Tucked into the media briefing that’s now becoming a regular occurrence amid a losing streak for executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias this week was a feeling of the Orioles rebuild that even its greatest apologists have tried to avoid: what’s happening with this organization is not an infallible process.
“It’s not going to go perfectly,” Elias said Wednesday.
He maintained, as he has, that rebuilds aren’t fun and are hard to watch unfold on a daily basis, but reiterated that the Orioles were so far behind the rest of the league in so many ways that he had no choice but to take this route.
He also made clear that all of his decisions weren’t going to be perfect. Bad luck was going to play a part in things, too. It seemed to arrive, at the major league and minor league level, in droves this week.
The only game the Orioles won was a spot start from Thomas Eshelman after one of their top young starters, Bruce Zimmermann went on the injured list with an arm issue. They would have won Saturday with a win driven by their young stars, but instead blew it in epic fashion.
Who they’ve lost to of late hasn’t helped make anyone feel better about the team’s long-term outlook, either.
When the Orioles left Oakland May 2 with a series win and a 13-15 record then were 17-23 when the New York Yankees flew out of Baltimore 12 days later, the thought was that the schedule would soon lighten up. A 14-game losing streak and an eight-game losing streak later, it hasn’t.
Divisionally, that’s included six losses in six games against a Tampa Bay Rays team that just went to the World Series and is among the best and most consistent teams in baseball. They lost two of three to the Toronto Blue Jays this weekend, and they play that ascendant team six more times before the All-Star break.
Everyone in baseball often ends up trying to measure themselves to the Yankees and Red Sox, but the Orioles also have a Rays organization with one of the best farm systems in baseball and a Blue Jays team that has spent on stars like George Springer to supplement a fantastic young core that includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to give them one of the game’s best offenses.
Can the most elite talent pipeline overcome those four teams on year-in, year-out basis? And have the recent setbacks on that front made that outlook any dimmer? As this rebuild rolls on, it will become more and more difficult to separate whether the Orioles are actually gaining ground in the standings where it counts or just making progress below the major league level.
That Elias admitted things may not go perfectly on a day he was announcing that 2020 No. 2 pick Heston Kjerstad was shut down again with a recurring heart inflammation stemming from his case of myocarditis last year and that dynamic young pitching prospect DL Hall was headed to the injured list with elbow inflammation seemed fitting.
When so much is leaning on the development of young players, every setback feels significant. Hall’s elbow soreness, combined with the slow path back for right-hander Mike Baumann from his own last summer, means limited seasons for two of the Orioles top three pitching prospects this season. That could possibly delay when each can begin the process of learning to pitch in the majors and mean it could be years before the Orioles get their best.
The Kjerstad issue is a separate one entirely, and takes the bad luck part of this to the extreme. The Orioles went out on a limb drafting him second overall as part of a draft strategy to create the best six-player class possible, and it’s unclear whether they’ll ever be able to be proven right on that decision through this circumstance.
And yet, much has gone right when it comes to how the team is trying to rebuild. Hitters all over the farm are improving. Adley Rutschman looks like a star. Grayson Rodriguez is by some measures the top pitching prospect in baseball. They draft big-school stars and sign players internationally. There’s a world where, in a year’s time, some of the top names on the prospect list are at Camden Yards and there’s something to be excited about at the major league level beyond just a handful of players.
By the time all of them arrive, others may be gone. Who would have thought that Chance Sisco, their top prospect after the 2017 season, would not only crash out of the majors but be designated for assignment off the roster entirely at this point? He’s not the only player who this front office inherited with hopes for who won’t make it to when this team is good again, and not because he’s been traded away.
There are pitfalls galore between a player being brought into the organization and the point where he’s a legitimate major league contributor. The Orioles, in using data the way they do to best project the future and trying to coach to their strengths in terms of pitching and now hitting development, are trying to reduce the margin for error. But when so much is riding on the farm system and getting the right players in and safely shepherding and developing them up to the big league level, nothing is ever going to be perfect
This week, it just seemed like there was a lot more that wasn’t.
What’s to come?
MLB’s umpires on Monday will begin enforcing the league’s ban on pitchers applying sticky substances to aid in control and spinning the baseball, a hot topic around the league and one that will be fascinating to see play out.
The Orioles send rookie left-hander Keegan Akin to the mound opposite Jake Odorrizi for the Astros. Neither, by way of checking their spin rates before and since MLB began threatening enforcement on this issue, should have much to worry about in terms of being a pitcher to watch for illegal substances.
Whether MLB instructs umpires to be firm in searching for offenders in the first few games under the new enforcement rules remains unseen, but a team with the competitive struggles that the Orioles have might be an easy target for a league looking to show it’s serious without actually impacting the league’s biggest teams or stars.
Once the series with the Astros wraps up, the Orioles will go on another marathon road trip to Buffalo to face the Blue Jays, then to Houston and Los Angeles to see a bunch of old friends on the Angels. Sadly, none of them are doing that well.
What was good?
Cedric Mullins’ good has been long-established, so with apologies to him, Ryan Mountcastle’s breakout day Saturday is probably the last bit of evidence that anyone could ever need to prove his April swoon is long-gone.
He’s batting .383 with a 1.186 OPS in June, with his three home runs Saturday giving him seven for the month. This week alone, he was 12-for-25 with five home runs. Mountcastle hit .198 with a .515 OPS in April and entered Sunday batting .308 with a .927 OPS since. If he’s closer to that player the rest of the way, his Rookie of the Year campaign might be back on.
When Hyde says the Orioles are doing the best they can on the defensive side of the ball with what they have and this is what it looks like, it’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of anyone involved.
With six errors in the first three games in Cleveland, the Orioles made a few lowlight-reel plays and more importantly, made things a lot harder on a pitching staff with enough to worry about. There’s definitely something to the idea that a losing streak like they were mired in can impact focus, but one of the first signs that this team is turned around will be when the Orioles don’t have a week where it seems like on a nightly basis, they’re teeing up big innings for opponents that don’t really need the help.
On the farm
After two weeks in Triple-A Norfolk to start the season, former top prospect Yusniel Diaz went on the injured list and found himself back at the familiar confines of Double-A Bowie for a weeklong rehab assignment for the Baysox this week.
Manager Buck Britton, who has plenty of experience with Diaz as the Bowie manager in 2019 and the time at the alternate site in 2020, said Diaz was still learning about consistency and would be evaluated on how he performed at that level. It wasn’t just a rehab outing.
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Diaz had a double on Friday and a home run Saturday, ending his rehab assignment 5-for-18 (.278) with two extra-base hits, two walks, and five strikeouts. The talent is still in there. It’s clear there’s a lot more that will go into whether he can unseat someone for a spot in the Orioles outfield this year, though.