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Top prospect Opening Day debuts are happening all over, but not in Birdland

Adley Rutschman’s injury, plus the ongoing rebuild project, don’t make for Opening Day excitement for Orioles fans.

Chicago White Sox v Seattle Mariners
Julio Rodriguez is on the Mariners Opening Day roster. That must be exciting for their fans.
Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Across MLB, a wave of top prospects will be arriving on the shores of their teams rosters for Opening Day. Three of the game’s top five minor leaguers have already been confirmed to have made their teams: Detroit’s Spencer Torkelson, Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr., and Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez. A fourth, Detroit’s Riley Greene, was also headed for a roster spot until he suffered a foot fracture last week. The fifth is Adley Rutschman.

Would the Orioles have had Rutschman join this wave if not for the strained triceps he suffered in minor league camp right about when the lockout ended? We will only have guesses about that question forever. The new CBA’s incentive for teams to have top prospects on Opening Day roster seems to have worked out this year. All Orioles fans can do is watch as several other fanbases will get the fun of their top prospect from the first days of the season while the Opening Day catcher here is Robinson Chirinos.

This is the kind of thing that serves as a fresh reminder of the frustrating nature of the Orioles multi-year rebuilding effort. While the Orioles are stuck in the pit they’re in, other teams are trying different ways of building up a good team on shorter timelines.

The Tigers stunk so bad in 2019 that they swooped in and grabbed the #1 pick in the 2020 draft - that turned into Torkelson - with a record seven wins worse than the 2019 O’s. They ended up with the #3 pick after the shortened 2020 season. Yet last year they were able to improve to 77 wins and now they’re pressing for more.

Along with having Torkelson on the Opening Day roster, Detroit just traded for outfielder Austin Meadows, and over this last offseason they signed shortstop Javier Baez to a big deal, as well as former Orioles prospect Eduardo Rodriguez. Maybe they will turn out to be delusional; FanGraphs projects this Tigers team for 76-86, while PECOTA puts them at 68-94. That’s not so fun. But they’re going to have more fun thinking about their Opening Day roster than I am about the Orioles.

The Royals have been truly atrocious in recent years. They joined the Orioles in the 100+ loss club in 2018 and 2019, and they were also in the below-.500 club in 2020. To be sure, they didn’t have to climb out of the cellar while facing AL East competition. Still, they made it to 74 wins last year and now Witt - the guy they “had” to settle for after missing out on the Rutschman sweepstakes - is joining their Opening Day roster without regard for the shenanigans of trying to squeeze out an extra year of service time.

Assorted projections don’t see much chance of contention coming for this team, either. They’re projected at 75-87 by FanGraphs and an even more pessimistic 70-92 by PECOTA. This is the kind of multi-year mediocrity that the Orioles rebuild is aiming to avoid. A slightly more exciting Opening Day roster is not a meaningful marker for whether long-term progress is being made. It is something, though.

Seattle never found itself in the depths the Orioles did. Their worst recent season was a 68-94 record in 2019. Last year, they were in the hunt to break their 20+ year playoff drought until the very end of the season, coming up two games short with a 90-72 record. This is a team where it makes perfect sense to try to storm out of the gate with your best players like Rodriguez. The April games will matter in September.

That’s not going to be the case for the Orioles, obviously. What we get in Birdland is a roster competition where GM Mike Elias, the guy who assembled the roster, talks about how unfortunate it is that the pitching staff kind of sucks (via MASN’s Roch Kubatko):

Obviously, our pitching staff, it’s going to be a struggle sometimes to cover innings, and it’s something that we’re certainly aware of and worrying about and talking about ... (Zimmermann, Lowther, Kremer, Baumann, Akin) That’s why we’re struggling right now is because we haven’t gotten a real cemented breakout from one of those guys, and we still have high hopes for them and want some of those guys to click this year, because it’s going to be tough if they don’t and we’re going to have to move on to other people.

Not a one of those players was traded or traded for by Elias. If none of them are ever any good, he’s not the idiot who was counting on them for anything. What Elias is, though, is the guy who’s going into his fourth season in charge of the team with a starting rotation that’s still relying on his predecessor’s leftovers to maybe find a #4 starter.

We have seen the results of this strategy over the last three seasons. There is not much reason to expect any better at the start of the 2022 season. All we have is hope that Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall will arrive by season’s end, that the team in September will be much more interesting than the team on April 8. That’s what I told myself last year too and it didn’t exactly work out.

The way the team has performed has made them the go-to whipping boy for a number of national baseball writers who want to pontificate about what ails the game. It is unclear what exactly Elias was supposed to do differently after taking over Dan Duquette’s “started the rebuild a year too late” mess.

I ask myself the question a lot: Could all of this have been any different since Elias got hired? No one with a critique of the team can seem to answer how. We know good pitchers don’t like to sign here. Maybe the new left field fence will change that.

The 2018 trades that were Duquette’s parting gifts have been busts to date. Elias has polished Duquette’s last two first rounders into great prospects. Other than the continuing bad luck story of Heston Kjerstad, Elias’s top draft picks are an intriguing bunch. He’s made some interesting trades without having stars to trade. He’s built up the long-neglected international scouting apparatus.

Overall, the Orioles rebuild is not without its signs of success. The team recently topped the MLB Pipeline prospect rankings, and other publications have deemed the farm at or near the top. The recent history of teams to top the Pipeline ranking has seen playoff teams follow from quality farms, either from the prospects themselves, or from trades for established major leaguers, or both.

It’s a great sign! But it doesn’t make me feel any more excitement for this Opening Day, when other teams top guys - every one of whom is at least 18 months younger than Rutschman - are making their debuts and we’ve got... this. This is not anyone’s fault, particularly. It still sucks. I will be glad when a regular season arrives where the Orioles are not expected by everyone to suck. Until then, here we are.