Who's steering the ship, and other questions facing the Orioles entering first offseason of their rebuild

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Now in the final weekend of the season, the Orioles’ focus will shift from the product on the field to what's expected to be an active offseason in terms of charting a course forward for the organization.

The on-field stars that helped the team to three playoff appearances in five years, including Manny Machado and Zach Britton, were traded midseason. The team's identity as a group of sluggers who kept them in games long enough for a lockdown bullpen to help them win games evaporated.

And with uncertainty facing every level of the club, it's a near-certainty the Orioles will look as different off the field when they return to Camden Yards in April as they have this summer on it.

Here are the four main questions facing the franchise entering this pivotal offseason, and what factors will play in while addressing them.

Who's steering the ship, and where are they steering it?

The Orioles’ baseball leadership tandem of manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette see their contracts expire at the end of October. Under the stewardship of Showalter and his staff, Duquette's players have lost more than any other Orioles team in history this season. And while it's oversimplifying to say one year will supersede their half-decade of winning together, what's happened this year is a seemingly logical endpoint to that arc.

Naturally, what happens next will be a reaction to that. Sweeping changes are coming across the organization, according to what Duquette said after he traded Manny Machado in July. Instead of investing in major league players, the Orioles' resources will go toward developing their own, with upgrades called for in scouting, international development, analytics and nutrition.

Who gets to execute that with the Orioles, and the public faces of that rebuild will indicate what's going on behind the scenes. The sons of managing partner Peter Angelos, executive vice president John Angelos and ownership representative Louis Angelos, have assumed much of the day-to-day responsibility amid their father's health problems this year. Vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson has gained influence with them.

Does Showalter, who has turned around four organizations at the field level — including the Orioles — play a part in what's next with that power structure above him? Will Duquette, who saved ownership millions with his July trades and began the rebuild in earnest, get to continue to lead phase two? Or will the stink of the worst season in franchise history require new faces for the next era of Orioles baseball?

Those questions have loomed for a long time, and took the forefront as the team slid backward this year. Come Monday, they'll consume all the air around the team until they're answered.

Is the tear-down finished?

Given the Orioles' trajectory strictly in a baseball sense, what would have reasonably been seen as the next set of trades came in a frenzy before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop went to the Milwaukee Brewers and right-handers Kevin Gausman and Darren O'Day were traded to the Atlanta Braves.

Schoop would have been in his final year under team control in 2019, while Gausman, a former first-round draft pick, had two years left but was basically an enticement to take on the injured O'Day's remaining salary.

Had the Orioles held onto them, they could have been quite a draw for a new executive to come in and give the organization an influx of young talent in his own vision for a former All-Star in Schoop and a promising arm always on the cusp of a breakout in Gausman.

Instead, the next wave is either too difficult to trade or too valuable to the Orioles. First baseman Chris Davis had the worst season of any hitter in baseball, and with four years left on his $161 million contract, is untradeable. Slugger Mark Trumbo's year was shortened on either side by injury, and even if he was productive when he played, his knee surgery from earlier this month will make him difficult to move entering the last year of his contract.

Right-hander Andrew Cashner will have to throw a career-high 187 innings next year to exercise his 2020 contract option, and not hitting that mark essentially means he's on a one-year, $8 million deal for 2019. Alex Cobb has three years left on his deal and a limited no-trade clause, but doesn't seem interested in seeing through a rebuild.

After those veterans, the real pieces of value are the likes of Trey Mancini, Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens. Dealing homegrown pieces like that as they're just hitting arbitration won't curry much favor publicly, but consider this: only one foundational player on the World Champion Houston Astros from a season ago — José Altuve — was on the 2011 team that lost 106 games and brought upon sweeping changes in that organization, kickstarting one of the most successful rebuilds in the game. They lost a lot in between, but the foundation for improvement isn't always on the major league roster.

Who got better this year, and why is that list so short?

That turns the attention to the farm system, and how the organization is set up for the future. While the 15 players — 14 minor league prospects plus big league infielder Jonathan Villar — boosted the farm system in a serious way, that boost was to a system that lacked high-end, impact talent and was chock full of mid- to back-end starters and outfielders without much diversity of talent.

Part of that comes from recruitment — the Orioles have only just started investing more in international prospects, and their draft classes are high on baseball talent but not the projectable athletes who can pop and become stars. But there's also the problem that evaluators around the game have seen at the minor league and major league levels for years — the success stories across the minor league system are scarce, and the big leagues are showing that fruit.

Recent breakouts from Mancini and Cedric Mullins have been credited even internally as self-driven. The same can be said for breakouts like outfielder Ryan McKenna's this year. On the pitching side, those who showed the most progress and performed best this season — such as DL Hall, Brenan Hanifee and Zac Lowther — began the season with Low-A Delmarva under pitching coach Justin Lord.

Perhaps it's a harbinger for things to come that the last few drafts have yielded more talent, and the coaches in the low minors have done well with them. But from the major league level — where there's not a single player who can boast that he improved this year — through the farm system, the Orioles need to make improvement the expectation, not the exception.

What will the product on the field be next year?

In the end, however, the palace intrigue, the player development system, and the past precedent for such rebuilds will pale in the minds of many who just want to be able to go to Camden Yards and cheer for a competitive team, or maybe a few players they've heard of before. That's why the reactions for everyone save for Adam Jones and, to an extent, Trey Mancini, have been so muted over the past two months.

Without the benefit of expanded rosters, and without can't-miss options to fill so many of their roster holes, the Orioles might be best-served trying to keep their lineup as static as possible next year to avoid some of the apathy that has come for the new faces this season.

It might not be a world-beating team every night, but given how invested many fans are in the team's homegrown players, it might not be the worst idea to give them the first crack at holding down a regular spot and see if the organization's investments in them over the years were worthwhile.

Absent that, it's hard to imagine a splashy free-agent signing that will bring a lot of buzz to the team ahead of next season, given the stated goal of diverting money from the major league team into other developmental areas.

It will be hard to reach the depths this season brought on the field, but absent the proven winners who might be required for a return to playoff contention, some homegrown flavor in what might be a difficult season might make things easier to stomach for a portion of the fan base.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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