The Orioles entered this weekend locked in a race to the bottom with the Kansas City Royals — a race that rewards the worst team with the first pick in next year’s draft.
The Orioles, of course, had that this year and now own the rights to the best college baseball player in the country and — by most accounts — did pretty well with the first pick in the following few rounds.
So, is it a coincidence that they’re on pace to lose almost as many games as last year’s record-setting team or is it all part of an evil master plan to stay at the top of the draft for the next couple of years to get a few more Adley Rutschmans?
In other words, are they intentionally tanking or are they really this bad?
It depends on how you define tanking.
Obviously, baseball operations chief Mike Elias wasn’t interested in signing free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million contract this week and didn’t spend a lot of time considering any of the high-priced free agents who remained unsigned for most of the offseason.
The competitive window closed on the Orioles when they opened the 2018 season in a tailspin, which all but guaranteed they would dismantle the veteran nucleus of the club at midseason and embark on a long-term rebuilding effort. Elias has simply taken the baton and begun the long process of creating the “elite talent pipeline” he promised when he was introduced as the new executive vice president and general manager in November.
That isn’t tanking. That’s recognizing reality and doing your best to deal with it within the economic parameters of your franchise.
Still, with the players union having fits about the way owners put a lot of veteran players in the deep freeze the past two winters, there has been calls for an NBA-style draft lottery to prevent teams from giving up too early on a season to improve their place in the draft order.
The Orioles certainly appear to be the favorite to pick first again in next year’s draft, but there has been no indication they have been actively trying to diminish the club to make sure that happens.
Quite the contrary. Elias and his staff have made some pretty smooth moves during their first six months in charge. They took advantage of the Rule 5 draft to pick up slick-fielding shortstop Richie Martin, who looks like he might be a keeper, and acquired several other apparent placeholders who are making a case to be part of the team’s future.
The Orioles got outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. for unused international bonus slots, and he was on pace to drive in more than 100 runs when he went on the injured list after running into the left-field wall in Texas.
They plucked catcher Pedro Severino off waivers from the Washington Nationals and he has emerged as their everyday catcher. He was swinging a hot bat and leading the majors with a 56% caught-stealing rate when he also had to miss some games this week with a head injury.
Oh, and even I had to wonder when the Orioles reclaimed utility man Hanser Alberto after he had been designated for assignment four times during the offseason. But he entered the weekend leading the team with a .308 batting average and boasting the highest batting average against left-handed pitching in the major leagues.
This season was always supposed to be about giving the team’s top prospects more time to develop and backfilling with those unappreciated prospects from other organizations.
Manager Brandon Hyde said from the start of spring training that the Orioles would play hard and try to win every game, and — the meager results notwithstanding — they have done that.
They might have won a few more if Elias had also stolen a couple of effective middle relievers. But good bullpen help doesn’t come cheap and the Orioles have committed to focus their spending in other areas during the initial stages of the rebuilding effort.
Is the organizational decision to keep your powder dry until it’s actually possible to compete for a playoff berth likely to put your team in better position for the next draft?
That’s not a coincidence, but it’s the only way the Orioles are going to get where they need to go in a division that features some of the richest teams in the sport.
That’s not tanking. That’s just the way the small-market game has to be played.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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