Mike Elias has always been clear about his goals as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. He explained on the day that he was introduced to the public back in November of 2018 that he plans to develop an “elite pipeline” of baseball talent while pledging to work “as fast and as smartly and as hard as possible” with the added caveat that a rebuild of this scale cannot be done with “shortcuts.”
There wasn’t much more Elias could have said in his introductory press conference to hook Orioles fans. His approach was refreshing around these parts. He discussed the importance of including analytics in baseball decisions. He preached the need to improve the club’s presence in Latin America. And he was honest that this was all going to take a long time to come to fruition, something that shouldn’t have come as a surprise given his background of working on a Houston Astros team that had bottomed out just years before developing into one of the league’s juggernauts.
Fans were on the same page here. A bad major league team now was worth a World Series contender for years to come. What’s a little bit of waiting anyway? Apart from the run of three playoff appearances between 2012 and 2016, this was a franchise that spent most seasons since the late 90’s as also-rans without a clear plan to change that anytime soon. This would be nothing.
Now, with two-and-a-seasons under his belt, Elias is almost exactly where he planned to be. The Orioles’ farm system is universally recognized as one of the Top 10 in the sport, buoyed by 2019 top draft pick Adley Rutschman and a pair of elite-tier pitchers in Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. Plus, the Orioles have stepped up their game in Latin America, signing a couple of seven-figure amateurs earlier this year and following that up with an announcement that the team is building a massive academy in the Dominican Republic. Things are going well almost everywhere. Everywhere except for at the major league level.
As of this writing, the Orioles own a 24-54 record, the second-worst in baseball behind only the Arizona Diamondbacks. If the O’s continue on that pace, they would win 50 games this year, which would be only slightly better than the 2018 team from which Elias was put in charge of picking up the pieces. But if you have watched this team for even a brief amount of time over the last two months, you don’t see a roster capable of maintaining a 50-win pace. They look much, much worse.
Something else that Elias said at his introductory press conference was that “We’re going to continuously improve the talent base up and down the organization, whether that’s at the Major League or Minor League level.” Who knows if that was an earnest statement in the moment, or if the moves Elias has made since were done with that entire goal in mind, but improving the talent at the Major League level certainly has not happened in 2021.
The Orioles have the worst starting rotation in baseball this year. No team has a higher ERA (6.03) from pitchers that have started games. And that includes the efforts of John Means, who has thrown a no-hitter this season and owns a 2.28 ERA over his 12 starts. An injury has put Means on the shelf since early June, and the unit’s performance without him has been predictably atrocious. Their 7.68 ERA and 5.94 FIP this month are league-worsts by a large margin.
It’s not a shock that the starters are bad. They were rather putrid (5.09 ERA, 23rd in MLB) in an abbreviated 2020 season. And yet the decision over the offseason was to largely stand pat besides handing out minor league deals to Matt Harvey, Félix Hernández, and Wade LeBlanc, hoping one of them works out. Harvey is the only one left, and his results (7.54 ERA, 5.76 xERA) have been less than ideal.
If the Orioles were willing to spend even a little bit, they could had added one of Rich Hill, Tyler Anderson, or Brett Anderson for $2.5 million or less. None of those three would have made a massive change in the standings, but they at least would have been competitive and interesting to watch.
Another name that could have been helpful in the pitching crunch is Alex Cobb. Instead, the Orioles sent him to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for advanced middle infield prospect Jahmai Jones, who figured to compete for the team’s second base job. Injuries and poor play in the spring sunk Jones’ chance of making the Opening Day roster and instead landed him in Triple-A, where he has torn up the competition. Over 22 games, Jones is hitting .288/.408/.513 with three home runs, five doubles, and a 146 wRC+.
Meanwhile, the Orioles have assembled the worst collection of second basemen in the sport. As a group, they are hitting .191/.261/.283 with a 54 wRC+. Those are all the worst marks in their respective categories among MLB second base units. The O’s have trotted out five different second baseman this season, each one seemingly worse than the last. That has included an attempted revitalization of Rio Ruiz at a new position and uninspired options like Stevie Wilkerson and Pat Valaika. All of this in an effort to replace Hanser Alberto, who had been serviceable (96 OPS+, 2.6 fWAR) over his two seasons in Baltimore, but was deemed unworthy of an arbitration-enforced raise over the winter
The team’s catchers have suffered similar struggles. Their -1.0 fWAR is half-a-win worse than the second-worst group in MLB. The starter, Pedro Severino, grades out as one of the worst defenders at the position while the two back-up options, Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns, have served as almost automatic outs at the plate. Sisco was designated for assignment and claimed off of waivers by the Mets just last week, but no additional moves appear to be on the horizon for this group.
Here’s the thing. The Baltimore fanbase is fine with the Orioles being bad still in 2021. They have, in large part, completely bought into Elias’ philosophy on how to build a winning baseball organization. They understand that, in this instance, it means a lot of losses, accumulating high draft picks, letting the young guys marinate in the minors, and timing things so that your biggest talents burst onto the big league scene at relatively the same time.
Of course, there are certainly aspects of that plan that many find flawed. There are other ways to build a winner that don’t include completely tearing an organization down to the studs. But given that Elias was the hire, this was the expected course of action, so fans have reacted accordingly.
What is not acceptable, however, is fielding a largely unwatchable mess of a major league team, and then expecting fans to happily watch said team 162 times over the course of a summer. Professional sports are an entertainment product, and what the Orioles have on display right now is not entertaining.
They are routinely blown out (league-worst -124 run differential). Lengthy losing streaks have become commonplace. And they feature, statistically, the worst group of starting pitchers, second baseman, and catchers in the sport.
There are some solutions that already exist in the organization. Rutschman is good enough to be the starting catcher right now. Rodriguez would be the number two in the rotation behind a healthy Means. And most obviously, let Jones play second base already. But fans are smart, or perhaps jaded, enough to understand why some of those things won’t be happening in Baltimore anytime soon. They get the business elements at work, and they will bide the time.
There remains enough positives in the organization to say that Elias has the Orioles on the right track, and it may yet yield the World Series fruit that has been promised. But that does not absolve the organization of a complete failure to compete at the major league level in recent years. Fans are patient, but that patience has its limits, and they are being tested this summer.
Expectations for the Orioles are low. But asking that they put a watchable, entertaining team on the field is not asking too much. It is asking the bare minimum, and the fanbase should not accept the excuse that it is impossible to both field a competent major league team (again, not a playoff contender, but competent) and develop a pipeline of premium talent. It is a false choice, and one that is wearing thin.