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Orioles reset: Even in dismal season, major league team still provides bright spots

If executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is to be believed, 2021 was the year the Orioles bottomed out.

“We think that this team will continuously get better from this point forward,” Elias said before their final home game last week. “That’s what I think. We have a lot of young talent here. Young talent tends to get better.”

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Three days later, the Toronto Blue Jays completed a sweep of Baltimore as the Orioles finished with 110 losses for the second-worst season in franchise history, two games worse than they did in 2019 in the opening year of their rebuild under Elias.

But for all the struggles, especially on the pitching side, the Orioles had in 2021, it’s easy to see where Elias is coming from and why manager Brandon Hyde and others agree. Baltimore’s top-ranked farm system is the reason for most of the organizational optimism these days, but despite the major league team’s dismal record, it provided plenty of highlights.

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Cedric Mullins recorded Baltimore’s first 30-homer, 30-steal season and will earn down-ballot American League Most Valuable Player votes. Ryan Mountcastle broke the Orioles’ rookie home run record held by franchise icon Cal Ripken Jr. and will be among the highest finishers in AL Rookie of the Year voting. John Means pitched the franchise’s first complete game no-hitter in more than 50 years and spent much of the first half looking like one of the game’s best pitchers. After missing 2020 battling colon cancer, Trey Mancini played in 147 of Baltimore’s 162 games, hitting 21 home runs for good measure.

The 2021 Orioles won’t be remembered for being good. That doesn’t mean they won’t be remembered.

“In our situation, you’re trying to find guys that are going to be part of the club when the club is good, and you’re hoping that they’re younger players to build around,” Hyde said. “I’m trying to take the positives out of a really difficult year.”

Hyde pointed to Mullins, Mountcastle and Means, as well as Austin Hays, who overcame some early hamstring injuries to play practically every day down the stretch, and Tyler Wells, a pitcher the Orioles took in the Rule 5 draft who emerged as their closer despite his lack of high minors experience.

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Of the position players in that group, Mullins is the oldest, having just turned 27. If the Orioles’ rebuild is to begin producing major league wins in the near future, this current crop will play a large role.

“As a team, obviously, our record isn’t where it needs to be,” Mancini said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but a lot of really good things happened this year and a lot of guys made names for themselves, and that’s my biggest takeaway from the season. We’ve got kind of a core group forming in the lineup, I feel like, and that’s really big, having a little bit of continuity there.

“We all, especially as the season went on, really jelled together and it was just a really fun group to be around, so I’m looking forward to being back with all these guys next year.”

Mancini will be 30 when next season begins and a free agent at the end of it, thus making him a natural candidate to be traded this winter. But teammates raved about the importance of having his veteran presence back this year, even as his bat went largely quiet over the season’s final months.

Still, the potential exists that not too deep into next season, the top two-thirds of the Orioles’ lineup will feature Mullins, Mountcastle, Hays, Mancini, a healthy Anthony Santander and the arrival of catcher Adley Rutschman, the sport’s top prospect. There remain clear needs on the infield and the pitching staff, and adding to those areas through free agency could be helpful in both the short and long term. Still, there are pieces already in place that suggest brighter days might actually be ahead.

“We have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas, and we just want to continue to get better,” Hyde said. “I’m excited about some of our young guys that I think could be core pieces going forward on a good team, and we’ll have players making debuts next year, also. We’ll have some exciting players. We’ll be young, but I think we’re starting to get more talented, and for me, that’s the key.”

What’s to come?

Offseason decisions. The Orioles’ lone free agents are veteran pitchers Matt Harvey and Fernando Abad, neither of whom seems particularly likely to return. Their most interesting choices will come in arbitration.

The raises due to Mancini, Means and Santander could lead to them being dealt. Players such right-hander Jorge López and left-hander Paul Fry had up-and-down seasons and be non-tender candidates despite the potential they showed.

There’s also the aspect that the Orioles will have to clear some space on their 40-man roster, not only for prospects they’ll need to protect in the Rule 5 draft such as DL Hall, Kyle Bradish and Terrin Vavra, but also for the bevy of players who fall off other teams’ rosters and onto the waiver wire.

What was good?

It’s all a matter of perspective. The Orioles tied the Arizona Diamondbacks for baseball’s worst record, and because the teams also finished the same in 2020, their 2019 records were used to determine next year’s draft order. That means the Orioles are positioned to pick first overall in 2022 for the second time in four years.

It’s not guaranteed, with the possibility draft order rules are altered in the next collective bargaining agreement in an effort by the players association and league to stop rewarding teams for not being competitive, but both sides seemingly have larger issues to focus on.

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That would leave the Orioles with not only the top pick but also something that has perhaps proved more significant in their drafts under Elias: the largest signing bonus pool. Because of the way compensatory picks fall, it’s possible that would have been the case even if they finished with a better record than Arizona. That might have been partly why Elias said this week he didn’t see much of a difference between picking first or second.

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“We’re not worried about it,” Elias said. “We picked fifth last year because of the shortened season and I think we got a terrific player [in Colton Cowser]. The draft’s very fickle, and I’m humble about the draft. Wherever we end up picking, we’ll pick.”

What wasn’t?

It was a quiet final stretch for Mullins, who hit one home run over the season’s last three weeks while posting an OPS below .600. That home run, of course, was his 30th, allowing him to record Baltimore’s first 30-30 season.

It’s a disappointing ending to a season that was spectacular in so many ways, from the unprecedented decision to abandon switch-hitting that preceded immediate success against left-handers to his turnaround earning him a start in the All-Star Game in Denver.

He played in all but three games this year, and Hyde believed that everyday impact had finally caught up to him.

“He’s been incredible for six months,” Hyde said. “Maybe the results haven’t been there the last couple weeks. I’m sure there’s some fatigue. But he just played since the beginning of February almost every single day coming off a shortened season last year, and he’s allowed to be a little fatigued, if that’s what it is. But really proud of Cedric’s year and real excited about him going into next season.”

On the farm

If a bitter Oriole fan chooses not to appreciate 2021 for the reasons mentioned earlier, perhaps they can simply remember this year as the one Rutschman played his first full professional season and became the No. 1 prospect in baseball.

Drafted first overall in 2019 out of Oregon State, the 23-year-old lived up to the billing with his performance between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. Taking nary a day off, he hit .285/.397/.502 for an .899 OPS to go with 23 home runs, 75 RBIs, a 14.5% walk rate and 16.6% strikeout rate. Those metrics all rank Rutschman among the better hitters who spent the year in the upper minors, yet don’t factor in the impact he also had with his efforts behind the plate.

It shouldn’t be too long into next year he no longer qualifies for this space.

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