As playoff push begins, Orioles’ baseball future looks bright despite off-field uncertainties

14 July 2023

Sitting in the left field corner of T-Mobile Park, Alex Cobb marveled at not only how far the Orioles had come since trading him away, but also how quickly they had done so.

An All-Star pitcher this year with the San Francisco Giants, Cobb was part of Baltimore’s last-gasp push to keep its previous window of contention open, signing a contract in the spring of 2018 that covered the next four seasons. In each of them, the Orioles were one of the major leagues’ worst teams, finishing with a bottom-five record every year and twice in last.

After the first season, they revamped their front office, bringing in an analytically driven group helmed by Houston Astros assistant general manager Mike Elias that gave Cobb, a former member of the data-focused Tampa Bay Rays, confidence “they were going to have their correct pieces in place to create a winning organization.”

He never got to be a part of it. Baltimore traded Cobb to the Los Angeles Angels in 2021, part of the rebuilding organization’s collection of moves to stockpile young talent in exchange for veterans.

It’s paid off. Four Orioles joined Cobb at this week’s All-Star Game in Seattle, Baltimore’s most representatives since its most recent playoff team in 2016. This year’s group is on track to end that drought. A year after selecting first overall in the MLB draft for the second time in four years, the Orioles ended the first half of the season at 54-35, the majors’ third-best record and their best performance before the All-Star break since 1997.

“Never would I have thought it would have happened as quickly as it did,” Cobb said. “They hit all the right pieces.

“Wish that we would have been a lot better when I was there, but I think they’re reaping the benefits of our failures.”

A franchise-worst 115 losses in 2018 netted Baltimore the top selection in each round of the next year’s draft. The first two of those picks became catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, who each became the sport’s top prospect and have been vital to this year’s success. Even with them no longer a part of the Orioles’ minor league system, it’s regarded as the best in baseball, with more talent expected to reinforce this year’s playoff push and those to come.

“A few years ago, they’re rebuilding, and you go in there expecting some wins,” Toronto Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano said. “Now, you go in there expecting a dogfight.”

But the Orioles’ bright on-field future comes amid the backdrop of uncertainties off it.

The organization has yet to reach a long-term lease agreement with the Maryland Stadium Authority, its landlord at Oriole Park, while the current agreement has less than six months left. On Thursday, Orioles CEO and Chairman John Angelos and Democratic Maryland Gov. Wes Moore issued a joint statement in which they said they were “determined” to come to an agreement. Two days earlier, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he had “every confidence” that they would.

“My view of the future of the Orioles in Baltimore has not changed,” Manfred said before Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “They’ll stay in Baltimore.”

Perhaps reinforcing that belief was Thursday’s release of MLB’s 2024 regular-season schedule, which includes the Orioles opening the season at home for the first time since 2018. More than three decades after its unveiling, Camden Yards remains one of the sport’s gems, though it’s in need of infrastructural upgrades. A long-term lease would give the club access to $600 million in public funds to improve aged aspects of the venue, though both Angelos and Moore have spoken of desires to also redesign the area around Oriole Park. Thursday’s statement mentions “our vision to expand and revitalize the Camden Yards campus.”

Those efforts, in tandem with the Orioles’ on-field improvements, could help drive more fans to downtown Baltimore. The Orioles’ average home attendance of 20,949 per game represents an improvement of almost 30% on last year’s first half of the season, when Baltimore entered the break with a .500 record, but still ranks 23rd of the majors’ 30 teams. The only clubs beneath Baltimore who also have winning records are the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays, Florida teams that have historically had trouble drawing fans.

Orioles MLB ranks by year

Notes: COVID-19 measures abbreviated the season and prohibited fans in 2020 and limited attendance in 2021. 2023 figures are through the All-Star break.

The neighboring Washington Nationals, who have started their own rebuild, are ranked 22nd. The two clubs have been embroiled for the past several years in a legal battle over television rights fees for the co-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. Although they reached a settlement last month over hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from 2012 to 2016, they must come to an agreement over future payments.

That isn’t the only question about the Orioles’ future finances. Although the team’s major league payroll increased by about 50% from 2022 to 2023, it remained the second lowest of all clubs, ahead of only that of the MLB-worst Oakland Athletics. Over five years, this front office has yet to give a free agent a multi-year contract, and despite a bevy of internal candidates — Rutschman most notably — the team hasn’t signed any members of its young core to a long-term extension, a practice that has become common throughout the rest of the majors.

Baltimore’s success despite that low payroll figure speaks to how much of it has been built around youth. Of the 26-man roster the Orioles used Sunday to carry a five-game winning streak into the All-Star break, only four players entered this season with the requisite six years of major league service time to be a free agent, while 16 had fewer than the three necessary to be eligible for salary arbitration. Four of them — Rutschman, Henderson, infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Colton Cowser — ranked as Baltimore’s top four hitting prospects entering the 2022 season.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, brought in alongside the new front office after the 2018 season, has weathered a successful rebuild before. He was on the coaching staff for the 2016 Chicago Cubs, a team that broke the franchise’s 108-year World Series championship drought. Like these Orioles, that team was built around a young core of homegrown position players and held a 54-35 record through 89 games.

“You don’t have the record we have without people having great performances and the team coming together and a lot of really, really positive things,” Hyde said. “I’m really happy with our young players. They’re making it look way easier than it is. Not that they’re making it easy, but this is super hard up here. It’s really hard to hit up here. It’s hard to play defense at a fast level, at a high level. And our young players have done that, and so I’m really encouraged by that. Future’s bright for a lot of these guys.”

More are on the way. Heston Kjerstad and Jackson Holliday, Baltimore’s first-round picks in 2020 and 2022, respectively, represented the Orioles in the All-Star Futures Game on Saturday. The next day, the team picked outside the top five in a draft for the first time in five years and took Vanderbilt outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., restocking a minor league system that sent Westburg and Cowser to the majors in recent weeks.

“I am happy with the fruits of our pipeline so far for the last four or five years, but I’m also somebody that gets paranoid about falling behind,” Elias said in the lead-up to the draft. “We’re going to continue to try to maintain an edge with everything that we do in scouting and player development.”

The major league Orioles are likewise not interested in resting on their laurels. They opened the season with FanGraphs giving them a 10.4% chance of reaching the playoffs, but their first half raised that mark to 75.9%. The projection system forecasts they’ll get there despite going 35-38 the rest of the way, partially the result of what it considers the most difficult remaining schedule in baseball.

Hyde has often recalled how Chicago’s playoff berths were byproducts of the Cubs improving in the second half, and he hopes these Orioles will do the same. Boosts could come internally via the promotion of more prospects, improvements from struggling players, and the returns of injured ones, notably left-handed pitcher John Means, the staff ace for much of the rebuild.

But the team could also make external additions before next month’s trade deadline, with needs at the top of its rotation and middle of its bullpen. It’s unclear, though, the level to which Elias’ front office is willing to pull from its farm system upgrade the current team.

The prospects who have arrived from it have paid dividends. Rutschman has been transformative both at the plate and behind it, finishing as the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year last year before making his first All-Star appearance last week. Henderson started slow but has gotten his own Rookie of the Year campaign back on track in recent months. In five games with both Westburg and Cowser on the roster, the Orioles went undefeated and averaged nearly nine runs per game.

Orioles All-Star outfielder Austin Hays pointed to a play from Cowser’s July 5 debut, with Cowser, playing left, calling off shortstop Henderson and third baseman Westburg on a shallow fly ball and sharing smiles with them afterward.

“They’re comfortable with one another,” Hays said. “They play with a lot of confidence. I think it definitely just moves through the clubhouse.”

They were already a confident bunch. Even though there were individual performances from unexpected places, Hyde said his team’s overall play hasn’t surprised him. Hays has often said he and his teammates expect to win each game they play.

The Orioles aren’t a surprise anymore.

“They’re gonna be scary,” Atlanta Braves All-Star left-hander Bryce Elder said. “They already are, but they’re gonna be really scary next year and for the next four or five years. It’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch.”

Marlins at Orioles

Friday, 7:05 p.m.


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