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Orioles reset: As O’s reach new depths, nothing in rebuild is guaranteed — not even a top draft pick in 2022

So much of the Orioles’ rebuild is justified by the idea that all the losing and whatever embarrassment comes from it will be worth it in the end. One important reward for that, however, isn’t guaranteed.

The Orioles own the league’s worst record at 46-97 but are just one game worse than the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are 47-96 with three weeks left in the season. Those teams seem locked into having either the worst or second-worst record in 2021. In many years, that would guarantee them one of the top two picks in the 2022 MLB draft, and all the advantages that come with it.

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The draft order, however, isn’t locked in for next year. Little is when it comes to the baseball landscape for beyond 2022, with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Dec. 1 and the MLB Players Association and the league set to negotiate over a host of issues — competitive balance among them.

With the current system incentivizing teams to avoid good-faith efforts to field winning teams because the rewards for losing are so valuable, it stands to reason the players will try and remove the draw to fielding inexpensive and inexperienced rosters who can’t compete on a nightly basis from the infrastructure of the sport.

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It would seem to be a massive concession from the league to change the draft order, though, and it’s hard to see the players matching that level of give-back on anything to make a change like this happen.

After all, the Orioles have cited the existing competitive system as a reason they’re rebuilding the way they are, with a low payroll and scant investment in the major league team leading to increased opportunities to acquired amateur talent through the larger signing bonus pools that come with high draft picks.

The Orioles also receive a competitive balance draft pick each year, either after the first or second round, thanks to their market size and revenue. That further boosts the amount of bonus money they have to spread around, and as the last few drafts have shown, it’s more about the commensurate bonus pool amounts that the high picks come with than the picks themselves, considering how the Orioles’ board is typically unique from other clubs’.

In 2021, they used cost savings on top pick Colton Cowser — who is batting .404 with a 1.062 OPS as a pro — to go above-slot on other players. It essentially got them another third-round pick, and also bolstered their ability to sign better players in the middle of the second day.

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Their bonus pool maneuvering in the shortened 2020 draft meant they signed six players to bonuses commensurate with the 68th pick in the draft or higher, going above-slot with high school players Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler with their last two picks. Instead of having a pick in each of the five rounds and their competitive balance pick at No. 30, the Orioles instead made it so all six of their picks were paid as if they were taken by early in the third round.

They’d likely still do that with their bonus pool no matter what the CBA requires. And maybe, considering the amount of talent they’ve added to the organization in recent years, it won’t mean as much if the draft meaningfully changes for 2022 and beyond. It should be the Orioles’ last year that competing at the major league level isn’t the priority, and though a vibrant scouting operation and a robust player development department will be the expectation even when the team is good, having a high draft pick won’t necessarily be the goal by then.

It is now, though, and as slight a chance as there is that the Orioles won’t have among the top two picks in the 2022 draft and the largest bonus pool to spread around along with it, it’s just another reminder that none of what’s happening is guaranteed.

A spectator sits in a mostly empty section at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during the second inning a game between the Orioles and the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 8 in Baltimore.
A spectator sits in a mostly empty section at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during the second inning a game between the Orioles and the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 8 in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Fans aren’t assured to come back in droves when the team is good, and the average attendance of 8,207 over seven dates this past week shows the depths to which that belief has fallen. It’s not a given that the impressive strides made on the player development front and the blossoming prospect base that has given the Orioles the highest-rated farm system in the game by many estimations will produce a winning team in a division that already boasts four playoff contenders.

And even as the Orioles, who have lost more games than any team in baseball the past five years, find new and unique ways to lose deep into this rebuild, there’s no guarantee the only true reward for all that losing is locked in, either.

What’s to come?

The longest homestand of the season wraps up with three games against the New York Yankees before the team travels to Boston for another series that will help shape the 2021 playoff race. After Sunday’s game against Toronto, there’s only one perceived let-up in the schedule, with four games Sept. 23-26 against the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards. Otherwise, they play teams that are going to need to beat them to play in October.

As such, the old adage of needing to be careful evaluating players in September goes out the window. These are the types of players the Orioles will want to be measuring themselves against, and the types of games they’ll hope to have in the coming years because of their own success.

What was good?

Whenever it seems like Cedric Mullins is due for a cool-down, the Orioles’ All-Star center fielder has another impressive week and gets himself back on track to continue his fantastic season. At least in one sense, it’s a rare one.

Mullins entered Sunday with a 147 wRC+, which means he’s been 47% better than league average in terms of offensive production. And despite his 29 home runs, he’s driven in 56 runs. The last player to have at least 600 plate appearances and drive in that few runs was Yasiel Puig in 2014, when he had a wRC+ of 148 and 69 RBIs. Mullins’ season may end up closer to Shin-Soo Choo in 2013, who had a wRC+ of 150 with 54 RBIs.

What that has to do with Mullins is debatable. His 97 plate appearances with runners in scoring position are fewest in baseball among players with at least 500 plate appearances, accounting for 16.2% of his 598 plate appearances through Wednesday. Batting leadoff on a team whose bottom of the order doesn’t create chances hasn’t helped his case, but neither has his .688 OPS in those plate appearances.

What wasn’t?

All the usual caveats apply when it comes to the Orioles’ attendance, with students being back in school and the team being bad chief among them. No one should be expected to go out of their way to pay full value for a team like this. But fans have shown this year and in years past that a good promotion will bring them to the park. That made it a little odd that there’s only been one — the Labor Day Eddie Murray T-shirt giveaway — this homestand.

The team’s Kids Cheer Free program, Birdland Membership incentives and the season pass program for August and September remain in place to try and create value for fans throughout the season. All that clearly isn’t giving enough incentive for fans to come to the park in quantities that spare the team, and by proxy the whole city, the blushes that came this week.

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Perhaps a visit from the Yankees will boost attendance, and Thursday’s Avett Brothers concert will do the same.

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On the farm

Left-hander Paul Fry had a tough week down at Triple-A Norfolk, allowing five runs on three walks and three hits while recording four outs over his two appearances. In the big leagues, Tanner Scott allowed eight runs on nine hits in his past two outings.

Those two were among the Orioles’ top trade chips as controllable, effective relievers at the July 30 deadline. Perhaps they will be again at next year’s deadline. But what’s happened since for each might mean the presumed high asking price executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias had this summer is a pipe dream.

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