It might be years before anyone knows whether this Orioles rebuild under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde works out as they all hope.
The first year of it, though, ended with one last deflating loss Sunday at Fenway Park, dropping the Orioles to 54-108, the second-worst record in the majors this year and in franchise history.
It wasn’t the most productive year on the field for the team as a whole, but plenty happened in the majors, on the farm and behind the scenes that can be instructive about what will happen in this offseason and beyond.
Here are five things we learned about the Orioles’ rebuild in 2019, and what they mean for the coming offseason.
Detractors who say you don’t have to lose over 100 games every year for all that work to be done behind the scenes aren’t wrong. But there aren’t many examples of the type of transformation and culture change the Orioles are seeking in a market of this size without either an extensive infrastructure in place or some growing pains. So the Orioles are going with growing pains.
Depending on what happens to salary arbitration-eligible players such as Trey Mancini, Jonathan Villar, Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens, the Orioles could have a team full of minimum-salary players, plus Chris Davis and Alex Cobb, next year. Papering over organizational holes like pitching and infield depth with free agents would take resources away from building an infrastructure meant to ensure such holes never exist again.
So that means … Don’t expect any additions other than waiver claims and Rule 5 draft picks this offseason. The closest the Orioles might get to a player anyone outside of the prospect industrial complex has ever heard of might be a reclamation project on a minor league deal. But Elias said multiple times when he addressed the media at the end of the season that investments on major league players aren’t going to be a priority this winter.
The minor leagues are proving to be where most of the organization’s focus is.
Both financially and philosophically, it seems as if most of the progress and investment made in the Orioles organization as a whole this year came on the farm, all in the interest of helping Elias build his “elite talent pipeline” that was promised when he took over in November.
The minor leagues proved to be where the organization installed much of its data collection and analytics instruction, with hitters having data collected on every swing, pitchers throwing bullpen sessions in front of high-speed cameras, and detailed scouting reports and data available to players before and after every game.
All of that information is available at the major league level as well. But as the big crew of pitchers who shuttled between Triple-A Norfolk and Baltimore showed and spoke of this year, it was difficult to focus on development and pitch refinement while trying to stay in or get back to the majors.
So that means … It will be a lot more instructive on where this team is going both philosophically and practically when some of the player development positions are filled after the recent staff turnover. Minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt made several hires last year who took over important posts (like Cal Ripken Sr. Player Development Award winner Justin Ramsey at Low-A Delmarva) or supplemented the holdover coaches as development coaches. He could add further to his ranks, and the whole hitting program appears to be due for a restructuring. The one hire on that front last year, Short-A Aberdeen hitting coach Tom Eller, was steeped in data and technology usage.
Expect plenty of hires from that world as new director of player development Matt Blood, who Elias touted for his connections in the industry and familiarity in progressive practices, gets to fill out his staffs for 2020 and beyond.
Until it’s time, there’s only one way this team is going to try to improve at the major league level.
This season alone, 25 players who had never previously suited up for the Orioles competed for them, and it’s instructive how they all got here. Two (Nate Karns and Dan Straily) were major league free agents, while just two (Branden Kline and Hunter Harvey) were drafted and developed by the Orioles. Of the remaining 21, 19 joined the organization since the start of 2018, with one Rule 5 player (Richie Martin), four trades for international bonus slot money (Dwight Smith Jr., Tom Eshelman, Keon Broxton and Drew Jackson, though Jackson was also a Rule 5 pick), one cash purchase (Asher Wojciechowski) and 10 waiver claims.
Some of them, such as Hanser Alberto, Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino, became significant parts of the 2019 season and might be around for a while. Others, such as José Rondón and Ty Blach, have already been cycled off the roster.
So that means … Every time a player signs with another team in free agency, or teams make cuts to add players to their 40-man roster this fall, check out the players who end up on waivers. The Orioles have second priority in the waiver process until the beginning of next season, and they’ll be using it to add more minor league performers to give them a chance to stick full-time in the majors come 2020.
Chris Davis’ struggles won’t go away, but the Orioles won’t get rid of him.
It was another year to forget for the Orioles’ struggling first baseman. After 2018, a season that by many measures was the worst of any full-time player in baseball history, he followed that up with a year that only looks like an improvement based on what preceded it. He hit .179 with a .601 OPS and 12 home runs in 105 games, and by the end of the season was barely playing.
He started nine of the Orioles’ 27 games in September, and as his playing time waned, seemed to get strict orders on what his daily routine and preparation should look like. Davis has three years and $51 million in present-day money owed and $42 million in deferrals left on his calamitous $161 million contract signed ahead of the 2016 season. And Elias said in September that Davis would be at spring training with the club in 2020.
So that means … Barring a public reversal, spring training and at least the beginning of next season will be a lot like the past few years with Davis. Everything will be a search for signs that he’s any different. And unfortunately, every at-bat for a veteran player who should just be trying to get his feeling down at the plate in meaningless spring games will be a referendum on his progress. It will be unpleasant and unproductive for all involved, and probably do little to change Davis’ ultimate fate.
There’s a really high threshold for prospects to be considered ready, and opportunity needs to be there.
At this point with Davis, the most logical situation, if the Orioles are going to try to move on from him, is to give him a month or two to see if anything changes, let top hitting prospect Ryan Mountcastle pass all the calendar dates that would ensure the Orioles an extra year of team control to delay free agency, then start some kind of transition near the beginning of June.
The Davis part is probably fluid. But based on what the Orioles did this year with Chance Sisco, Austin Hays, and even to some extent Anthony Santander and DJ Stewart, it’s pretty clear there’s not going to be a rush to get a young player on the Opening Day roster just for the sake of selling tickets and getting pictures of him running down the orange carpet. All of those players went to the minors with specific developmental tasks and only got a chance to come up once there was a combination of a clear major league opportunity and an extended period of success at Triple-A.
So that means … For Mountcastle, who has been asked to work on his defense and walk more, it’s not going to be a situation in which he’s added to the roster and immediately makes the team. Same goes for pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who each probably have some boxes to check at Norfolk, even though they’re shoo-ins to be added to the roster. All are important pieces for the future, and that future includes at least part of 2020, presumably. But those filling out their Opening Day roster projections would be wise to not repeat the errors of last winter and pencil in those types of players into prominent roles.