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When is the next good Orioles team going to arrive?

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The Orioles kept themselves in contention longer than anyone expected in 2020. It’s a hopeful sign for the future.

Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

After the past two seasons in which the Orioles lost 115 and 108 games, with the team’s offseason moves only acting to make the MLB squad worse in the short term, no one expected anything good from the O’s in 2020. When we thought it would be the usual 162 games, the O’s were projected for a poor record. Once it settled for 60 games, the jokes came out about the O’s possibly not winning even ten games.

We know now that it’s not very likely that the Orioles will shock everyone by slipping into the expanded 2020 postseason field. They will probably not reach a .500 record by season’s end. The Orioles have, however, been a bit better than expected, and what’s exciting for the ongoing rebuilding project is that they’ve been a bit better than expected thanks in part to players who, if they continue playing well, will be around on the next good Orioles team.

Late in each of the past two seasons, I’ve polled Camden Chat readers about when they think the next good - or at least .500 or better - Orioles team will arrive. There has been steady optimism for the idea that the team will find itself in a better place two years from now.

Before this year, a lot of hope was pinned on the idea that a Mike Elias-led rebuild would be able to follow roughly the same time frame as the Astros did when Elias was an assistant in Houston. Elias’s now-disgraced former boss took over before the 2012 season, built a winning Astros team by 2015, and the team won the World Series in 2017. The O’s will presumably not be able to rely on the aid of trash cans, but the plan is hopefully still solid without them.

One big problem for any team that entered 2020 in the middle of a rebuilding phase is that the pandemic has meant there was not any organized minor league action that would have resulted in a more traditional pattern of player development.

The Orioles have had to figure out what to do with their pool of players in Bowie and there’s no way for any fan who hasn’t seen any of it to know whether that’s working out well for big name prospects like Adley Rutschman or Grayson Rodriguez, or for less-heralded prospects.

There have been positive results from what we’ve seen from players who’ve been there and then been brought up to the Orioles. Ryan Mountcastle has had great results since his call-up. DJ Stewart has done well since his return. For pitchers, Dean Kremer and Dillon Tate are looking good. Those are signs that things seem to be clicking for players doing work there. That’s a plus, at least for the players who made the cut for the 60-man player pool.

The O’s farm system has ranked as high as #8 on MLB Pipeline’s updated 2020 rankings from early this month. On Fangraphs, the O’s have built themselves up to 11th. That’s progress compared to where they were quite recently, but is it enough to fuel the team into contention in 2022? That probably depends on whether things work out or not.

If all of the internal options work out, the idea of a competitive O’s roster in two years time might be something like this:

Outfield

  • LF - DJ Stewart
  • CF - Austin Hays
  • RF - Anthony Santander
  • 4th OF - Cedric Mullins

One immediate problem here is that this being the outfield of a good Orioles team relies on players who have not ever had a good full season of MLB performance. Santander had an exciting 2019 that nonetheless ended with a sub-.300 OBP. Hays had one good month last year. Stewart has had about two good weeks this year, though they have at least been really, really good weeks. What is the regular, full-season version of these guys? What O’s fans hope may be different from reality.

This is not the extent of the possibilities for Orioles outfielders of the future. There’s still Yusniel Diaz, who was the highest-rated part of the trade return for Manny Machado at the time that deal happened. He’s the #8 prospect in the system from Pipeline. When Diaz was acquired, I would have been disappointed to know he wasn’t in MLB by this time. Ryan McKenna, the #22 prospect, is also in the mix.

The first part of the 2022 season is probably early for this year’s #2 overall pick, Heston Kjerstad, though as a college bat he could jump the minors ranks quickly if he plays well and the team decides to push him - you know, assuming there are normal minors schedules in 2021.

Infield

  • C - Adley Rutschman
  • 1B - Ryan Mountcastle
  • 2B - Hanser Alberto
  • SS - Terrin Vavra
  • 3B - Tyler Nevin

Missing here is Trey Mancini. I like Mancini. I hope he is able to reach a point where he’s cancer-free and then he can start thinking about baseball again. When he is back to the Orioles, I hope he can have performance on the level of what he did in 2019. An added wrinkle to putting him in our hypothetical “next good Orioles lineup” in 2022 is that this would be his final season before becoming a free agent.

I don’t know where all of that leaves Mancini. He and Mountcastle can swap first base and designated hitter if he’s still here and good.

The other thing about this infield is that the Orioles haven’t had any can’t-miss infielders lined up for a while now. The cupboard was bare when Elias took over. He has tried to address this with some of his draft picks in his first two drafts. As I wrote this article, I filled in Rutschman’s and Mountcastle’s names and then stopped to think for a while.

Vavra and Nevin were the guys acquired from the Rockies in the Mychal Givens deal. A month ago, I didn’t know they existed. I have never seen either one play baseball. I would be surprised if even Elias thinks he acquired two starting infielders on a future playoff team in that trade. Vavra might be better at second base and Nevin might be better at first base.

Also, Alberto is going to be in his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent in 2022, so if anyone wants him, he could be traded before then. Maybe he’s gone, Vavra is the second baseman, and Richie Martin is the shortstop, though after 2019 I don’t expect anything from Martin.

All of which is a lot of words to say that I’m not terribly convinced the next good Orioles infield will arrive in 2022, or at least not based solely on current internal options. The good news is that this year’s Jose Iglesias signing shows that finding a decent short-term stopgap is possible. One year farther out, 2017 draftee Adam Hall and 2020 draftees Jordan Westburg and Anthony Servideo are probably the guys who we could hope present themselves in the next wave.

Rotation

The Orioles need to find five quality starting pitchers out of this group (alphabetical by last name): Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann, DL Hall, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, John Means, Kevin Smith, Alexander Wells, Bruce Zimmermann

If the O’s sign the right free agent at some point, something Dan Duquette never could do with starting pitchers, they only need to find four quality starting pitchers out of this group. If you’re really a believer in 2020 reclamation project Jorge Lopez, or a more longshot prospect like Brenan Hanifee, Cody Sedlock, or Kyle Bradish from the Dylan Bundy trade return, pretend they’re listed too.

Not listed for 2022 is Grayson Rodriguez, because I think that’s a little too soon for him, at least for the first half of the season. I would be happy to be wrong if he’s impressed so much at the Bowie training site this year that Elias and company decide to put him on the fast track.

There is not a single one of these guys who you can definitely say, oh yeah, he’ll be a good MLB pitcher two seasons from now. Every pitcher has at least some small risk of the elbow going pop and a year of development/service time being lost. Also, it’s just hard to succeed in MLB. For every guy who’s not a household name who carves out a role for himself, there are several more who will have more in common with Jason Berken or Mike Wright than they have in common with even mediocre big league pitchers.

Akin’s command might not be good enough. Baumann was shut down at Bowie with a flexor strain. Hall walked 54 guys in 80.2 innings for Frederick last season. Kremer has had two good MLB starts. Lowther is a guy who will be relying on funk rather than velocity. Means’s 2020 has overall not been good. Smith is similar to Lowther in that he’ll have to prove himself without velocity. So will Wells, except with even less velocity. It’s a familiar refrain. Zimmermann could turn out to only be on this list because I really want a Baltimore guy to make it with the Orioles.

Bullpen

I don’t feel a lot of anxiety about the next good Orioles bullpen because I think they’ll manage to figure it out by the time the rest of the team is figured out. Cole Sulser is not going to be getting saves in a season where the Orioles front office has expectations going into the year.

Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, and Dillon Tate have looked good so far in 2020 and have a lot of service time left. Hunter Harvey brings hype for his high-strikeout potential. Starters who wash out could find their way into this group. So could Isaac Mattson, another part of the Bundy trade return, who struck out 110 batters in 73.1 innings across three minor league levels last season.

**

In this space last year, I noted that the 2022 Orioles roster will not be limited to players currently in the organization. That’s still true, especially with several players to be named later still coming from this year’s deals. However, between the offseason and in-season trades, there’s not much stock left to trade elsewhere to add more prospects into the picture in that way.

2022 feels like a long way away, and it is, but it’s also not. In a year and a half from right now, barring a 2020-level unpleasant surprise, we’ll be heading into the home stretch of 2021 spring training. That’s a lot of time for Elias to make moves, including free agent signings small and large. It’s time for prospects to develop, or fail to develop, or get hurt. A lot can change.

Will those changes lead to the Orioles staying on the recent Astros rebuild-to-championship timetable? That’s the big question.

Poll

In which of these years will the Orioles next have a good team?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    2021
    (71 votes)
  • 40%
    2022
    (285 votes)
  • 39%
    2023
    (281 votes)
  • 5%
    2024
    (39 votes)
  • 5%
    2025 or later
    (36 votes)
712 votes total Vote Now