Kansas City, Mo. — Such is the Orioles’ lot that even as they grasp for an identity over the final month of a peerlessly bad season to carry forward into their open-ended rebuild, they traveled to Kansas City to face a Royals team only a handful of games better in the standings but worlds ahead of them in the rebuild they’re trying to execute.
These Orioles have spent the past six weeks, a span that began with the trade of star Manny Machado and stretched on to see the departures of relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach plus 2012 first-round pick Kevin Gausman and reigning Most Valuable Oriole Jonathan Schoop, fashioning themselves as a team of opportunity built on speed and defense.
Well, so are the Royals, and except they’ve been planning for the inevitable collapse of the contending core that reached two World Series and won one, and as a result enter September with the 29th-best record but a loads more hope than No. 30, an Orioles team they swept out of Kauffman Stadium thanks to a 9-1 rout Sunday.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said the gap shown this weekend wasn’t as big as the sweep indicated.
He said: “A gulf? You mean a big chasm? No, not necessarily, no. I think that’s all proof in the pudding. Two, three, four years from now, we’ll see where everybody is. I try this time of year not to rush to judgment on certain things, and today, this series may have looked that way, but things can change quickly.”
These past few weeks have been cyclical for the Orioles in that everywhere they look, they find something worth emulating. Four weeks ago, it was a four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox that left them minding a massive gap there. The next weekend, they stole a game in Cleveland but were left in awe of the Indians’ holistic roster construction and talent. Last weekend’s four-game sweep by the New York Yankees was a mirror image of what Boston did earlier. But this was meant to be a fair fight.
Kansas City and the Orioles have spent the past decade as barometers for each other — their ascents peaked mid-decade, with the Royals sweeping the Orioles in the 2014 ALCS using a roster built on lots of high draft picks and some outstanding trade acquisitions that made small-market contenders out of each.
They both bottomed out this year, though, and with all but a handful of the holdovers from these teams gone, showed vastly different levels of foresight in dealing with it.
Showalter said Saturday that the Orioles’ advance scouting meeting had as many as six Royals highlighted as plus runners that needed to be treated accordingly. Showalter calls it a “clock alert,” with the likes of 23-year-old international market gem Adalberto Mondesi and 24-year-old outfielder Brett Phillips, acquired in July for Mike Moustakas, fitting that build.
“It’s just a different level,” Showalter said. “Rusty [Kuntz, a Royals special adviser] was telling me they’ve got three or four in the next wave like that. They’re really going in that direction, similar to what we’re going to try to do. They’ve got some good, young athletic guys, and are trying to make the decision whether they can defend, too.”
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The Orioles’ answer for that is really only 23-year-old outfielder Cedric Mullins, who is just a few weeks into his major league career and hasn’t stolen a base yet. The addition of Jonathan Villar plus regular green lights for Jace Peterson, Craig Gentry and John Andreoli, helped the Orioles to 19 steals in August — their most in a month since they swiped 25 bags in May 2013. By comparison, they had 19 steals in the entire 2016 season.
Yet at 27, Villar is the youngest of any of those. The Royals have drafted and developed speed both before their competitive peak and since, and now that they’re trying to get back into another stretch of good baseball, are returning to their roots. The Orioles have tried to execute that same plan with castoffs. Sunday’s lineup featured two waiver claims, and two recent trade acquisitions on their third team.
But it’s about more than just stealing bases, though the Royals swiped six in the series to the Orioles’ two. The Royals put pressure on the Orioles’ defense every situation imaginable, including taking an extra base from first on a single or double five times. David Hess was charged with two errors on pickoff throws trying to keep the Royals’ runners honest with their leads.
“You know what you have to do when you come in here,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “You know they’re going to run the bases well, they’re going to put the ball in play, they’re going to play good defense.”
They’re occupying similar stations in the standings, but the same can’t be said for these Orioles. They’ve had benchmarks of late against far better teams than these Royals to prove that. Yet Showalter’s words before Friday’s game pose a nightly question that he’s going to have trouble answering on the team’s flight to Seattle: How did all this serve the team’s future? Other than solidifying their chances for the first overall draft pick, which is not a manager’s purview, it’s hard to say otherwise.
“When we get through every nine innings or however many it is, I want to feel like, going back to the hotel or home, that the Orioles have gotten better in some capacity of trying to get back where we want to go,” Showalter said before this series began Friday night. “And however that is, that’s what it gets. I ask myself with about every move I make now, is this going to better us as we move forward? It’s just something you’ve got to kind of wear sometimes in order to get there. Where that ends, that takes you?
“If you look back through drafts the last 10 years and look at the first five picks and see if the No. 1 guy or the No. 2 guy was always the best one of those drafts, I think you’ll get an answer to that question. Somebody that you perceive as this right now, by next June, might be completely different. So be careful about getting too far ahead of yourself.”