Without knowing a World Series championship flag — or even one for a division title — will fly at Camden Yards in the next decade, that leaves anyone trying to parse out what the Orioles are doing at the outset of their rebuild with only the consistency of their words and actions to go on.
It’s the first season of what everyone expects to take quite a long time, but it’s still an odd place to look at a team as challenged as the Orioles and think that’s according to some kind of plan. That’s the game, however, so the 25 Orioles suited up each night have no choice but to play it out and hope they can either ride the losing out or latch on elsewhere with more of an immediate chance.
It might be difficult for fans to fit the context of what’s going on around every loss. But at a midpoint like the All-Star break, here are three reasons to believe the Orioles are on track with their rebuild, and three easy retorts in the interest of balance.
1. They aren’t winning
First and most obviously, that the Orioles have kept payroll down as low as they can, built a roster from the castoffs of other teams and were 27-62 at the All-Star break means they’re doing the easy part of rebuilding correctly.
This team was put together with the idea that if anyone they brought in late popped and performed well — a la Hanser Alberto and Pedro Severino — then all the better. But if those same types of fringe trades and waiver claims didn’t produce, those players had the track record in the minors to justify them sticking around and playing every day to see if they can figure it out.
Mostly, the Orioles are just finding out what makes a fringe major-leaguer — one true skill that isn’t enough to overcome the fact that the rest are lacking. The result is a team on track to pick first again in next year’s draft. And until the Orioles believe they have a real bubble of talent coming to the major league roster on this front office’s terms, that’s going to be the goal.
No amount of talking about the future can mitigate that this team spent six weeks of the first three-plus months of the season losing instead of just getting beaten. If there’s one thing they can do in this whole process, it’s that, and they’re lucky to have gotten away from it the last 10 days before the break.
2. They’ve followed through on most of what they said
Whether it’s resetting some player development schedules or going outside the organization for pieces instead calling up players who aren’t ready, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias’ stated goal of improving the talent base in the organization hasn’t been trumped by much, if anything, this season.
Elias started the likes of Austin Hays and Chance Sisco in the minors despite saying spring training was an open competition. He sent Cedric Mullins back down after a bad first month (and Double-A Bowie to start the second half). He also acquired Tom Eshelman and Asher Wojciechowski to start games instead of bringing up Keegan Akin before he’s ready.
Every one of those moves is being made with development in mind.
On the field side, everything from Brandon Hyde’s management of Chris Davis — he’ll play when it fits the Orioles for him to play — to his hope for aggressiveness on the bases for a fun brand of baseball has mostly played out. Since the spring-training send-downs, the disconnects between what they say and what they do have been far fewer, which is important if a fan base is supposed to buy into what could be several more years of losing.
Keeping a player who was rushed to the majors and needs more time in the minors isn’t exactly the most difficult decision to make. But there’s also plenty of on-the-record declarations on things like this month’s trade candidates and Davis’ future that could make for some challenging calls as circumstances evolve.
This is all especially important for Hyde, who has to face the cameras twice a day even when there's nothing to ask or nothing to say. His balancing act of putting out the consistent company message while being realistic about what he's seeing hasn't been challenged too much by the circumstances, but it could.
3. The requisite improvements in player development are there
Especially on the pitching side, where the Orioles’ track record is abysmal, the strides taken in the minor leagues in developing players will likely be one of the signatures of the first year of this rebuild.
With assistant general manager Sig Mejdal on the analytics side and minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt overseeing a talented group of returning and new pitching coaches, the strikeout rate of the organization is climbing, the WHIP is going down, and pitchers are developing more pitches as a result of the instruction and technology.
For the most part, players are enjoying the work. They see it’s making them better and buy in. And though each level presents challenges, pretty much everywhere up to Triple-A Norfolk has been home to some real strides this season.
The Houston Astros organization that Elias is modeling this all after took years to build, and is still far more advanced on this front than the Orioles. But that’s with years of drafting players that fit certain molds that can work in their system. Making this work with the inherited players is a good sign for all involved.
Counterpoint: But what about the hitters?
The Orioles’ best minor league hitter — Mason McCoy — was a senior-sign shortstop who is using an old-school, opposite-field hitting approach to drive his average up. First base prospect Ryan Mountcastle is the only top hitting prospect who’s truly performing this year. The rest, such as Yusniel Díaz, Hays and Ryan McKenna, have all scuffled. That will need to change, considering the makeup of the major league roster.
There’s generally more on the analytics side that can help pitchers than position players. And some of the power-driven hitting techniques can create a lot more holes than strengths in swings when hitters try to pull everything. But some of these position players will need to pan out before long.