Orioles starting pitcher Keegan Akin (45) walks to the dugout after being pulled from the game in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo, New York, on June 26.
Orioles starting pitcher Keegan Akin (45) walks to the dugout after being pulled from the game in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo, New York, on June 26. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

Concerns over the young pitching struggles this year are valid.

Entering the season with six rookie starters — Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Bruce Zimmermann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther — among their top prospects was always a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Now that it’s over, the reward never really materialized.

Each had his struggles with injury and ineffectiveness and enters the offseason with plenty to learn from, but not much ground to stand on in terms of solidifying his major league future.

It’s somewhat damning that Hyde has to turn to Wells when it comes to his pitching bright spots, especially when that mix of well-regarded prospects combined to pitch 295 ⅓ innings with a 6.58 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP. Some had better stretches at the end of the season, suggesting there’s still potential for them on a major league rotation.

The Orioles would be in a much better position to leave the land of 100-loss seasons and never look back if even one of those pitchers proved himself to be a shoo-in to make the rotation. At this point, it wouldn’t be stunning if one or two aren’t even in spring training when the Orioles report in February.

Advertisement
Joseph Muller, wearing an Adley Rutschman jersey, watches the Orioles play the Red Sox on Thursday at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Joseph Muller, wearing an Adley Rutschman jersey, watches the Orioles play the Red Sox on Thursday at Camden Yards in Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

It’s time to start seeing the real fruits of this rebuild.

Remember Chris Davis? One of the last times he spoke as an Oriole turned out to be in December when he questioned what was happening in the team’s rebuild. He wondered aloud whether the team was waiting for all the players drafted under this regime to get to the big leagues before they tried to win again.

Advertisement

Well, it’s quite possible that’s true. The problem is, we still haven’t seen many of the prospects brought in under Elias in the majors.

This year, only a handful made their Orioles debuts — reliever Isaac Mattson, second baseman Jahmai Jones, and corner infielder/outfielder Tyler Nevin. None had a long enough look in the majors to make an impact.

Meanwhile, the development time needed in the minors meant that top hitting prospects like Adley Rutschman and Kyle Stowers made it to Triple-A Norfolk this year, while a bulk of the draft class was either in Double-A Bowie or Low-A Delmarva. Eventually, and sooner than most might think, the players Elias has staked this whole operation on will matriculate to the majors and start to show whether the farm system that’s rated as one of MLB’s best can create impact major leaguers who turn this team around.

Those top hitting prospects will be among the first to try and do so at the plate, with the likes of Nevin and Jones possibly due longer looks as well. On the mound, recent trade acquisitions Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith spent most of this year at Triple-A Norfolk and have plenty of support within the organization despite uneven production there. They’ll be the first true looks at whether what the Orioles are targeting on the mound translates to the majors. No pressure.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement