It’s easy enough to put the Orioles’ abysmal 2018 season into its proper perspective. It was a historically bad end to the brief renaissance that proved it is possible to compete in the big-money American League East in one of Major League Baseball’s smaller markets.
Now, we’re going to find out if it’s possible to do more than that with a new-age general manager and a 21st-century approach to player evaluation and development.
The first step in that direction was taken when John and Louis Angelos ripped the rear-view mirror off their stripped-down franchise and handed the keys to new executive vice president and GM Mike Elias.
There are no guarantees, not after the team that won more regular-season games in the American League than any other over a five-year period tailspinned out of 2017 and lost a Baltimore franchise-record 115 games this past season. That unprecedented collapse left the Orioles with their smallest single-season attendance total in 40 years and — you would think — nowhere to go but up.
Elias and analytics guru Sig Mejdal certainly have the right credentials to oversee the rebuilding effort that started with Dan Duquette’s trade-deadline teardown last July. They come out of a Houston Astros front office that took a new, high-tech approach to scouting and under GM Jeff Luhnow needed three years to turn the worst team in the National League into a consistent winner and eventual world champion in the realigned AL West division.
That’s the plan for Baltimore and the fresh faces at the top of the organization should give fans reason to be optimistic that better days are ahead. But the challenge that Elias, Mejdal and new manager Brandon Hyde are undertaking comes with a greater degree of difficulty than the one Luhnow faced in Houston seven years ago.
The AL East will always feature at least two teams with vastly superior resources to the Orioles, which is why Duquette spent so much time culling the waiver wire and shuffling through the castoffs of other organizations. Theoretically, the new analytics-driven Orioles braintrust will have more success threading that needle — especially while drafting very high the next few years — but there still is an element of chance in every acquisition.
The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox can bury their mistakes under a pile of cash and reload at will from the free-agent market.
Of course, it could be quite a while before that’s a real problem. The record loss total from last season, which was the obvious catalyst for the organizational reboot, should give Elias plenty of slack as he and his staff seek to build the “elite talent pipeline” that would allow the Orioles to compete at a high level over a long period.
If that effort is successful, the Orioles will have a chance to head into the future without the kind of looming payroll explosion that forced them to trade away so many of their top veteran players during the same season. In a perfect player-development world, that pipeline would regularly pour new talent onto the major league roster and sustain a contending team in perpetuity.
It’s still hard to fathom the depth of the Orioles’ 2018 collapse. They went from being in playoff contention the previous August to being the worst team in baseball in such short order that it almost defies explanation.
The likely prospect of a midseason selloff might have weighed on some players at the outset and affected team chemistry. The early-season loss of slugger Mark Trumbo to injury and the struggles of several other hitters — most notably Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini — clearly crippled the offense. The pitching staff, which was supposed to be improved with the spring signings of veteran starters Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner, seemed to wilt without adequate run support.
The first full year of the rebuilding effort might well expose some of the same problems, but the weight of expectation has been lifted from the organization, leaving fans to decide whether they want to come along for what could be an interesting ride back to respectability … or a bridge that turns out to be too far.