There’s not much that’s fun about being the fan of a rebuilding team. Moments when a fan can do something to dream, realistically or not, about a better future, make up much of the fun. For Orioles fans and anyone else whose team is multiple years into the rebuild plan, prospects and players within the first couple of years of their MLB careers are about all we’ve got to bring some excitement. Even then, you have to forget about the prospect disappointments of the not-too-distant past.
Depending on which particular list you consult, the Orioles now have either four or five players ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game. That’s a plus. It’s better to have players who are recognized than players who aren’t.
All of the lists have Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, and DL Hall, the Orioles first round picks from 2017-19, on them. Some have both Ryan Mountcastle and Heston Kjerstad, though there are lists with only one or the other of those two guys. With the outlets largely agreeing on the worthiness of these prospects - exact placement for each varies - it’s understandable for a fan settling in to watch a probable fifth straight losing season of Orioles baseball to want to think of a better team two or three years from now with all of these players being a big part of it.
The problem with making that assumption is that even having five top 100 prospects is not a guarantee of being on the road to success in the near future. In the Baseball America ranking for 2021, the Orioles have five players in the top 100 for the first time since 2008. At that time, fans were pinning our hopes on the following top prospects: Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman, Troy Patton, Radhames Liz, and Nolan Reimold.
That’s a sad list of players to look back on overall. Reimold wasn’t a total bust of a player, but between injuries and poor performance, he never ended up playing a significant role on a good Orioles team. Liz could never throw strikes. Patton eventually found his way into a relief role where he was not bad for a few seasons. That’s not what anyone is going to hope for when a player appears on those lists. If three of the current five top 100 Orioles have similar outcomes, it’ll be disappointing.
Wieters and Tillman were not busts, but they never quite measured up to lofty expectations, either. The same Baseball America list in 2009 had Wieters as the game’s #1 prospect, and Tillman at #22. It took four years after Tillman showed up on this top 100 list for him to be a good big league pitcher. To be sure, some of that can probably be pinned on the nincompoops who were around trying to develop pitchers at the time.
For Wieters, the hype was astronomical. Everyone wanted to believe in the Matt Wieters Facts, and believe they did. There was nothing to put the brakes on the hype. What we got was a fine Oriole who ended up at #35 on Camden Chat’s top 50 greatest Orioles countdown last year. I’m quite sure the version of myself from 13 years ago would have found that to be a disappointing outcome.
The disappointment we were supposed to feel about Wieters was when he left as a free agent and signed a mega-contract with the Yankees. Instead, it was disappointing when he took the qualifying offer and remained for another season.
This outcome remains on my mind whenever I get excited about Rutschman. I must not be the only one, because when Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen rated Rutschman as his #3 prospect headed into this season, he wrote:
I realize readers will have Matt Wieters flashbacks because Rutchsman’s frame and switch-hitting, upright stance are dead ringers for Wieters’, but this guy’s blood courses through his veins at a much different temperature.
On one hand, it’s encouraging to see a prospect writer try to directly address something of an elephant on the room. On the other, it’s tough for me to entirely banish the doubts. Longenhagen’s comment here suggests there’s a difference in competitive drive. But not many, if any, capsules in 2007, 2008, or 2009 would have said Wieters had anything sub-optimal about the temperature at which his blood courses through his veins. So it only means so much to hear something like that about Rutschman now. Still, I hope there’s more Buster Posey in Rutschman’s future than there is Wieters.
What’s interesting about that set of 2008 prospects is they came along even before the idea of “the cavalry” was put out into Birdland by former manager Dave Trembley. Brian Matusz was still a University of San Diego pitcher at that point. Jake Arrieta, drafted in 2007, was a year away from top prospect rankings. Zack Britton, drafted in 2006, was two years away from making the league-wide lists.
Many hopes for a better future of the Orioles were pinned on Tillman plus that trio. That was the “grow the arms” part of Andy MacPhail’s philosophy. Only Tillman ever became a good starting pitcher in Baltimore. Britton eventually remade himself as an elite reliever. Arrieta’s Chicago renaissance will forever be a source of mild heartburn. Matusz peaked as a lefty one-out guy.
Put it all together and the cavalry, along with Wieters, did not turn out to be the reason the franchise emerged from the 1998-2011 doldrums. The most successful ones were key contributors, though none turned out to be transcendent, franchise-altering talents. Nor did “Orioles pitching prospects not living up to hopes” stop with the cavalry.
Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, for different reasons, never turned into the top of the rotation mainstays that an O’s fan might have dreamed in 2013 or so, either. Bundy was a top 5 prospect in most rankings. Gausman came in the top 25-30. They didn’t totally bust either, but they didn’t make it to the level we would have hoped. Or at least not as Orioles.
The failures of the past don’t have a lot to do with Mike Elias and company. Every story for two years now has been about how the Orioles are finally doing different, forward-thinking things with their prospects now. Yet even the smartest organizations, with the most hard-working players, can still end up with things not working out.
That’s the un-fun truth of following prospects. Some of them just don’t make it, or they don’t stay for long if they do make it. We can all hope that things work out better for Rodriguez and Hall because the Orioles are doing smarter things with them. That doesn’t mean it will happen. These guys being Orioles prospects makes them special to us, but it doesn’t make them immune to misfortune. They can’t all be Manny Machado, or even Jonathan Schoop.
There is no need to abandon all hope. I think Elias, unlike his predecessors, is doing a better job of not having all of his eggs in one basket. The Orioles finally getting into the Latin American amateur market will eventually bear fruit for the big league club. Elias has been stocking up second- and third-tier prospects with the trades he’s made so far, in hopes that some quality emerges from the quantity.
If one of the current top 100 players doesn’t make it, there will be others behind him. For starters, just about every site or writer with a prospect ranking that took a guess at prospects who could jump into next year’s top 100 has identified O’s 2019 draft pick Gunnar Henderson. If he can join the top 100 prospect party, that will be great news.
When minor league baseball returns this year, I’m curious to see how all of these guys, top prospects and otherwise, start working out. If O’s fans are lucky, the current wave of top prospects will live up to their reputations more than some of the previous waves of players did, and some players who get less attention will still find their way into being solid contributors.