The last time the Orioles had an honest thought about playoff baseball was at Cleveland’s Progressive Field last September, when they arrived two games out of the second wild-card spot at 71-69 for a showcase series with an Indians team in the midst of a record winning streak.
They were swept, scoring a total of four runs in a series that sent them on a tailspin toward a 4-18 finish that has continued right on through this weekend’s visit. Even with a 4-2 win Saturday, the Orioles scored five runs and were again outplayed in almost every facet by a Cleveland team that’s been the class of the American League for several years.
All weekend long, manager Buck Showalter praised how Cleveland went about building their team and the versatility of the club at Terry Francona’s disposal. When he did so after Sunday’s 8-0 loss, he punctuated it with a reality this inexperienced, under-performing Orioles team should take note of.
“It’s a solid baseball team, and a reminder — we were talked about like that,” Showalter said. “It’s something we need to get back to.”
“They’ve got some really good examples, guys that know what they’re trying to do and are able to execute,” veteran Mark Trumbo said. “Their offense is top tier, they have great starting pitching, and they play great defense. There’s a number of things to say about them. They’ve got it going on.”
For an Orioles team that’s 50 games below .500 at 37-87 with six weeks left in the season, pretty much every club they come across has something to offer in terms of an example of what they can improve on.
Last weekend’s four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox was a contrast in almost every way. They, too, are doing it with some homegrown players mixed in. But Cleveland has hit so many key markers that the Orioles need to replicate that the comparison begs to be made.
The Indians’ rotation is one of the best in baseball, with all four of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger in the top 10 in ERA in the American League. All four were acquired in trades and improved with Cleveland, something an Orioles organization that hasn’t had a homegrown starting pitcher really take hold in a decade can hope for, starting with Dylan Bundy and David Hess.
Last month’s trades of stars Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop yielded an entire rotation’s worth of young arms who went to the high minors — Dillon Tate, Dean Kremer, Luis Ortiz, Bruce Zimmermann and Josh Rogers — whom the Orioles hope can develop into something close to Cleveland’s group.
On the other end of their roster, the Indians have used premium draft picks for stars such as Francisco Lindor and spent wisely internationally to add Most Valuable Player candidate José Ramírez, plus depth pieces such as Yandy Díaz and Erik González.
Showalter noted that González, who played for Lindor on Sunday and reached base three times, is the type of depth piece good teams have. In the absence of Lindor atop the lineup, rookie center fielder Greg Allen moved to the leadoff position and reached base in his first four plate appearances.
“You can give Lindor a day off and your center fielder goes from hitting ninth to first and is on base quite a few times,” Showalter said. “González is a good player. Ramírez can play anywhere in the infield.”
He can go on for a while. But, as he said, the Orioles used to get talked about in the same way. Before their spiral to the bottom of the league, no one had won more games in the American League since 2012. Now, it’s the the Indians and the Houston Astros who are leading the way, to say nothing of Boston.
Beatings from the Red Sox are now relatively frequent for the Orioles. But the two series each year with Cleveland have recently had the affect of showing what a mid-market team elsewhere can do with the commitment to a plan that elevates everyone in the organization.
How does it manifest at the major league level?
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Showalter said. “They defend, and they attack whatever issues they may have.”