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Is the Orioles’ rebuild on track? From prospects to player development to scouting, here’s where things stand.

Even for a rebuilding club like the Orioles that is more invested in the future than the present, there’s a need for at least some validation that the plan is taking hold and results will come.

After all, the Orioles organization that executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took over in November 2018 was one that had just enjoyed a five-year competitive window, but still wore the scars of nearly two decades of futility.

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There have been plans before, so it’s fair to wonder just how this particular one is going. Elias promised an “elite talent pipeline” upon his introduction three falls ago and has gone about building one through the draft, trades, player development and international scouting.

But that’s just one piece of a holistic baseball picture the Orioles are trying to improve.

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At the beginning of a third season of this Orioles regime, here’s how each facet of the baseball side is meeting expectations.

Major league pitching

The Orioles’ collapse at the end of 2017 and through 2018 came down to a truly awful pitching staff whose inexperience was only part of the problem. That carried into 2019, when the Orioles’ pitching staff set the record for most home runs allowed with over a month left in the season.

Doug Brocail and Darren Holmes oversaw a true improvement in 2020, with John Means continuing to be a bright spot and relief arms such as Tanner Scott, Paul Fry and Shawn Armstrong taking steps forward. The whole group simply pitched better, and the result was a staff whose ERA fell from 5.67 to 4.51 and WHIP dropped from 1.46 to 1.31.

The bullpen still has a ways to go from calling back to the lockdown days of Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach. And the rotation will benefit as rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin grow more established.

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But part of new pitching coach Chris Holt’s job is to help transition the team’s promising prospects to the big leagues, and that task will almost chiefly dictate how quickly this team might be any good again.

Verdict: On track

Major league position players

There are essentially two kinds of Orioles position players over the last few years: inexpensive free agents or waiver claims, and guys who were here before. (Not included: Chris Davis.) The Orioles have tried and at times succeeded to get value out of waiver claims such as Rio Ruiz, Pedro Severino and Hanser Alberto in that time, but the infield specifically was a wasteland in terms of what the new regime inherited. The Orioles are still trying to fill in that crevice with player development and trades, even as they continue to paper over it in the majors.

Freddy Galvis is their third shortstop in as many years, with Jonathan Villar and José Iglesias both traded despite productive seasons with the Orioles.

What fans are likely more concerned about is how the players who were young at the time of the transition of power and represent the last generation of top prospects have progressed. Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander have taken the next leap in terms of productivity at the plate, and outfielders DJ Stewart, Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays and catcher Chance Sisco have all had flashes of success.

Pretty much everyone, though, has been back in the minors at some point to continue developing. The coming season will be when many of those players are forced to either step up and make a possible leap or start looking over their shoulders for the next wave of prospects coming through the minors.

Verdict: Lagging

Graduating prospects

One of manager Brandon Hyde’s touchstones from the progress of the Chicago Cubs rebuild that helped him land the Orioles’ job was the constant buzz and excitement that grew around the team as young, emerging stars such Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Kyle Hendricks succeeded in the minors and arrived in Chicago with the major league team. It buoyed the team and fans alike.

He’s still waiting for that process to begin in Baltimore.

Many of those one-time top prospects debuted with the Orioles before their minor league development was truly finished as the team grasped at every possible avenue to stay competitive, so Elias and company inherited a deep, but flawed farm system. There was a bit of a talent gap in the high minors, and high-minors talent that had already been called up struggled in the big leagues.

Players such as Akin and Ryan Mountcastle were ticketed for full years in Triple-A in 2019 and got that experience before debuting in the shortened 2020 season. Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann were there for about a month and got to debut in 2020 as well.

But so far, the trickle of prospects graduating to help elevate the major league team has been slow. If last year’s arrivals signal the transition to long-term solutions arriving at Camden Yards, though, then the Orioles will be expecting big things from prospects such as outfielder Yusniel Diaz and right-hander Mike Baumann this summer.

Verdict: Lagging

The amateur draft

With the major league roster stripped bare with trades the summer before, the main selling point the Orioles’ top job had ahead of the 2019 season was the first overall draft pick. Catcher Adley Rutschman emerged as a possible generational talent for that selection, and the Orioles ended up adding a group of bats that also features shortstop Gunnar Henderson for a well-regarded draft class.

The Orioles went with the college bat route again in 2020 with outfielder Heston Kjerstad at No. 2 overall, followed by infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Hudson Haskin. Their strategy seems to be to use their draft capital on advanced bats, as hitting is still an area in which talent plays despite improvements in technology and instruction around the game.

That’s meant not investing much. To be fair, the Dan Duquette regime did plenty of that and did it well, so the Orioles can afford to balance things out. But a symbiotic relationship between Holt, now the director of pitching, and the front office has created a system in which the Orioles know what kinds of pitchers work well in their program and who they can best work with. That’s allowed them to hang back in the draft on pitchers they like and still come away with talent.

The 2019 draftees missed out on its first full season and it’s probably best to consider these first two draft classes as one big group that is facing an unprecedented challenge once minor league games finally resume in 2021.

But for a system that had plenty of carry-over talent and has made all kinds of trades to supplement its farm system, eight draftees from the past two years in Baseball America’s Top 30 prospects ranking is a good showing.

Verdict: On track

Player development

When asked to highlight what has vaulted the Orioles’ farm system into one that’s considered a top-10 group in baseball, Elias points to the talent he inherited and how quickly Holt and assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal were able to build up an infrastructure to get new and better information to their minor league pitchers for development uses in the 2019 season.

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The result was evident. Top prospects such as Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall made significant leaps and strikeout numbers climbed at every level as ERAs and WHIPs fell. Simply put, the Orioles got a lot more out of their minor league pitchers than they did before.

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That progress would have undoubtedly continued in 2020, and the Orioles were hoping a new minor league hitting group brought in by director of player development Matt Blood would help their batters achieve the same massive strides.

They tried to make the most of remote training for their prospects in 2020, and the in-person work at the alternate training site in Bowie and the fall instructional camp in Sarasota, Florida, made it so some players had a semblance of normalcy at one point or another.

All that can be judged right now is the infrastructure the Orioles have built to develop young players going forward. The impact of a nightmare 2020 season on the players themselves and their developmental timeline is just impossible to figure.

Verdict: Stunted, but on track

International scouting

One of Elias’ first hires was Koby Perez as senior director of international scouting in January 2019, and he inherited both the ability to spend a lot of money on international players in the remainder of that 2018 signing period and a bare-bones department that hadn’t been a major player in Latin America for years.

Between the players signed in that 2018 period and Perez’s first full class for the July 2019 signing period, the Orioles were going to send a few dozen players stateside in the spring of 2020 to begin their professional careers before the pandemic made that impossible.

As it were, that group included talents such as slugging corner outfielder Luis González, who excited at the fall instructional camp. And they’ll be supplemented by a 2020 signing class that featured the Orioles’ first two Latin American players signed to seven-figure bonuses in Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernández and Dominican catcher Samuel Basallo.

The 2021 signing class will be delayed until next January, and according to Baseball America, the Orioles are connected to their 17th-best prospect in that class, speedy outfielder Braylin Tavera, for a bonus between $1.5 million and $2 million.

Considering those big-money signings usually commit to teams years in advance of being eligible to sign, the fact that the Orioles are already successfully recruiting such players — and made a multimillion dollar investment in a new complex in the Dominican Republic — shows how quickly things have improved in this once-neglected avenue for acquiring talent.

Verdict: Ahead of schedule

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