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The Orioles are already a better team than they were in April

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They may not look like much yet, but some of the necessary steps of rebuilding are already underway this season.

MLB: Game One-Baltimore Orioles at Chicago White Sox
Remember this lowlight?
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

I know it’s highly unfashionable to say nice things about this team. And last night’s ninth inning proved that there’s certainly still enough suckiness to go around, day in and day out.

But it’s important to remember that the rebuild is a learning process as much as a draft-and-sign one. And during this frustrating 2019 season, we’re witnessing some of the results.

One of Elias’ first tasks when he got to Baltimore was to take stock of what the previous regime had left him. This whole season, as we kept hearing, was an audition for a lot of players, and as the season draws to a close, we’ve learned a lot, believe it or not, that will carry over into the future.

In terms of actual “rebuilding”, here’s a look, first of all, at key additions and subtractions from the team.

Key Departures

· To Injury: Alex Cobb, Josh Rogers

· Traded: Andrew Cashner (to Boston), Yefry Ramirez (to Pirates), Mike Wright (to Mariners)

· To Suckiness: Drew Jackson (returned to LAD), Pedro Araujo (optioned), Jesús Sucre (optioned), Joey Rickard (cut in June), Nate Karns (DFA’d in July), Cedric Mullins (optioned to Norfolk), Keon Broxton (came and went), Tom Eshelman (optioned), Jimmy Yacabonis (DFA’d, back in Norfolk), Dan Straily (optioned, traded to Phillies), Josh Lucas (cut, picked up by the Nats), Sean Gilmartin (optioned), José Rondón (optioned), Luis Ortiz (optioned), Matt Wotherspoon (cut, signed by Tigers), Tayler Scott (optioned), Jace Peterson (DFA’d)

That is a long list, especially pitchers. And, with the exception of Cashner, a salary-dump that was a bummer but made sense, no one here gives the Orioles any reason for sour grapes. Do you see a Jake Arrieta on this list?

Key Additions

· Gabriel Ynoa, Paul Fry, Shawn Armstrong, Anthony Santander, Chance Sisco, Branden Kline, Tanner Scott, Stevie Wilkerson, DJ Stewart, Aaron Brooks, Asher Wojciechowski, Dillon Tate, Hunter Harvey, Mason Williams, Chandler Shepherd, Ty Blach, Ryan Eades, Mark Trumbo (?)

I’m listing the guys who started off the season down in the minors or with another team and are still on the major league roster. As a surprise late-addition to the starting rotation, you could technically put John Means on this list, though I didn’t.

It’s a mixed bag, but definitely better than the last list. Ynoa has shown flashes of value when he’s controlling his pitches. Aaron Brooks and Wojciechowski have definitely been an improvement on Karns and Straily, with each having had at least one impressive start. We’ve had all of one game apiece to assess Chandler Shepherd and Ryan Eades, but neither has looked disastrous. Fry and Armstrong were at one point go-to guys for Hyde, but seem to have fallen somewhat out of favor lately. Fireballers Tate and Harvey have shown flashes of promise. Mason Williams has been a sparkplug in all of three games, and Trumbo—whom it’s odd to call a “new” addition—has been heartwarming on his farewell tour.

You’ll notice that a lot of the names (Armstrong, Blach, Brooks, Wojo, Shepherd, Eades), were mid-season pickups from other teams—a strong indictment of the pitching depth at the upper levels of the minors.

Besides the acquisitions and cuts, there have been several major storylines this season:

Trending Up:

· Diamonds in the Rough: John Means, Hanser Alberto, Anthony Santander, Jonathan Villar, Pedro Severino

· Bouncing Back: the veterans of the bullpen (Miguel Castro, Richard Bleier (?), Mychal Givens)

· On the Bench: Chris Davis

It’s hard to overstate how surprising Means and Alberto’s seasons have been: the former with a 7-4, 2.50 ERA first half, the second still in the conversation for the AL batting title—these guys truly came from out of nowhere. Anthony Santander has been less of a surprise—he certainly had the rough potential, but hadn’t put it all together until now. He’s definitely a piece to build around. Jonathan Villar has his bad days, but other than a 2016 season where he stole 62 bases, he’s putting together his best career season (at 3.9 WAR, he’s equaled his 2016 mark, and his power numbers are up).

Castro and Givens especially seem to be recovering from the suckiness bug they had caught earlier in the season; the consistency is good to see. Bleier’s stuff is looking better, but I’m still not convinced.

It’s odd to say Davis not playing is a positive trend, except it is. With the exception of back-end blowout games, Brandon Hyde has never treated this season as an excuse not to compete. He gives playing time based on dessert, and does his best to field a competitive lineup (not something you can say about all rebuilding teams). With Alberto, Santander, Severino, and Renato Núñez earning more regular appearances, this lineup is already much better than it was in April.

Trending Down:

· Problems at the Dish: Stevie Wilkerson, Rio Ruiz (?), Richie Martin

· Still on the Team, But Not Going to Cut It: David Hess, Paul Fry, Austin Wynns, Ty Blach, Evan Phillips (?), Chance Sisco, Dwight Smith Jr.

· Consistency Issues: Branden Kline, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart

The good news is that a lot of these guys are fringe players. We wanted to see more out of Stevie, Ruiz, and Martin, but they haven’t found the offensive consistency to show they need to stick around. Sisco came in very hyped, but his defense is still a big problem, and he has probably hit himself out of a job. The bullpen is going to continue to be a revolving door.

As a team, the stats show some improvement, especially if you squint. The Orioles have the worst ERA in the majors at 5.70, but whereas it was 6.14 in April, in July, August, and September, the numbers are 5.12, 6.67 (ouch), and 3.71, respectively. August was the month of Gleyber Torres, so I want to give them a partial pass. Batting-wise, the improvements are evident: the Orioles hit .241 in April, .239 in May, .243 in June, but .257 in July, .253 in August, and .257 in September. They went from 27th in the league in runs scored in May to 15th in July. Defense and baserunning remain, of course, terrible.

Perhaps the best sign of improvement is that Dr. Poo Poo hasn’t pitched since August 10. I love that whole cult that spawned around him, too, but can we agree, the less position players pitch, the better the team is doing? I’m still scarred by this game, but a part of me feels like with Straily, Tayler Scott, and Eshelman gone, it wouldn’t happen again.

A lot of questions remain. What future role, if any, will utility guys like Wilkerson, Ruiz, and Martin have with the team? How to plug the defensive holes? How much toleration will guys like Renato Núñez and Alberto get for their defense? (I say that, but I checked, and shockingly, at 2.1 UZR, Alberto is leading the team.) Who will stay? Unlike last year, there are no bloated contracts hanging over this team (ehem, OK, just one). With not much weight to shed, there’s no need to pressure trades; on the other hand, the Orioles now have a lot of flexibility in who they deal and who they keep.

Bottom-line, this is already a very different team than it was when the season started. The house-cleaning has already begun, and the farm system has already been transformed, for the better. There’s a different approach to coaching and cultivating talent—in 2018, Ryan Mountcastle would probably have been a September callup. Now, the approach is more cautious.

I’m not arguing that the team is good now, but it is a little older and wiser. The personnel changes have been in the right direction. Put it this way: the Orioles hit a low point sometime last season. They were a better team in April, and they’re better now still. It’s a slow uphill climb but it’s already underway.