Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias drove north Saturday to see the jewels of his first draft class show off for him in an 8-2 win by the Short-A Aberdeen Ironbirds over Vermont.
The face of the Orioles’ rebuild was batting second in the form of first overall pick Adley Rutschman, but the attention Elias got behind home plate might mean the young catcher has a run for his money. The first to ask for a picture with the new GM explained that he wanted to meet the man who saved the Orioles.
This all happened in the midst of yet another run at the major league level that can be described as one of the worst of the year, in a season that now appears destined for more than 110 losses. The Orioles don’t just lose; they lose badly, and often.
Bright spots such as Hunter Harvey’s debut are few and far between when the club is losing seven straight and 12 of 13, as the Orioles did in this recent stretch.
All the rest of the pleasant thoughts are scattered in minor league ballparks around Maryland, and what’s become clear in the first year of this rebuild is that the only way to endure what’s on television every night is to buy into that potential.
It’s true that the teams the Orioles are chasing in the American League East, like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, don’t have to go about business this way. It’s also true that recent rebuilding success stories, such as the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, haven’t come in divisions with well-funded perennial powerhouses.
But more than money got the teams the Orioles are chasing to the top. They’re already doing all of the organization-building that Elias and company are investing in, and that includes the analytics, the amateur success, and everything in between.
That extends to the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays as well. They’ve either built or are building farm systems that are the envy of the league. Boston has produced Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. Toronto transitioned Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette from the top prospect lists to their major league roster. The Rays have eight prospects in Baseball America’s Top 100, including overall No. 1 Wander Franco. The Yankees have just one in the Top 100, but develop and trade arms for key pieces on a regular basis.
All of those teams have long adopted data-driven approaches to building their farm systems and matriculating through major league talent. That goes for pretty much any team that’s built a sustained winner over the past few years.
What’s unique to the Orioles, and the early-decade Astros from whence Elias and assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal came, is the volume and caliber of losing. On a 111-loss pace this season, the Orioles could lose the most games in a two-year span since the 2013 and 2014 Astros, who lost 218 games over two seasons.
It’s not as simple as scraping data, building a model, and watching it produce a World Series contender. The Orioles had to do the first two parts just to join the arms race this year. Once they catch up to the rest of the league on all the analytical fronts, the challenge will be to find an edge on the next frontier.
That’s what former executive vice president Dan Duquette advertised when he traded Manny Machado last July and declared the Orioles were going to stop investing every last dollar in chasing a major league winner and begin paying into their future.
This year alone, the Orioles had a well-regarded draft led by Rutschman, delved into the international amateur market in a major way for the first time ever, have seen a legitimate increase in performance from over a dozen top pitch pitching prospects, and have lost more games than any other team in baseball.
It’s wildly unpleasant that the last part has anything to do with building a better future. It’s also the reality, at least until the game significantly changes. There’s no NBA draft lottery that makes all but the team that wins and selects Zion Williamson look silly for tanking. There’s no parity like in the NFL.
Without the financial means or available talent pool to spend what would likely require nine-figures in present-day salary commitments to transform the Orioles into winners overnight, this is what happens.
That it means the Orioles will lose seven out of ten games and allow more home runs than any team ever is not to be enjoyed. It’s not even really to be tolerated. But it’s what they and everyone who roots for them signed up for, and the farther away from the initial bargain of building for the future this process gets, the less likely converts will be.
The Orioles don’t have to lose as often as badly as they do, but they are. In a season that spans 27 weeks, would one more win a week make much of a difference in buoying the spirits of the fanbase? Would the cost, in salary or in draft capital, to put together that kind of team be worth it for 78 wins that still mean nothing?
It’s a choice to be as bad as the Orioles are. It’s no longer a choice to invest in a modern, data-driven approach to team building to be successful.
What’s to come?
Not the Yankees, Astros, or Red Sox, thankfully. But it is the Kansas City Royals, who are as close to an even foe as the Orioles will have before they got to Detroit next month. After that, it’s another visit from the Rays.
The Orioles’ pitching woes have been the story of their struggles this year, but the Rays and Orioles have played 12 times, and the Orioles have scored 38 runs in those contests. They’ve scored three or fewer in eight of them. Nine of the 38 came in one game. Certain teams seem to just know not only how to pitch to the Orioles, but are able to execute those pitches. The Royals might be a respite from their superiors, but there’s a tough task awaiting after they visit.
What was good?
Trading Mike Yastrzemski away in spring training, it seems, was not the best. At the time, the Orioles didn’t have use for a 28-year-old outfielder at Triple-A Norfolk when they had Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and DJ Stewart.
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All that has gone wrong in the outfield this year — from Hays’ spring training thumb injury to Cedric Mullins’ collapse and the loss of Joey Rickard, to the use of infielders such as Stevie Wilkerson in the major league outfield — make that idea look bad in hindsight.
The Orioles’ hex with first-round pitching isn’t showing much evidence this year, as the last four first-round pitchers are all thriving. Hunter Harvey (2013) had a scoreless inning of relief in his electric major league debut, Cody Sedlock (2016) got his first Double-A win Friday to bring his season ERA to 2.51, DL Hall (2016) was dominant in the second half, and Grayson Rodriguez (2017) hasn’t allowed a run in three of his past four outings as he saves his innings for Delmarva’s postseason run.