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For the Orioles rebuild to work, a lot of things need to go right

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Get ready but don’t buckle up just yet, Baltimore. It’s going to be a while until the rebuilding process pays off, and only if the Orioles play their cards right. 

New York Mets v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The first four stages of grief include (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, and (4) depression. Those were the various emotions many Orioles fans have dealt with throughout the 2018 season. As the campaign enters the final grind – 37 games to go as of today – I realized this weekend I’ve entered the fifth stage of grief associated with what will almost certainly be the worst season in the history of the club.

Acceptance. The final stage of grief. As experts on the five stages tell us, acceptance is not being “all right” with what happened, but it does mean “we learn to live with it” and it is the “new norm.” People grieve in different ways and on different timelines and I’ve finally accepted that as Orioles fans, a long and painful rebuild is what we have to look forward to in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Maybe acceptance should have happened sooner in my brain during a 37-88 season, but it didn’t.

Along with the O’s recent mathematical elimination from postseason play, two particular things occurred over the past week that brought this realization completely home. The first involved noting the three starting lineups in the series with the Cleveland Indians and the second was reading an excellent long-form piece in The Athletic that dug deep into the reality of the O’s rebuild.

Paltry lineups in Cleveland

During the weekend series in Cleveland, 15 different players appeared in Baltimore’s starting lineup, counting pitchers. Recognizing that evaluations like this are subjective, I’d sort the players into three categories:

  • Potential to be part of a good O’s team in 2021 or later: Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini, Austin Wynns, David Hess and Yefry Ramirez.
  • Possible, but far from probable potential to be part of a good O’s team in 2021 or beyond: Joey Rickard, Renato Nunez and Alex Cobb.
  • Playing an MLB game requires nine starters and a designated hitter, so these guys took the field today: Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Caleb Joseph, Tim Beckham, Craig Gentry, Jace Peterson and Jonathan Villar.

Accepting the above evaluations – which frankly are quite generous, because a very persuasive case can be made that Mullins is the only real position player prospect that started any of the three games – only 33% of the starting players this past weekend has a real chance to be part of a successful O’s team. And two of those five players, Mancini and Wynns, are already 26 and 27 years old, respectively.

All of this means the obvious. The rebuild is in its absolute earliest stages. While the Orioles are trending in an area to be the worst team in the history of modern baseball, next year could be even worse. In fact, expect it to be. Of the Birds’ top 30 prospects, according to MLB.com, only two (Mullins #9 and Austin Hays #4) have spent real time in the major leagues. There are some rough waters ahead.

Been there, done that

Dan Connolly – formerly of the Baltimore Sun, now with The Athletic – recently wrote a compelling piece that interviewed Dave Dombrowski, current Boston Red Sox President of Baseball Operations. Dombrowski has been around MLB for over four decades, and while he passed (obviously) on offering specific counsel to Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter, he did talk about lessons learned living through similar rebuild and tear-down experiences with the Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers.

Oversimplifying the analysis, Dombrowski explained three core tenets that define whether a rebuild will be successful or unsuccessful.

First is the need “to be honest with yourself on where you are.” Check. It appears the Orioles have done that, but the next step is to expand the roster and get some of the Trumbo, Davis, Beckham crowd off the field and on the bench so prospects can play.

Of course, hopefully this happens when rosters expand in September, but who knows? We’ll see what Buck does. Bottom line: the sooner prospects can start playing in the big leagues without it hindering their development, the better. Fans should prefer to see a group with potential learn on the job and lose 115 games, as opposed to what’s currently happening with positions clogged by players that have no future with the club and losing 115 games.

Second, draft well. Either Baltimore or the Kansas City Royals will have the first pick in the next draft, and whether the Birds go #1 or #2, they can’t miss on the selection. The last time Baltimore had the first pick in the draft was 1989 and they used it on Ben McDonald. That worked out okay, not great, and the rest of the Birds draft history is very spotty.

We all remember the draft busts of a decade ago like Billy Rowell and Matt Hobgood. Much more recently, the O’s picked high when they nabbed pitchers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who were unquestioned talents when drafted that the O’s could never seem to unleash fully at the MLB level. Gausman might be the best pick of Duquette’s tenure, which is saying something. Whether on the scouting side, the development side, or both, something must change.

Third, in Connolly’s piece, Dombrowski stressed the need to trade good players and have the results work out. Obviously, in recent weeks the O’s have traded six solid players – Machado, Gausman, Zach Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach – and they received 15 players back, plus international signing bonus money. Adam Jones could go in the next week as well.

Just like his drafts, the verdict on Duquette and these trades won’t be known for a few years. For the rebuild to be a success, winning the trades is essential.

One last ingredient

Combined with honest assessments, good drafts and trades, there is one other thing needed to complete a successful rebuild: luck. The inaugural MLB draft took place in New York City in 1965. Since that draft, only two top overall picks are in the HOF (Ken Griffey, Jr. and Chipper Jones) and only one second overall pick is in Cooperstown (Reggie Jackson). Stars can come from anywhere and more often than not, luck helps a rebuild a lot.

The time has officially arrived to settle in, watch the kids and hope the O’s next trip to the World Series comes early in the next decade.