If there’s one lesson to learn about the Orioles’ rebuild under Mike Elias, it’s this: Don’t get attached to any player who isn’t a prospect. In his frequently discussed plan to rebuild the O’s from the ground up, Elias is willing and able to move on from almost any player on the roster if another team meets his asking price.
That’s been true of a number of veterans in Elias’ first two years at the helm, the most recent being shortstop José Iglesias. A few weeks ago, the O’s picked up Iglesias’ 2021 club option of $3.5 million (a $3 million decision with his $500,000 buyout). Considering the O’s current preference for a limited payroll and the financial difficulties caused by the ongoing pandemic, it was not a guarantee they would do so. That’s all moot now with Elias’ trade of Iglesias to the Angels last week in exchange for two pitching prospects: Garrett Stallings and Jean Pinto.
The Iglesias trade is the latest in a line of moves to incrementally bolster the O’s minor-league depth. Stallings, 23, slots in at No. 26 on the O’s list of top 30 prospects on MLB.com. Pinto, 19, is yet another Elias acquisition in an effort to inject international talent into a franchise that ignored that market for so long.
The trade may pay off; it may not. Regarding the O’s major-league roster in 2021, what matters is, more than any other position, there’s an immediate need for a shortstop, unless you are particularly excited for Richie Martin, Ramón Urías or Pat Valaika.
There are also question marks about second base and third base after Hanser Alberto was non-tendered and Rio Ruiz was unexciting in 2020. Yolmer Sánchez, whom the O’s nabbed off waivers in October and then signed to a $1 million deal, is a candidate to see time at both positions. Rylan Bannon, recently added to the team’s 40-man roster, also seems close to making his Orioles debut. But the Orioles lack infield depth in a major way, and loyalty won’t necessarily save Ruiz (but his small 2021 salary might).
There’s no secret about the rest of the candidates to receive playing time in other spots around the diamond. At first base, Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle should be slotted to get most of the work. Chris Davis also owns a first baseman’s mitt.
Behind the plate, Pedro Severino is back (for now), presumably with Chance Sisco backing him up. That is, of course, until the Orioles decide that it’s time for the Adley Rutschman show to begin.
The Orioles are deepest in the outfield, though there are plenty of questions there. Mountcastle (left field), Austin Hays (center field) and Anthony Santander (right field) are probably the team’s Opening Day starters on paper, but things change quickly. Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart are also options, along with prospects Yusniel Díaz and Ryan McKenna. Díaz is the more well-regarded talent, and it’ll be interesting to see when he gets his chance.
The pitching staff situation is similar to last year: The O’s will be looking for cheap, swingman types to add depth to the rotation and, in a best-case scenario, flip at the trade deadline à la Tommy Milone. There isn’t as much room with the presence of young starters Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, but there will be plenty of innings to go around. There’s always space to add a useful bullpen piece as well, but it won’t be anyone who costs all that much.
It’s no surprise that this is not a good roster. It would be a marginally better one with, say, Iglesias and Alberto or even Renato Núñez instead of Davis, but that’s not really what the Orioles are after. And even if you disagree with the tanking philosophy, you can see why the O’s are doing what they’re doing. The O’s didn’t invent rebuilding or tanking, and while that doesn’t give them a pass for fielding such a poor product lately, you can see what their goals are. With the rise of their farm system (up to No. 8 on MLB.com), you can see the progress.
Even with the O’s in line for another season with more losses than wins, there are things for fans to look forward to. Trey Mancini’s return from stage 3 colon cancer should be emotional and exciting. His presence makes baseball more fun. There are also plenty of young players in line to get playing time: Mountcastle, Hays, Mullins, Santander, Kremer, Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, and maybe even Diaz, Bannon, McKenna, Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells, Isaac Mattson and more.
This young talent is what the Orioles are banking on. Nothing will jeopardize the buildup, and every single player has a price that could net a return to help that future. That’s how the Rays operate, and the Orioles want to be the Rays. If things turn out right, that could mean lots of winning in the Orioles’ future. That also means you shouldn’t get too attached to some of the team’s best players. That includes John Means, Mancini, Santander, Scott and others. That’s how this goes.
The best news of all this? That it isn’t Year One of the rebuild again. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking progress in a rebuild is linear. Nearing the top of the farm system rankings doesn’t guarantee immediate (or even eventual) success. But if there’s something the O’s have needed for a long, long time, it’s a massive infusion of young talent that actually pans out. Think of the fleeting moments of success Santander, Mountcastle, Kremer, Akin, Scott, etc. had in 2020, but on a much larger scale.
It’s all quite the undertaking. That doesn’t excuse all the losing, but it makes it easier to stomach (maybe less so if you don’t care at all about minor leaguers). But in the near future, there should be more exciting things to cheer about. If not … well, let’s try not to think about it.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox