With the two league championship series starting this week and the expanded playoff field whittled down from 16 teams to four, it’s clear who the class of baseball is. For the most part, these teams have been all season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves paced the National League all year, while the Tampa Bay Rays held that distinction after scuffling early in the season in Baltimore. Only the Houston Astros, who responded to their cheating scandal by going 29-31, are the exception.
Each team, however, has an attribute that a team in the Orioles' position could do well to emulate. Here’s what the four league championship series offer for the Orioles to replicate if they want to join them in playing baseball into late October.
Houston Astros: Hit on the early top picks
While this isn’t the Astros pitching staff that featured multiple Cy Young Award winners anymore, their lineup has several players who their front office loved at the top of the draft and have gone on to be key contributors so far.
George Springer was the top pick in 2010, before the front office that featured the now-Orioles' brass came to town. But their top pick in 2011, Carlos Correa, and 2015 first-rounders Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker are all fixtures in the lineup now and are plenty easy to build around.
There were some tough picks in there in the form of Mark Appel and Brady Aiken, neither of whom panned out. But to hear the way the Orioles talk about Adley Rutschman and Heston Kjerstad as future lineup cornerstones, it’s not hard to envision what they’re trying to build. For that reason, the Orioles might end up going for another hitter at No. 5 in 2021, provided that’s where they end up picking.
Tampa Bay Rays: Winning a lopsided trade
There’s so much to envy about the Rays, from their bullpen and the management of it to the way they are able to accumulate value through small trades that pay off in a big way. Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said as much when he referenced the transactional nature of Tampa Bay’s success this summer.
But what every team would try to aspire to is the home-run trade that brought in several important pieces in one move. That’s what the Rays pulled off when they sent star pitcher Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates for three top prospects: outfielder Austin Meadows, right-hander Tyler Glasnow and right-hander Shane Baz.
Meadows was an All-Star in 2019 and had a .922 OPS with 32 home runs in his age-24 season. Glasnow, as evidenced by him dominating the Orioles several times a year, has frontline stuff and has struck out 12 batters per nine innings as a starter with a 3.32 ERA since joining the Rays. Baz might even be better than that, and the way the Rays move pitchers slowly, it might be years before they even realize the benefit of it.
Fleecing a team like that in a trade is hard to pull off, and the market the past two years hasn’t really made such a deal possible with what the Orioles are offering. Perhaps, though, like Archer, one of the Orioles players acquired in an early rebuild trade can grow to be talented and productive enough to fetch that kind of return.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Building a hitting machine
Trading for Mookie Betts is a good strategy for any team to have taken, but it’s what he joined in Los Angeles that’s probably easier to replicate. The Orioles are one year into a remake of their minor league hitting program that’s focused on individualized instruction that helps each player get to a place of consistent hard, elevated contact.
The Dodgers are years into this, and it’s made well-regarded top picks such as Corey Seager and Will Smith, along with castoffs such as Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor, all incredibly productive hitters. There’s a reason they scored nearly six runs per game this season.
In unlocking the best in every player’s swing, the Dodgers have been able to help set the model for hitting development the way the Astros and other clubs have for pitching. With both a massive group of young major league hitting talent already trying to find its way in Baltimore and two years of drafts and trades worth of college hitters set to begin their climbs through the minors next spring, bringing those players along and getting every bit of talent out of them will be paramount.
Atlanta Braves: Fast-rising international stars
Having three top-seven picks in a starting rotation and a foundational star such as Freddie Freeman helps, but this Braves team became the contender it was when young stars Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies hit the scene. Acuña was signed out of Venezuela for $100,000 in 2014 and was the top prospect in all of baseball a few years later. According to FanGraphs, he’s been worth 11.7 wins above replacement (WAR) in this first three major league seasons and is only 23 years old.
Albies was signed for $350,000 in 2013 out of Curacao, and has been worth 10.9 WAR since his debut in 2017. Both players have not only jump-started the Braves' window of contention, but have allowed them to build for the future by signing long-term extensions that provided each player with financial security at club-friendly salaries past their free agency dates.
Those low six-figure signing bonuses are the types the Orioles' new international operation believes can yield the best return, as the players are talented enough to warrant it but not so expensive that the class must be smaller to fit their bonuses into the mix. The Orioles having 15 Latin American players at their fall instructional camp is a good start.
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But a couple players joining the fold such as Acuña and Albies to bring talent and energy to a rebuilding club could change the conversation around the Orioles quickly.