Earlier this week, the Orioles earned their first bits of attention since Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins’ All-Star week exploits — for all the wrong reasons.
Prominent national baseball writers used their plight to illustrate how other teams have gotten better much faster than the Orioles have, and used their run of 100-plus loss seasons as a way to highlight competitive issues in the game.
The Orioles’ response? A losing streak that was at 10 games entering Sunday in which they allowed 98 runs and lost by an average of more than six runs per game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that’s the most runs allowed by any team across a 10-game losing streak since the 1936 Athletics. The slide reached 11 games Sunday with a 6-2 loss to the Red Sox in Boston.
No one could have reasonably thought the Orioles would be good by this point, but how are they still this bad? The realities that answer that rhetorical question are tough to face.
“We’ve just got to get better in all areas,” manager Brandon Hyde said after Saturday’s embarrassing 16-2 loss in Boston. “We’re a long ways away.”
Hired by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias for his player development background and shared vision for this Orioles rebuild ahead of the 2019 season, Hyde has held that tune from day one when it comes to the gap this team still needs to close before they start competing at a respectable level, let alone winning. The priorities have been elsewhere for much of that span, and the Orioles moving to the top of FanGraphs’ farm system rankings this week is a sign that at least part of this rebuild is on track.
That doesn’t even come close to making this woeful stretch palatable, and it might be years before the fruits of all that work fix the myriad issues this team continues to face.
Now, as has been the case through all of these losing seasons, the pitching struggles are top of mind. The issues are twofold. The Orioles entered the year with six rookie starting pitchers from the top rungs of their prospect list on the roster, some with major league experience to build on, but all with hopes of breaking into the big leagues and solidifying themselves as future rotation pieces.
The best of the bunch, right-hander Mike Baumann, had an elbow injury to start the season and is only just getting to Triple-A Norfolk. The remaining five — Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther — have combined for a 6.97 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP in 191 innings as they’ve dealt with injuries and inconsistent performance, though the underlying metrics for the group show there’s some bad luck involved.
But after a year in which every pitcher in the sport worked fewer innings than ever before because of the shutdown and shortened 2020 schedule, the Orioles went to great lengths to protect those pitchers so they wouldn’t be overworked. The major league team had sufficient pitching to make it through the season. Most of the minor league free agents they signed were meant to add pitching depth at Triple-A, and they’ve used almost all of them. But nobody but Spenser Watkins has stuck so far.
The high-profile, albeit low-cost, addition of veteran Matt Harvey has paid dividends since the All-Star break, but there were months when he was part of the problem. Spring training acquisition Adam Plutko has struggled so badly of late that, even by this team’s standards, it’s hard to see him warranting a spot on the roster much longer.
The 2019 Orioles were historically bad on the mound in several ways. These Orioles, through 115 games, have a higher ERA (5.77) and WHIP (1.49) than that group. And yet, just because they’re always the first to receive criticism doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who deserve it.
Outside of Mullins, who is not only their best player but one of the best in baseball, the Orioles have little consistency to speak of offensively. Ryan Mountcastle had an awful April but has an .873 OPS and 18 home runs since. Trey Mancini has had some high points, but more slumps than usual, while injuries have kept Austin Hays and Anthony Santander from being their best until recently.
There have been stretches, especially earlier in the season, when the Orioles looked like a team that could hold its own against anyone. No one is blameless for how noncompetitive they are now, and likely will continue to be over the last seven weeks of the season. Just because the organization is fairly transparent that winning major league games isn’t the priority doesn’t make it OK, either.
Hyde said after Friday’s loss that the Orioles need to be able to play with nothing to lose and match the intensity of the playoff-chasing teams they have left on their schedule. They have 30 games left against the four contending teams in their division alone.
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The gulf between the Orioles and those AL East teams is a big one, as Hyde and Elias are quick to point out. In the third year of executing their holistic vision for building a winner at Camden Yards and the fifth year of overwhelming losing, poor stretches like this are enough to cloud even the most cautious optimism that the progress toward building an elite talent pipeline is enough.