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Significant work still needs to be done in the Orioles rebuild

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Two news items this week served as a reminder of how far the Orioles remain from a return to competitiveness.

Peter Schmuck: Orioles fans should expect change, hope for modest improvement when back at Camden Yards next season Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

During his first year in charge of the Baltimore Orioles, general manager Mike Elias has largely accomplished what he set out to do. The major league payroll has been slashed, the organization has reinvested in scouting and development, and both the talent and performance of the club’s minor league rosters have taken noticeable steps forward under the new boss.

It will be years before we find out if any of the young players that have been added to the organization by Elias will actually pan out at the highest level, but the general consensus by fans and industry professionals alike is that the Orioles are headed in the right direction.

The pace at which the club is moving is understandably slow. After all, Elias took over a club that won just 47 games in 2018 and had a mediocre farm system. The turnaround was going to take some time, and the team is still in the relatively early stages.

The drafting of a player like Adley Rutschman can make it seem like the Orioles are ahead of schedule. Rutschman is no “diamond in the rough” type of prospect. He’s advanced in every facet of game and is on pace to make his MLB debut sometime in 2021, just two years after being selected number one overall this past summer. One would imagine that Elias isn’t inclined to “waste” too many of Rutschman’s best years by having him be part of an also-ran roster.

Perhaps the Orioles are closer to winning than it may seem. While projecting them to seriously compete in 2021 is likely a bit too optimistic, they could have a better chance in 2022 depending on the outcome of future drafts, trades and international signing periods. But some of the news surrounding the team in the last week or so makes it feel like a lifetime away.

On Friday, FanGraphs published Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the 2020 season. Prepare to be surprised. The Orioles are actually expected to be pretty terrible in the upcoming season! Oh, you already knew that?

Wade through all of the established names (Trey Mancini, Jose Iglesias, Alex Cobb, etc.) and focus in on the younger players, the ones who have a chance to still be around in 2022. Those are the guys we care about for this exercise. We’re talking about people like Austin Hays, John Means, Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin and even Rutschman himself. Sure, the Orioles are going to be bad in 2020, but intriguing performances from those players could mean good things to come.

Well...

Hays played in just 21 games for the Orioles last season, but they were exciting games. He slashed .309/.373/.574 and showed off his defensive abilities in center field. That’s something to build off of, right? Actually, ZiPS expects his bat to cool off significantly (94 OPS+) as he posts 1.3 WAR in his first full big league season

Means was an All-Star in 2019 and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. It was a great season for the 26-year-old. But he also outperformed his peripherals by quite a bit. He had a 3.60 ERA versus a 4.41 FIP and 5.48 xFIP. ZiPS expects him to dip from a 3.0-WAR player to just 1.6 WAR in 2020.

Szymborski explains a dreary projection of Mountcastle (.172 ISO, 93 wRC+, 0.3 WAR) in the post. Basically, the first base prospect put up nice numbers in Triple-A last year (.312/.344/.527), but the balls were juiced there just like they were in the bigs. The slugger should have done even better.

But perhaps no projection is as hard to look at as Akin’s. The southpaw could make the Opening Day roster with a nice spring. The Orioles have several voids in the rotation, and Akin may be the minor leaguer most likely to make the leap. If ZiPS is right, that leap should wait. Unless you like your pitchers to have a 6.16 ERA, 5.99 FIP and -0.4 WAR.

This is not to say there aren’t some interesting projections in the squad. Rutschman is given a 1.0 WAR, which is pretty good for a guy with only a handful of games as a pro. Michael Baumann and Zac Lowther both earn 0.8 WAR despite not pitching above Double-A yet. But in general it is pretty bleak, and that is an indictment on both the current major league roster as well as the players near major league ready.

If that wasn’t enough, on Sunday MLB Pipeline published a poll of executives across all 30 organizations to get their thoughts on the best players, tools and systems across Minor League Baseball. The Orioles did not get much love in said poll.

The O’s received exactly zero votes on the following questions:

  • Which team has the best farm system?
  • Which team uses the Draft best?
  • Which team plays the international market better than any other?
  • Which team best develops hitters?
  • Which team best develops pitchers?
  • Which team has the most underrated farm system?

It’s unfair to pin the lack of responses on Elias and the current regime. It takes a while to build a reputation, and the previous front office was clearly known for struggling to acquire and develop young talent. The hope is that the Orioles will get more notice the longer Elias is in charge.

However, to not even receive a vote in any of these categories further demonstrates that the O’s older prospects have not caught the attention of decision-makers elsewhere in the sport. The Elias-era draftees and signees may yet turn heads, but they won’t make their way to Baltimore for quite a while.

The Orioles did receive some plaudits for a few of their well-known prospects. Adley Rutschman got votes for having the most usable power, being the best hitting prospect, having the best baseball IQ and being the best amateur prospect ever seen. Grayson Rodriguez was named among the best fastballs in the minors, and DL Hall got mentioned for best secondary pitch.

That’s great news, but none of those three has played above Single-A yet. Rutschman is likely the closest of the trio to the majors, while Rodriguez and Hall each have another 2-3 years of minor league ball ahead of them. Once again, it’s further evidence that winning in Birdland is quite a ways away.

Baseball is unlike other sports, where rebuilds can occur in a matter of months rather than years. The Orioles installed an infrastructure in year one under Elias with the hope that it will eliminate the need for a massive overhaul like this in the future. The focus in year two will shift from the front office to the field with fans hoping that all of the buzz they have heard surrounding the Orioles translates to success for the players in both the minors and majors.