Ever since the Orioles hired Mike Elias away from the Astros to be the new general manager in Baltimore, an O’s fan looking to believe that things would be better eventually has had the path of the Astros own rebuild sitting right there to dream about. The fact that Houston was able to turn three 100+ loss seasons from 2011-13 into good baseball in 2015 and a championship in 2017 is no guarantee the O’s under Elias will be able to do the same, but the thought has been powerful even for this pessimist.
Up until this week’s trades of Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy, the Orioles rebuilding project has mostly consisted of doing a lot of behind the scenes improvements while not making any effort towards moves that bring in players from outside the organization with the aim of significantly and immediately improving problem areas. Anyone who watched the 2019 Orioles knows that this already was not much fun to see play out.
“The Orioles are going to be bad while they rebuild” was an idea that we have at least had time to accept. Now, that’s turned into “The Orioles are going to be as bad as possible while they rebuild,” and while that’s not actually much worse than they already were, it’s still tough to think about starting a season knowing the 2020 Orioles will be worse than the 2019 Orioles were.
Elias, who spoke to Orioles reporters following yesterday’s trade, is not conflicted about it:
I want to see a playoff team at Camden Yards ... there’s only one way to get there given where we’re at, where we’re starting from. We all know the strategy, the process. This is not easy, it’s not something we want to happen again, but coming into the organization late 2018 with the roster construction what it was, where the talent base was in the organization, where we were in the standings, this was the only path.
The sum of all of the bad Duquette decisions - nearly every decision that he made starting with the day the 2014 season ended - brought the Orioles to a low, low place. There was probably nothing that could be done after Elias took over to get the O’s all the way out of that low place within the next two years. Therefore, what’s the point of holding on to players who won’t be a part of the next good Orioles team?
There’s rationale that you don’t have to strain to find in this line of thinking. A truly awful team earns a top two pick instead of “only” a top 5-7 pick, and has more bonus money available to spend on higher-rated talent with later picks.
The $10 million or so that was going to go to Villar’s 2020 salary can be redirected to build the infrastructure of the organization, assuming that’s actually what happens. Even if it ends up in a vault until the day the Orioles look to add significant free agents, that would be worth something if it means they can get actual top talent instead of the Duquette-ian pattern of telling themselves that it’s worth it to give Ubaldo Jimenez four years and $48 million.
Orioles fans are not unfamiliar with losing. After all, we famously experienced a long stretch of dark years from 1998-2011. Maybe one reason that those dark years stretched out for so long is because the team never truly bottomed out at any point. They never lost 100 or more games. When trades happened, it mostly wasn’t guys in their late-20s. Fans were never asked to accept that not only was the current season a lost cause, but so was the next one, and probably even the one after that, too.
This may be a big reason why the dark years stretched on for so long. Past brain trusts didn’t have the awareness, or perhaps ownership approval, to recognize a long-term lost cause when it was right in front of them. Neither did Duquette in July 2017, so here we are.
One way this played out during those dark years was in the big splash signings for 2004. The team added Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro to a 71-91 roster. Tejada was worth 7.4 WAR and Lopez came in at 4.8. That’s good! But the rotation stunk and so did the bullpen, so the Orioles had a 78-84 record. This meant they picked 13th in the 2005 draft, which had five players in the top seven picks who’ve gone on to 30+ WAR big league careers: Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, and Troy Tulowitzki.
The Orioles being what they were back then, maybe they would have been the idiots who picked Jeff Clement at #3 if they had the chance. After all, in the 2006 draft, when they picked ninth, they could have taken Tim Lincecum or Max Scherzer (picks 10 and 11) and they picked Billy Rowell. But maybe if they were bad enough in 2004 and 2005 they could have had Andrew McCutchen (#11 pick in 2005) and Clayton Kershaw (#7 pick in 2006).
One way the team might have bottomed out around then is if they had decided to trade Brian Roberts after his 7.3 WAR season in 2005. He turned 28 shortly after that season ended. Nothing good ended up coming to the O’s for six seasons and they couldn’t bring themselves to pull the trigger on trading Roberts specifically even when MacPhail dealt Tejada and Erik Bedard.
I’m not sorry that Roberts was (almost entirely) a career Oriole, which has led to his being a delightful presence on O’s radio and TV broadcasts in the present. But I’m 36 and the Orioles have zero World Series titles in my lifetime. If the dark years had been a little darker, but over a little quicker and if the O’s had won it all by now, I wouldn’t be sorry about that either.
For all the focus on how a bad team means a better draft pick, even modern, smart teams are not immune to draft busts with high picks. Elias’s Astros turned three consecutive #1 overall picks into Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Brady Aiken. Correa has been great; the other two will probably never play in MLB. The Astros didn’t even sign Aiken.
One out of three might be a great batting average, but that’s not a great success rate for #1 picks. Of course, the Astros turned not signing Aiken into being able to draft Alex Bregman with the #2 pick in 2015. There’s another star who contributed to their 2017 title and their current streak of three straight 100+ win seasons.
The Astros were lucky that the Diamondbacks, picking #1, decided that Dansby Swanson was the better college shortstop to draft. Swanson has been worth 3.7 WAR to date, with a .703 OPS in 445 big league games. Bregman has already crossed 20 career WAR and he has a .911 OPS in 517 games.
The Orioles, who for all their bad hitting, pitching, and fielding weren’t quite bad enough for #1 in the 2020 draft, will have to hope for a similar windfall here. The trades of Bundy and Villar might not have been made with the sole goal of getting back to a #1 pick in the 2021 draft, but that can’t have hurt.
It is worth something to be able to get the first crack at the #1 draft prospect next year, currently thought to be Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker. The cost of this is the depressing reality that right now the Orioles #3 starter is Asher Wojciechowski. There will be two guys worse than him in the rotation as the season begins. If Alex Cobb doesn’t get healthy, there will be three pitchers worse than Wojciechowksi.
Having several months before Opening Day to get used to it doesn’t make the Orioles 2020 outlook any better. But hey, maybe they’ll start being more fun to watch if some prospects start arriving later in the season. That would do a lot to help keep the dream alive of following the Astros blueprint and having a better team in 2022. Until then, yikes.