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The Orioles are showing progress in the season’s final month

While wins have remained hard to come by, there have been enough individual positives to let the Orioles finish the season on a high note.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

In the depths of a massive rebuild, Orioles fans know it’s unwise to look to the win-loss record for signs of progress. That’s fortunate, because the Orioles don’t have many wins to speak of. But of course there have been positives, particularly down the season’s final stretch, where the Orioles have looked, for the most part, like a competent baseball team ever since ending that miserable 19-game losing streak in August.

The performance of the team’s starting staff as of late has been highly encouraging. The unit owns a 4.89 ERA in the month of September, their best mark for any single month this season. What’s even better is the fact that most of the starts have been made by players that the organization is hoping to keep around past 2021.

Staff ace John Means has rediscovered his mojo, sporting a 2.76 ERA in September to go with .609 OPS against in the month. Zac Lowther had the best start of his major league career just last week (5.0 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 2 BB, 7 SO vs. TEX). Alexander Wells has tossed five innings in back-to-back starts. Keegan Akin has allowed one or fewer runs in three starts of 5+ innings since August 26. Not to mention Chris Ellis looking good just about every time he’s gone to the mound for the O’s since being claimed off of waivers last month.

If the Orioles are going to climb their way out of the big league cellar in 2022, it’s going to require the pitching to be much more effective. That will probably necessitate at least some level of outside talent being added, but getting more out of the players they already have is a massive boost.

On the offensive side of things, it has been reassuring to see some of the team’s top hitters finish off the year strong.

Everyone has been waiting for Cedric Mullins to cool off, but it just hasn’t happened. The Orioles’ center fielder just crossed the 30 home run/30 stolen base threshold and has a .917 OPS in September, not far off the .932 OPS he featured back in April.

Ryan Mountcastle has scuffled a bit in the year’s final month, producing a .712 OPS, but he has kept hitting home runs (six in September), and looks every bit like a run-producing bat in the middle of this team’s lineup for years to come.

But perhaps the most encouraging development has been the output of Austin Hays. The talented outfielder has been able to stay healthy while smacking eight home runs and posting a .977 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but this was the sort of production that seemed possible when the Jacksonville University product was rocketing through the O’s minor league system a few years ago.

The club has even gotten some good news in the dugout. It was reported last week that manager Brandon Hyde will return to his position with the Orioles in 2022. The secrecy with which the extension was handed out is quite odd, but the outcome is that the front office does not need to dedicate any resources to finding a skipper in what is sure to be a unique offseason with ongoing CBA negotiations and (hopefully) some level of free agent talks for the Orioles.

Opinions on Hyde’s performance are split. Clearly, the team has not won many games under his watch. But the rosters he has been handed have also been rather bereft of talent. And he has overseen some substantial breakouts from Means and Mullins while Mountcastle has acclimated himself well to the major leagues. At the very least, it’s fair to give Hyde another season at the helm.

Clearly, there will still be plenty of holes on this roster when 2022 begins, but GM Mike Elias recently said that top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman will both have a shot to make the team’s Opening Day roster next year. Now, is that actually going to happen? The odds feel long, but the pair will be in Baltimore at some point in 2022 along with other notable prospects, and their presence alone should give the team a handful of wins.

Expectations for the Orioles next season will remain low. Making a playoff push or something similar is unlikely. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be pressure. The rebuild is nearing the point where some level of big league success is going to be required by both fans and the media. What “success” looks like is up for interpretation, but some of the positives signs down the stretch make whatever it is seem more attainable.