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When is the next good Orioles team going to get here?

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The 2021 Orioles season threw cold water on anyone who got their hopes up after 2020. When will better times arrive?

MLB: FEB 18 Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
Adley Rutschman is probably going to be on the next good Orioles team, but when will that happen?
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From the time that it became apparent that Dan Duquette’s plan for the 2018 Orioles was a spectacular failure, one big question has loomed above all others in Birdland: When will the Orioles be good again?

It’s been encouraging to see the transformation of the Orioles farm system under Mike Elias, with the organization moving up to the top or second spot in a number of farm rankings when they were updated after the 2021 draft and trade deadline. It’s been just as disappointing, in the third season with Elias as the general manager, to see that almost none of that progress has started to make its way to the MLB level yet.

Over each of the past three seasons, I’ve polled Camden Chat readers about their feelings about when improvement will arrive for the franchise. Late in 2018, 45% of readers believed the O’s would be .500 or better in 2021 or 2022. In 2019, there was strong confidence in a 3-4 year rebuild, with 64% voting for .500 or better in 2022 or 2023. One year ago, asked when the Orioles would be good again, 40% chose 2022, with 39% voting for 2023.

In the 2019 and 2020 versions of this article, I tried to project out a hypothetical quality Orioles roster arriving for the 2022 season. Sitting down and really trying to figure out who might play on the team that year to make them a 2012 Orioles-level surprise, it was difficult to summon much belief in 2022 as the return to the promised land.

Anyone can be forgiven for wanting to believe in a shorter rebuild than it looks like we are going to get in Birdland. That was the Astros blueprint we’ve all been hoping the Orioles would emulate, minus the trash can banging and whatever other cheating was going on. Houston lost 100+ games in 2011, got a new front office (including Elias as an assistant) and still lost 100+ in 2012 and 2013. They improved to 74 wins in 2014 and grabbed a wild card spot with 86 wins in 2015.

The pandemic-shortened season disrupted the Orioles timeline. They didn’t play like a 100-loss team through 60 games last year. You could almost talk yourself into there being some progress. Yet here we are in 2021 and the Orioles are what they are. The Astros template is still possible: 2021 marks the third straight 100+ loss season in a year where a full schedule was played.

Perhaps the Orioles can stay on that Astros track. Even something like a 66-win season in 2022 would feel like a big step in the right direction. With the arrival of Adley Rutschman and maybe, if we’re lucky later in the year, Grayson Rodriguez, there could be some short-term improvement. It feels like hopes for the big breakthrough are going to have to be projected at least two years off.

With that in mind, here is my stab at imagining a hypothetical surprisingly good (to the national media) Orioles team for 2023. If you end up feeling like it’s not that great, you might think we’re waiting until at least 2024 for good Orioles baseball.

Outfield

  • LF - Kyle Stowers
  • CF - Cedric Mullins
  • RF - Austin Hays
  • Bench - Ryan McKenna?

The emergence of Mullins is probably the best new development for the rebuild project at the MLB level in the 2021 season. Whether he ends up joining the 30/30 HR/SB club in the season’s final weeks or not, his ditched switch hitting breakout feels like it’s set up the O’s in at least one spot for a few years.

Three weeks ago, I might have left off Hays in this sort of imagined roster, but he’s once again rolling in the month of September. The next good Orioles team is going to need guys who are not anywhere near the league MVP race or any leaderboards who are nonetheless quietly performing at about league average. Entering Saturday’s games, MLB left fielders had a .737 OPS for the season. Hays was at .768 through Saturday. (Right field is a bit higher on average at a .776 OPS.)

Stowers is currently the Orioles #11 prospect on the MLB Pipeline prospect ranking. O’s broadcaster Ben McDonald, who saw Stowers during his amateur career while doing college baseball broadcasts, dubs him “The Blonde Bomber.” This is the first full minor league season for the O’s 2019 second rounder and he’s cracked 27 home runs across three levels, making it up to Triple-A Norfolk for the home stretch. Stowers has his warts, particularly a strikeout rate above 30%. There are successful MLBers above that level, but not many.

Sliding out of the picture for me are DJ Stewart and Anthony Santander. Stewart’s a bad defender and doesn’t hit enough to make up for that. Santander has never found consistent season-long health or success but will probably still end up playing into an arbitration number the O’s don’t want to pay. After another season of injuries and poor performance, Yusniel Diaz hasn’t played his way back into a better Orioles future.

In a perfect world, 2021 top O’s pick Colton Cowser could end up in the mix in the second half of this season.

Infield

  • C - Adley Rutschman
  • 1B - Ryan Mountcastle
  • 2B - Ramón Urías
  • SS - Jordan Westburg
  • 3B - Gunnar Henderson?

One way to illustrate the improvement of the Orioles infield prospect depth is that when I tried to project a 2022 Orioles infield two years ago, I had Hanser Alberto at second base, Cadyn Grenier at shortstop, and Rylan Bannon at third base. The less said about that, the better.

Rutschman needs no further introduction or hype. He keeps building that hype well enough on his own, and his hot hitting hasn’t stopped rolling at Norfolk yet. Mountcastle feels like a safe choice after he has now set the Orioles rookie home run record. 30 home runs in a season is not as impressive as it used to be, but it’ll play. And he’s got two more weeks to add more to his tally.

From there, things get much more speculative. Urías has been one of the surprising positives of the 2021 team, putting up 1.7 bWAR while playing in 84 games through Saturday. Penciling him in for 2023 might be aggressive. That’s true of a lot of things in this exercise. But just by virtue of having a bit more than half of a successful MLB season under his belt, that makes him a bit more of a surer thing than, say, Terrin Vavra, who had an .818 OPS for Bowie this year but only got to play in 40 games due to assorted injuries.

The fact is that the Orioles have loaded up with some interesting infield prospects, but the fact also is that those prospects have at most dipped their toes in to the Double-A waters, to say nothing of Triple-A or MLB. Henderson playing his way into two promotions in his age 20 season is impressive, and it’s why he’s now got top 100 prospect pedigree. It’s a long way from High-A to Baltimore.

Westburg has also played into two promotions at age 22. The .286/.389/.469 batting line over his 65 games at Aberdeen before getting bumped to Bowie is interesting. Again, these levels are a long way from MLB competition.

If Elias really wants to get wild, he could add a middle infield free agent this offseason on a multi-year contract who would figure to still be a positive contributor once more of the prospects start to arrive.

Rotation

  • John Means
  • Grayson Rodriguez
  • Some free agent signing who doesn’t suck
  • Two guys from this group of pitchers listed alphabetically by last name: Kyle Bradish, Kyle Brnovich, DL Hall, Drew Rom, Kevin Smith, Bruce Zimmermann

Those feeling more generous than I am towards players who have largely bombed their MLB-level auditions (some in small sample sizes, to be fair) in the 2021 season might also include as possibilities: Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells

The one thing that really stung me about the Orioles organization in 2021, moreso even than the performance of the MLB team, was the way that so many of the lower-tier pitching prospects who made it up to Norfolk struggled mightily. Bradish had a 4.70 ERA with 19 Norfolk games. Smith had a 5.68 in 14 games there. While injuries are the biggest reason for the saying “There is no such thing as a pitching prospect,” another reason is that some players just end up not being good enough.

DL Hall is a tough name to just throw right into the picture since there are some prospect sites that see him more as a reliever due to either health reasons or an inability to throw strikes. With the 2021 season being interrupted by a stress fracture in his elbow, and with Hall having a 4.5 BB/9 when he got hurt, And speaking of injuries, Zimmermann only pitched a half-season in MLB. So, can the Orioles get two decent MLB rotation members out of that group in two years time? It’s one of the bigger questions for the rebuild.

Though it may be foolish, I believe after seeing him in 2021 that Means looks like a guy who can hang around to be “the veteran” on an improved, prospect-laden staff in another couple of years. The guy now has about two full big league regular seasons worth of innings under his belt and he’s got a 3.75 career ERA. One reason why it may be foolish to project Means at the top of the next good O’s rotation is that his second half ERA, which coincides with MLB’s changing “sticky stuff” policy, is 4.72. That’s actually close to league average pitching in 2021.

Rodriguez’s inclusion needs no explanation. He is just about every MLB prospect list’s top pitching prospect right now. His 2021 campaign has seen him post a 14.1 K/9 while holding batters to a 0.866 WHIP across two levels, mostly Double-A. Some people who didn’t know any better feared a Matt Hobgood outcome when Duquette selected Rodriguez in 2018. This was a great pick and I hope we get to see him in August and September of next season.

Bullpen

In past editions of this article, I’ve simply hand-waved away the bullpen, assuming that when Elias wants the Orioles to be able to be good, he will be able to whip up some good relievers from somewhere. Watching the 2021 bullpen jabronis has made me less inclined to make this automatic assumption, however. Polishing up the remaining Duquette-era relievers feels unlikely. Paul Fry, Tanner Scott, and Dillon Tate have not inspired, or even looked like they might be traded for prospects. Hunter Harvey has not stayed healthy.

There are two 2021 relievers who feel like they might be on some better Orioles team two years from now:

  • Cole Sulser
  • Tyler Wells

As for Sulser, I ridiculed the idea last year that he’d be in the next good Orioles bullpen. In spring, when reporters said a secret toe injury caused Sulser’s issues last year, I scoffed, feeling like there’s always that excuse for players underperforming. But it sure looks like maybe I was wrong about that one. He’ll be 33 in the 2023 season, so maybe I shouldn’t count on him.

The Rule 5 pick Wells is an interesting one. He’s struggled a bit of late, but the fact is that it’s 40 games into his MLB career and he’s got a WHIP under 1. He has held batters to a .159 average in the second half of the season.

I will also accept the possibility, based on his eight games in relief, that failed starter Jorge López could still have a bullpen role in his future. Perhaps there are other high-velocity failed starters on their way down to join him. Some prospect evaluators see DL Hall’s future in the bullpen, for instance. Maybe Akin, Baumann, or Kremer would have more success airing it out for an inning or two, not having to worry about seeing the same batter multiple times in one game.

**

It has been more than four years now since Orioles fans have seen anything resembling good baseball. Not all of that is Elias’s fault. The 2017 collapse and the 2018 disaster happened before he was hired, and the dire state of the MLB roster and farm system at the time Elias was hired have cast a long shadow into his tenure. It’s my belief there was nothing Elias could have done to have a good Orioles team by now. That’s especially true considering what big whiffs the big Duquette fire sale acquisitions have been to date.

All that said, I’m ready to see some improvement. It’s not fun being a fan of the team that’s the MLB laughingstock. A large chunk of that is driven by certain prominent media voices with personal grudges against ownership or management, but also, the Orioles record is what it is. There’s no defending 100+ losses in 2018, 2019, and 2021.

I hope that 2022 is the beginning of an ascent that will see some genuinely good baseball in two years. When do you think for when the Orioles will be good again?

Poll

In what year will the Orioles next have a good baseball team?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    2022
    (32 votes)
  • 46%
    2023
    (493 votes)
  • 34%
    2024
    (360 votes)
  • 16%
    2025 or later
    (169 votes)
1054 votes total Vote Now