This past weekend was not kind to the Orioles and their playoff aspirations. After five straight losses, including four to the division-rival Yankees, the O’s find themselves 5.5 games out of the final playoff spot with just 14 games left on their schedule. The odds of a postseason run, at this point, are not good.
It’s easy to get discouraged. The team’s form is poor, and their best player, Anthony Santander, is going to miss the rest of the season with an oblique injury. But recency bias should not entirely overshadow what has been a successful season for the Orioles.
Think back to late June or early July, when teams were headed to spring training 2.0 and each outlet was releasing its revamped season preview. Everywhere you looked, the predictions for the O’s were basically the same.
The playoffs, even with the expanded format, were not going to be a realistic possibility because the Orioles were only going to win about 20 games. FiveThirtyEight projected 21 wins. ZiPs expected just 19 victories. Considering the O’s had won a third of their games in 2019 and had only seemed to have gotten worse in the offseason, these projections were reasonable.
Well, these Orioles registered their 20th win of the season on September 8th with nearly three weeks remaining in the season. And unless the truly improbable occurs over this final stretch, they will beat those pre-season projections by at least a few wins.
Now, there is a portion of the fanbase that isn’t exactly excited about winning more games in a rebuild season. “What’s the point?” they may say. “We want high draft picks!” But what if the Orioles could have a fun, competitive 2020 while maintaining a preferred draft position in 2021? That may just be the case.
In the agreement between MLB and MLBPA signed prior to this season, MLB reserved the right to change the draft order in 2021 if the season was shorter than 81 games. What that alteration would look like in practice is up the air, but some are speculating that MLB would combine win-loss records from 2019 and 2020. In that case, the O’s would be in line to pick....second overall, just like this past June.
But high draft picks are only one piece of the Orioles rebuilding puzzle. The top priority has been, and hopefully will remain, player development. While there wasn’t much evidence at the big league level in 2019 of the organization’s revamped development strategies, there has been plenty in 2020.
A trio of impact prospects have made their debuts this season, and each of them has made contributions that would seem to indicate they will be important members of the next contending team in Baltimore:
- Ryan Mountcastle has done exactly what was expected of him. He has hit. In 21 games, the Orioles everyday left fielder is slashing .347/.415/.569 with four home runs and four doubles. What’s even better, his 19.2% strikeout rate is a bit lower than anticipated, and his 10.3% walk rate is way better than many thought. He won’t play in enough games to win Rookie of the Year, but he has been plenty impressive.
- Dean Kremer has made two starts, both against the Yankees, and he has looked exceptional in each. Over 11 innings, Kremer has allowed two runs, struck out 14, walked six and given up five hits. His heater has sat in the mid 90’s and opposing hitters have looked off-balance against his entire repertoire.
- Keegan Akin was the first debutant to take the field for the O’s in 2020. His results have been a mixed bag, but there remains plenty there to like. His 10.54 strikeout per nine innings rate is great, and he has done it while running his fastball up to 95 at times. The lefty will need to cut down on the walks (5.27 BB/9), but he seems poised to settle into a back-end rotation spot for the Birds.
It’s not just the newbies that have shown improvement. It’s happening up and down the roster. Santander, prior to his injury, looked like a whole new hitter, leading the team in just about every offensive category. Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino have brought the power behind the plate. Cedric Mullins has found his groove. DJ Stewart can’t stop hitting home runs.
On top of that, some kudos deserve to be given to the front office for their in-season moves. Rather than buying into the excitement and making an unnecessary deal for an innings eater that would not have made the team substantially better, Mike Elias stayed the course. He traded away four veteran pitchers (Richard Bleier, Tommy Milone, Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro) and gained three notable prospects plus six players to be named later in return.
These deals had two benefits. First, they cleared the way for guys like Akin, Kremer and Tanner Scott to emerge. Second, they added young talent to the organization, again improving what Elias hopes will become a “pipeline” from the farm to the bigs. Getting to the playoffs in a weird 2020 season is not the end goal; contending for World Series titles year after year is.
There is time for the Orioles to turn this around and make a run at the postseason. I hope that they do. Winning baseball is a lot more fun to watch. But even if they don’t, and manage just a few more wins in the season’s final weeks, this season has been a success. It has moved Baltimore baseball forward, and this organization is stronger than it was a few months ago.