The Orioles are having just an awful season. No, make that a dreadful season. They’ll have to receive a super-charged injection of old-time Orioles magic just to reach 50 wins. They have been sitting at 38 for a good while — such is what happens when you lose 18 games in a row.
Let’s just for a moment approach this discussion with a couple amazing stats I am going to lay on you. Last season, the Orioles played over their heads a bit and for a time it looked like the 2020 season might be a shortened version of 1989’s “Why Not?” season. But the Orioles faded and finished 25-35 in the second season of a massive rebuild.
Now fast forward to May 6, 2021, the date John Means no-hit the Seattle Mariners. With that win, the Orioles improved to 15-16. Combine that with the 25-35 mark in 2020 and the O’s had gone 40-51 since the start of 2020. That, my friends, is a winning percentage just under .440. I think we’d all agree .440 baseball would be a lot more delicious than what the club is serving up at Camden Yards right now.
Since that innocent afternoon in Seattle, the Orioles have gone an abysmal 23-69 … a winning percentage of just .250.
Now, to give you some perspective on just how bad it’s been, let’s go back to another date — May 9, 2017. The Orioles on that date won a game and improved to 22-10. On May 10, the sky fell in Birdland.
Since May 10, 2017, the Orioles have played 637 games. Their record in those contests is a jaw-dropping 217-420, a winning percentage just a hair better than .340.
So, why am I bullish on general manager Mike Elias’ master plan? And why is there now going to be a sense of urgency to a rebuild that won’t pay off fully for a few years? And what should Elias have known about the fragile state of play in Baltimore that could have altered some ways he approached the early years of this rebuild?
As much as Elias has praised his predecessor, it’s obvious that there was not a lot of real good talent when he took over. Yes, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays were around, along with the leader of the team, Trey Mancini. Yes, D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez were in the minors.
But for each of them there was Keegan Akin, David Hess, Joey Rickard, Chance Sisco, Stevie Wilkerson, DJ Stewart, Mike Wright, Jimmy Yacabonis and many, many more guys who never had the stuff to be significant contributors on a contender.
When Elias interviewed for the job in the fall of 2018, there had to be discussions about how the budget of the team would need to be handled. During Dan Duquette’s last summer in Baltimore, the club purged salary, unloading Brad Brach, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman, Manny Machado, Darren O’Day and Jonathan Schoop. They also tried to move Adam Jones.
Given the intersection of those efforts, the club was trying to circle its financial wagons to start the effort of a teardown and a rebuild. The only difference was that Duquette, the man who started the teardown, didn’t get the opportunity to see what he could have done.
Instead we got a much younger man who believes both analytical information and scouting can coexist. Elias, hired at the age of 35, had seen this kind of scorched-earth rebuild firsthand when he was the amateur scouting director under former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.
In fact, when he was hired, Elias was as transparent as possible in telling us what it was like in Houston. Given the condition on the grounds at the warehouse when he was hired, what other plan would have made much sense? (If money was no object, sure, signing Gausman, Machado and Schoop prior to trading them would’ve made sense.)
So, once the Orioles started the process of unloading players, there really was not an alternate path for Elias to pursue. Recently, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal compared the Orioles to the Giants, who hired Farhan Zaidi the same time the Orioles hired Elias. The Giants finished 73-89 in 2018, but they are now in first place in the National League West.
However, Elias took over a franchise in a much worse shape than the Giants for myriad reasons:
- The path of succession when Peter Angelos turned over control of the club was unclear.
- The Orioles were years behind the rest of baseball on the analytical, international and player development fronts.
- The Giants had a much better big-league club, with Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Johnny Cueto and Buster Posey all under contract. Elias wasn’t even left with many veterans to trade.
- The Giants had a boatload of money accumulated by a steady stream of revenue from their local TV deal and a large base of season-ticket holders.
(But those facts didn’t make for as easy a pathway to poke at the Orioles.)
Elias doesn’t live in a vacuum, nor does John Angelos. But the fans are grumbling. The attendance when the Orioles give away bobbleheads and Hawaiian shirts is OK, but that’s only a few nights a season. Most nights, the entertainment is supposed to come from the players on the field. A 217-420 mark is not entertaining.
Enjoyment at a major-league game is mostly derived from the guy on that pitching slab — the starting pitcher. As I wrote earlier this year, the Orioles’ outlay for their pitching staff this year was about $10 million, with Matt Harvey ($1 million) and ex-Oriole Shawn Armstrong ($825,000) leading the way.
The Orioles don’t have to reach the Blue Jays’ level and spend $50 million in 2022. But there can’t be a repeat of the Orioles spending $15-17 million less on pitching than the Rays.
Nobody is suggesting that the club is going to go out and spend $15 million a year on a starter, but it’s a bit of an insult to fans to have Keegan Akin, Jorge Lopez and Spenser Watkins making regular starts. While Harvey’s numbers are not great, there is enough to like to fund his masters program in The Art of Pitching under Chris Holt.
Means figures to be in the rotation in 2022. Perhaps Harvey returns. A prospect such as Michael Baumann or Kyle Bradish could find himself in the rotation as well. But the others have to be proven, MLB-caliber arms.
Lastly, what Elias may have underestimated when he took this job was how painful much of the last quarter-century has been for true Orioles fans. Yes, kind of out of nowhere we had a very enjoyable team to watch from 2012 to May 9, 2017, when the sky fell in Birdland.
But the payment to fans shouldn’t be seven or eight seasons of .340 baseball before there’s a decent product.
The position players are not so far away from being sufficient. Adley Rutschman behind the plate — and he will be ready to start the 2022 season if the Orioles choose to go that route — will help immediately. Add a veteran third baseman like a Kyle Seager and a couple pitchers and the look and feel of this wouldn’t be such a turn-off.
So while I’m critical of certain aspects in his approach, I am an Elias supporter overall. His task is now is to put a representative team on the field in 2022 while continuing with the other aspects of the rebuild.
In other words, Elias needs to get better at walking and chewing gum at the same time.
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