Amid Another Awful Season, Do the Orioles Have a Path Forward?

The Orioles woke up on Thursday morning as winners for the first time in over three weeks, with their 10–6 defeat of the Angels snapping a 19-game losing streak. It’s just Baltimore’s second victory this month, though they need quite a few more — 24 in their final 37 games, to be exact — in order to avoid a third 100-loss season in the last four years. It’s a miserable run, but one not wholly unexpected when Mike Elias took the reigns and devoted all of his resources to building a farm system that could produce a consistent winner, all but ignoring the big league roster.

Still, the major league product is unwatchable, and fair questions are starting to be asked. Can this team start to pull out of what feels like a never-ending tailspin? The answer is yes, as long as the bar is set at simply not being awful anymore as opposed to hanging some new flags in the stadium. Prospects are wonderful, and having one of the best, if not the best, farm systems in baseball is fantastic, but it’s more of a guarantee of betterment as opposed to becoming a good team, especially for a team that is starting at a level that might be comparable only to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders at this point.

The Orioles’ August misery has been defined by pitching. The offense has been below average, but not dreadful, with a wRC+ of 94 during the month, which ranks 19th among the 30 teams. The pitching, on the other hand, has been unimaginably awful. Here was Baltimore’s collective line during the losing streak:

Composite Orioles Pitching Line
179 227 170 161 84 148 40 8.09 1.829 11.4 4.2 7.4

It’s hard to be that bad. You could take a random Triple-A starter and expect better than that. The average start during the streak saw more runs allowed (4.53) than innings pitched (4.1).

It shouldn’t have to be like this. Major League Baseball’s rules should incentivize teams to put their best product on the field as opposed to what Baltimore (and others, to be fair) are doing. But for the purpose of this exercise, let’s stick to the unfortunate reality that is the worst big league roster combined with one of the best minor league systems. Does that combination automatically mean things will get better?

There’s an easy path to a solid everyday lineup in Baltimore. Adley Rutschman is the best prospect in baseball and would be getting his feet wet in the big leagues right now if not for service time manipulation. Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías are all above-average offense performers who could be in Baltimore for the long term.

After first base, where Trey Mancini should end up as one of the top trade targets next summer, the infield has been an offensive black hole, but the O’s have drafted a plethora of solid-but-unspectacular college infielders over recent years. While it’s more quantity than quality, the group of Jordan Westburg, Terrin Vavra, Anthony Servideo and Cadyn Grenier should be able to hold down the fort for a bit sooner rather than later; the Orioles’ best infield prospect, third baseman Gunnar Henderson, is still a few years away. Colton Cowser has star-level potential in the outfield, and more long-term, a re-constructed international department has produced some interesting lottery tickets, the most notable of which might be Stiven Acevedo.

This could be a decent lineup in short order; maybe it’s better known for its depth than its star power after Rutschman, but help is clearly on the way. Still, as we have seen during the streak, the pitching is the real problem. With John Means’ second-half struggles, there’s not a single dependable member of the rotation right now, and the bullpen is a conglomeration of middle relievers and unproven commodities who have shown that they can’t pitch that well even in the minors.

When it comes to forecasting a future pitching staff in Baltimore, the picture is far murkier than the lineup. Other than Means and a few relievers — namely Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser, neither of whom are of the high-leverage variety — this area needs a complete overhaul, and the answers for the most part do not lie within the system.

Grayson Rodriguez is the best pitching prospect in baseball; he combines size, the potential for four plus pitches, and above-average command. Few prospects during their time in the minors look like they can front a championship-level rotation, but he provides just that kind of potential. Unfortunately, there’s not another slam dunk big league starter of any quality in the system beyond him. D.L. Hall has fantastic bat-missing stuff, but he can’t stay healthy, has never been stretched out, and has considerable command issues. Kyle Bradish and Mike Baumann are both interesting arms but come with considerable risk to end up in the bullpen. Drew Rom, Garrett Stallings, Blaine Knight and Kyle Brnovich are more back-end types, and only if everything works out, which rarely happens, so the hope is that one or two can pan out into something dependable.

Some of the names above will turn into relievers, as happens with pitching prospects, but they’re more likely to turn into Sulser and Fry rather than guys you can lean on for the last six outs of a game. The Orioles know how to identify pitchers with good data, but now they have to use those skills and apply them to big league options, as the internal ones are lacking.

In terms of meeting their goals of building something that creates sustainable success, Elias and company have done a good job, but their starting point for translating that into results in the standings is a self-dug hole that gets pretty deep. That’s the risk of tanking; a team can build a fantastic system through adept scouting and player development, but a 20-game improvement would still have Baltimore well below .500. There’s a path here to a better team, like this season’s Tigers, who have gone from dreadful to merely below-average with a young, entertaining roster filled with possibilities. Like Detroit, the Orioles will need to make free-agent signings and trades to turn that improved big league roster into one that can compete for a postseason spot — an aspect of front office work that the current regime is, quite frankly, unproven in.

Orioles fans have been remarkably patient with the new administration, trusting the process, as it were, and their team should be ready to climb out of the 100-loss category as early as 2022. But becoming a team that can sit at the grown-ups table in the ultra-competitive American League East is still a gargantuan task that will take much more in terms of both wise decisions and a willingness to write big checks, as opposed to a laser-tight focus on simply accumulating prospects.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Who was the last good free-agent pitcher the Orioles signed? Feel like it’s been 20 years.

2 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

They don’t have a particularly good record of signing quality free agents in general.

2 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

Not a free agent but they traded for Chris Davis in 2011, who would average 34-0 over 162 games in his career

2 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

Think they’re going to have to try too trade a position player for a prospect pitcher. Kinda surprised they didn’t move Mancini this summer

2 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

who is the last good pitcher they’ve re-signed, let alone traded for? Mussina famously not.

Radhames Liz
2 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

I believe the answer is Wei-Yin Chen in 2012.