We’ve finally reached the week when the Major League Baseball season will begin.
No, I’m serious. They’re going to start playing real games on Thursday (and Friday for the Orioles). I forgive you if you’ve somehow missed the memo here in Baltimore. It seems as though the start of baseball season has lagged significantly behind the following as popular conversation topics in town:
“Did you see Lamar Jackson was playing lacrosse?”
“I thought it was supposed to be spring?”
“Well yeah, but did you also see he was behind the counter at a Chick-fil-A?”
“OK, I get it, you follow literally everything Lamar Jackson does on social media at all times, too, so wanna talk about DK Metcalf?”
It’s understandable, of course. Vegas projects the Orioles to finish as “other” in the AL East. (FanDuel actually gives them 200-1 odds to win the division and if I’m being honest, it probably wouldn’t even crack the top 10 of the dumbest things I’ve ever bet on.) There is little reason to think they’re going to be any good.
But there is some reason to think they might be more watchable. We do believe we are within weeks of top MLB prospect and “person your husband is thinking about in his sleep when you’re afraid he might be thinking about other women” Adley Rutschman making his debut. Top pitching prospects D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez should arrive in the bigs this season as well. The presence of that trio alone would make any club more watchable.
And after seeing Cedric Mullins’ emergence a season ago, there is certainly reason to wonder if another position player we had largely viewed as “a guy” might establish themselves as a player worthy of being part of the long-term plan instead. Could a breakout season be in store for a Jorge Mateo, Ramon Urias, Austin Hays or Ryan McKenna?
Of course, our interest in remaining invested night in and night out will likely still center around the Orioles’ level of competitiveness. And even with Rodriguez and Hall likely arriving at some point, we’re just hard-pressed to believe there could be enough pitching to be competitive even if the lineup experiences a “best-case scenario” type of season. Combine that with the insanely loaded AL East and it just seems to set up for another season where we pay more attention to “which national analysts we want to fight with because of what they say about the Orioles on Twitter” than we do “the standings tab at MLB.com.”
Yet I oddly think this is an important season. At least in context. Bear with me.
The Orioles are entering the fourth year of their “rebuild.” It technically began during the 2018 season when Dan Duquette started trading off their veteran pieces in a declaration of what was to come. But with those trades netting next to nothing, the arrival of general manager Mike Elias is a far more fair line for declaring the start of the process.
We know how poorly things have gone. Not only did Duquette’s trades not pan out, the COVID-19 pandemic cost an entire year of minor league development for the group of prospects expected to make up the nucleus of them future Orioles. And (scoff if you must) the team’s revenue was also impacted significantly by the pandemic. This past offseason’s labor dispute certainly did not help, particularly as the team could have no contact with players during the offseason and spring training was shortened. These things aren’t necessarily unique to the Orioles, but we acknowledge they were not beneficial either.
But with there being fewer benefits to manipulating service team moving forward and terrible records no longer guaranteeing top draft picks, the time has come to begin shifting towards Phase 2 of this plan.
So what exactly IS Phase 2 of the plan? That’s, umm, that’s what makes this season so important.
The aforementioned trio of prospects. They’re Phase 2. They’re the reason (particularly Rutschman and Rodriguez) the Orioles are being identified as having the top system in all of baseball. The prospects after these two are … decent. And reinforcements could be coming. But for the actual rebuild to work, these prospects must pan out both quickly and at a very high level.
Rutschman appears to be their best (if not their only) shot at a truly transcendent star among position player prospects. A championship-caliber lineup in future years almost certainly must involve Rutschman panning out as something at least close to the “baseball messiah” we’ve envisioned him to be. And if Rodriguez and Hall don’t become top-of-the-rotation-level pitchers, where exactly might that type of pitching come from?
Don’t overreact to this. This isn’t saying that all three must finish in the top three of Rookie of the Year voting or everything should be blown up. But reality is at least a semi-distant cousin of that statement. If this group isn’t at least somewhat immediately fruitful, the hopes of this organization building a World Series contender this decade take a MAJOR hit! It isn’t implausible that the timeline could start shifting toward the MLB arrival date of whoever the Orioles take with the No. 1 pick in THIS YEAR’S draft.
That sounds hyperbolic to some. But short of a MAJOR investment of money (which feels more likely if the top prospects pan out and there’s a foundation to build off of), how exactly are the Orioles building a serious contender in the coming years without Rutschman being a star and Rodriguez/Hall providing top-of-the-rotation pitching?
So yeah, this is an extremely important season!
I realize I’m not presenting an exact target. I can’t define just how good this trio needs to prove to be and just how quickly they need to prove it. We’re still largely dealing in hypotheticals regarding the big picture of the rebuild. But this is the first year when the picture gets clearer. Our conversations should be more defined once the season is over.
And in the meantime, it IS nice just to have baseball back at all.
Photo Credit: William Vaughan/Bowie Baysox