Monday began with the Detroit Tigers officially moving out of their rebuilding phase by reportedly signing left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to the richest contract of this young offseason and ended with the Atlanta Braves jumping the catching market with a multi-year contract for Manny Piña.
Neither move is the type the Orioles are interested in replicating, given the progress of their rebuild hasn’t moved sufficiently fast enough for them to be competitive in 2022. But focusing on the moves they don’t make this winter shouldn’t obscure what they do execute, and in between those free-agent signings came the Orioles elevating full-season hitting coordinator and Double-A Bowie hitting coach Ryan Fuller to major league co-hitting coach alongside a new hire in former Minnesota Twins minor league hitting coach Matt Borgschulte.
This month marks the end of the third year under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who, along with his first hire in assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, has eschewed every opportunity for a quick fix or a shortcut. Instead, they’ve publicly committed to building the organization from within, thus nurturing the talent that could be part of a major league team worth investing in someday.
Just as the Tigers signing Rodriguez is a statement for how they intend to compete going forward, so too are the Orioles’ decisions on their hitting coaches: on the major league level, it’s one of the last bits of infrastructure required before the team prepares to turn the corner.
That the Orioles are replacing a veteran hitting coach with decades of experience in Don Long with a pair of 31-year-olds is not worth focusing on. Fuller was hired as part of a new wave of hitting coaches on the farm that helped get the best out of players at the alternate site in 2020 and at Double-A Bowie in 2021, all while helping chart the course for the entire hitting program along the way. He’s versed in technology and all the ways it can be used to help a player, cultivating a lineup of Bowie hitters this year that swung hard at prime pitches and laid off those that weren’t in their hot zones.
Borgschulte, who has been in the Twins organization since 2018, has a Twitter feed full of videos and information on the latest ways hitters can improve their pitch recognition. Such an area of strength could be a boon to the Orioles, who still have a major league roster largely full of players who don’t have a foundation in optimizing swing decisions that the prospects who are on their way to the majors do.
Whether the transition will be an easy one, or whether it works, is anyone’s guess. The Orioles will likely improve as an offense because top prospect Adley Rutschman will spend most of the year with the team, so it’s not as if this group will experience the same “hard lessons” Chris Holt and his players did in his first year as pitching coach.
Either way, a lot more teams are hiring progressive hitting coaches for their major league staffs than signing mid-tier free agents to five-year deals, so the Orioles aren’t exactly breaking the mold. They’re following their own plans in doing so.
Still, there’s some symmetry to these hires coming out the same day that Rodriguez, a former Orioles farmhand, signed with Detroit.
Trading him to the Boston Red Sox in July 2014 for dominant reliever Andrew Miller was, looking back, probably the zenith of the club’s competitive ambitions and realistic chances to win a championship.
Now more than seven years later, Rodriguez’s reported five-year, $77 million free-agent agreement with the Tigers is the latest of many examples illustrating how far the Orioles are from making any kinds of significant moves to improve their major league roster.
Every free-agent signing in the offseason, to an extent, can serve that purpose. But in this particular instance, the rebuilding Orioles are getting shown up by a team that was for a while one of their counterparts.
Detroit was the team the Orioles had to compete with for Miller’s services back in 2014 when those two teams were at their best, and the Tigers’ collapse came faster than the Orioles’. Whereas the Orioles fell apart in 2018 while still trying to compete — they began that year with a $148.5 million payroll after signing Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb during spring training — the Tigers had already bottomed out and were picking first in that year’s draft.
The Orioles picked first in 2019, then second behind the Tigers in 2020. In 2021, the Tigers picked third while the Orioles picked fifth. Their fortunes diverged this past summer, with the Orioles losing a league-worst 110 games and the Tigers going 77-85, which means they’ll likely have the 12th overall pick in 2022.
The turnaround in Detroit, which seems to be solidified by the addition of Rodriguez, has otherwise been built on its highly regarded pitchers coming through and a complementary lineup full of good but not great players. Putting Rodriguez in a rotation that already has former top pick Casey Mize and young starters Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning will be a boon for them, and with the American League Central not nearly as strong as what the Orioles have to deal with in the AL East, there’s a window for the Tigers’ turnaround to fully kick into gear in 2022.
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They signaled as much by trading for catcher Tucker Barnhart from the Cincinnati Reds earlier this month, and Rodriguez is the next phase.
The Orioles, by contrast, haven’t flipped that switch yet. It’s simple to point to a signing like Rodriguez’s and say it’s within a team like the Orioles’ power to do so, but they’re turning things around a lot more slowly than the Tigers did for a variety of reasons.
That the Tigers began their rebuilding process a year earlier is only one small part of that. Mize is already a key part of their rotation, and he was their reward for being the league’s worst team in 2017. The Orioles still haven’t seen Rutschman in the big leagues, who they took a year later.
Still, their farm system is far better rated than the Tigers’ was at any point in their rebuild thanks to the likes of Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, plus a group of promising prospects beneath them in left-hander DL Hall, infielders Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg and 2021 top pick Colton Cowser.
Those players delivering on their promise is the only way the Orioles will get close to competing again, considering there are already four playoff-caliber teams in their division. They’ll need to spend money on help from the outside, too, when the time comes.
Until then, their hitting coach hires say plenty about where they are in that process. That’s no knock, either. It’s just not going to keep the hot stove warm this winter.
Mountcastle sixth in Rookie of the Year voting
Despite winning the Players’ Choice Award for the America League’s Outstanding Rookie, Ryan Mountcastle finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting that was announced Monday. He received two second-place votes and four third-place votes. Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena won the award, the Astros’ Luis Garcia finished second and the Rays’ Wander Franco was third. Texas’ Adolis Garcia and Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase of the Guardians rounded out the top five.