It’s long been assumed that the Orioles’ rebuild would turn, at least in terms of competitive intent, when 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick and now baseball’s top prospect Adley Rutschman finally ascended to the big leagues.
Without coming out and saying it directly, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias indicated as much Friday in his lengthy media session at Camden Yards addressing the club’s losing streak by acknowledging that both Rutschman and top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez are “certainly on the radar screen for 2022 in a big way.”
As the losing continues apace for the Orioles and they turn a season in which progress seemed possible into one in which the league’s worst record (38-83) and the first overall pick in the 2021 Major League Baseball draft are far more likely, such notions are invaluable.
There might not be a better way for the Orioles to rebuild than the way they’re doing it, as Elias often says, but as long as such a plan has an end in sight, and progress is being made toward building a more efficient and effective organization, it makes watching all of this losing a lot more palatable.
“I’m looking forward to that day, which is coming closer and closer to where our odds of reaching the playoffs will be ticking up,” Elias said, noting that the club’s potential investment in free-agent reinforcements will align with that prolonged period of “maximizing playoff odds.”
Having Rutschman and Rodriguez up at some point in 2022 won’t, as Elias said, “dramatically improve our record.” But being able to look at a time when they are in the majors, and are joined by other players this front office believes can make an impact, could change things quickly for the Orioles.
“I think that we look at where we’re at, what we expect our internal group to do next year — and that includes players that we’ll see how the minor league season finishes up, but that may be prominent parts of this major league team next year that aren’t on [the roster] right now — and look where our holes are, and the resources that are available to us and make strategic decisions with the goal in mind of getting this team back to the playoffs as soon as possible and sort of keeping us in a state of not having to go through a gigantic, traumatic rebuild of this degree ever again,” Elias said.
Interesting next year, competitive after that. Considering there have already been decades of losing baseball under several Orioles regimes, there are worse outcomes than that.
Referring to what’s happening at the moment as traumatic isn’t an exaggeration, either. There’s no denying the Orioles are, as Elias said frequently Friday, “very much on track” with their efforts to modernize the baseball operations department with improved scouting and player development, an analytics infrastructure and a rebuilt Latin American program.
But on the major league field every night, this team had a low bar to clear to remain in obscurity instead of being the subject of ridicule. In this 16-game losing streak, they’ve tripped on it.
Their pitching staff, which Elias pointed out includes Matt Harvey on a $1 million salary and all others on the league minimum, has a 5.86 ERA that would be baseball’s worst since 1999 and the third-worst of the expansion era. Their offense around All-Star center fielder Cedric Mullins has never featured more than one of Trey Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays or Anthony Santander hitting well at any given time. The resulting losses have been largely noncompetitive.
Part of the pain is the notion that it shouldn’t be happening this way. It’s hard enough to accept how few of the high-minors prospects inherited by Elias and this front office haven’t developed in a way that solidifies more than a handful of them as part of the contender Elias envisions for the future.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
A smaller aspect of the distressful season is that by talent alone, there are several spots where the Orioles’ best player at a certain position is in the minors, even though their developmental process isn’t finished yet.
Rutschman at catcher and Rodriguez on the mound are among them. So too, likely, are Jahmai Jones at second base and the suddenly prolific Rylan Bannon at third base.
The latter two could be up in September, along with starting pitchers Mike Baumann, Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith. They might not make the Orioles immediately better, but they’d certainly make them more interesting.
Those players complementing the existing core — one that’s likely to get one last crack at solidifying itself in 2022 — might not be a team worth investing a ton of money on in free agency. But that group would certainly warrant a better pitching staff than the one that, combined, is making less money to pitch for the Orioles than Baltimore is paying Alex Cobb to pitch for the Los Angeles Angels.
Maybe that can happen with minimum investment, solely by mixing in those new faces currently in the minors and this year’s crop of rookie pitchers with the chance to rebound after a difficult year. Perhaps the trade or non-tender market presents the Orioles with a chance to sign a reclamation project, get him into their pitching program and see how much he can improve. A healthy DL Hall, the 21st overall pick in the 2017 draft, joining that mix late in the season would help, too.
For years, this is what Orioles fans have been doing in lieu of watching winning baseball: forecasting when the success would come, and whose arrival would herald it. Simply beginning the exercise begets even more projection: How quickly can top prospects Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser and Gunnar Henderson push to the big leagues? Can senior director of international scouting Koby Perez strike gold with a big-money international amateur free agent who shoots to the majors quickly?
Once Rutschman, and to some extent Rodriguez, are up in the majors, those questions won’t be fodder for the true believers among Orioles fans. They’ll be the difference between this rebuild being akin to the successful ones in Houston and Chicago that Elias and manager Brandon Hyde enjoyed, or the perpetual rebuilds that never come to fruition.