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With Orioles officially out of the race, attention can turn all the way to the future

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The Orioles were mathematically eliminated last night, so it’s time to turn our attention all the way to the future again.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles were officially eliminated from postseason contention with their loss to the Red Sox last night. If they win out, they would finish 28-32. If the #8 seed Blue Jays lose out, they would finish 28-32. There is no “Game 61” tiebreaker scenario in 2020. It’s just head-to-head record, and the O’s, unfortunately, are 1-6 against the Jays. The unlikely 12-8 start to the season has ended up being a fun first 20 games and not much more.

Even that amount of fun was more than I expected in February or once teams reported for the shortened season in July. After the Orioles won just 47 games in 2018 and a still pathetic 54 games last year, expectations were not high for this team. They dropped even further after the offseason trades of Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy.

The jokesters who showed up in mid-July to say “the Orioles might not win 10 games lol” deserve to be dunked on mercilessly, but if you thought the Orioles might be in play for the 2021 #1 draft pick, that was a reasonable belief. This was a team from whom to expect more of the same. As it turns out, they’re mathematically eliminated from the #1 pick, assuming MLB just uses 2020 record, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan suggested yesterday. There’s no way they can “catch” the 16-39 Pirates.

I was so far up front on the #1 draft pick train that I coined the “FUBAR for Kumar” tanking slogan for current leading #1 candidate, Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker. I’m not disappointed the Orioles were a bit better than expected, though. This season was unexpectedly fun. That wasn’t sustained enough for 2020 to have a 2012 vibe for 60 games, but they had enough good moments to get my hopes up even though I knew better.

The season even comes with its own great/terrible haunting “What if?” moment. In their 42nd game, the Orioles led the Mets, 6-5, with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. Rio Ruiz hit what could easily have been a bases-clearing double, except Mets right fielder Michael Conforto made an amazing leaping play. In the bottom of that inning, the Mets tied the game on a solo homer, and later took the lead on another solo homer.

Instead of the O’s evening their record at 21-21, they lost and sunk into a 3-11 funk. What if Conforto didn’t make that catch and the Orioles took a 9-5 lead? It’s not exactly on “What if Jeffrey Maier didn’t reach over the fence?” or “What if Zack Britton pitched?” level, but I’m always going to wonder. Probably the Orioles offense would have still scored one run or no runs in eight games since. It’s just that I’ll never know for sure.

What’s left is a tiny, perhaps foolish hope that some pieces are starting to fall into place for a better big league future from the Orioles. It’s foolish in part because there’s no way to be sure how any 2020 success will carry over into a future year. It’s only been 60 games and they’ve only played nine other teams. Prospects who were called up in the middle of the season, like Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, and Dean Kremer, don’t even have that whole 60 games as a sample size.

The sample size matters because the longer of a time frame you use, the more likely it shows what level of performance a player is really capable of. After the Orioles won their 20th game to go to 12-8, they had five batters in that lineup with an OPS above .900. Only one of those five, Jose Iglesias, is still above .900, and he’s missed a lot of time due to injuries. Three are below .800.

It’s better to have a good small sample size than a bad one, but it’s best to not etch in stone John Means, Akin, and Kremer into the next good Orioles rotation based on Means having three good starts in a row, Akin having five starts total, and Kremer making three starts thus far. Relievers like Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, and Dillon Tate have had interesting stretches, yet none of these three have thrown more than 20.2 innings. Compared to a full season’s workload, all of that is not a lot.

A week ago, I polled Camden Chat readers about when the next good Orioles team would arrive. It’s a close result with only three votes separating 2022 and 2023. Those two answers have received nearly 80% of the responses.

As much as 2020 had its exciting moments, that seems about right. The good parts of this season weren’t so good to make many people feel like next year would see a big improvement. As things stand now, the Orioles .418 winning percentage would have them on pace to win 68 games in a full regular season. That’s 14 wins better than last season, but it’s still not good.

If the O’s win out, that’d leave them at a 75 win pace for 162 games, which is how many games the 2017 Orioles won. It’s also better, but as we know from recent experience is not good either. In the other direction, if the O’s go 0-5 the rest of the way, that’s a 62-100 pace in a 162 game season. That still counts as progress. And a 23-37 record would likely net the O’s a top five pick, potentially even top three.

A fortunate outcome for 2021 would be that the young players who’ve had good stretches in this shortened 2020 season solidify their positions while a few more prospects, possibly including 2020 trade returns Tyler Nevin, Kevin Smith, and Terrin Vavra, work their way up to MLB and show some promise. The 2020 O’s have already done enough that they shouldn’t be in the early joking 2022 #1 pick conversations.

Ideally, this will mean less and less room for placeholder players who are neither trade bait nor players who will be around in 2022 or 2023. It’s going to be hard to know what to expect from just about any prospect, though, with no organized 2020 minor league games to help with development. The Orioles Bowie site has worked some good magic this year, but not every prospect was there, and some new acquisitions weren’t there for long.

The future did not turn out to be now for the 2020 Orioles. At least to my eyes, it’s now visible on the horizon, which compared to how things looked two years ago in the waning days of the Duquette/Showalter era sounds pretty good.