The Orioles officially entered a full-fledged rebuild when they elected to trade star infielder Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the midst of the 2018 season. In the years that have followed, the Orioles have been a launch pad for the rest of the league, especially the New York Yankees. The Bombers’ Gleyber Torres and Aaron Judge in particular have demolished the O’s, as they each have an astronomical career OPS against Baltimore, at 1.314 and 1.050, respectively.
Despite at present serving as a punching bag for the rest of the league and playing in front of a depressingly empty Camden Yards, the Orioles do seem to at least have a plan for the future. While one single player will not make-or-break a winning ball club, Baltimore’s glimmer of hope for the future resides in coveted catching prospect Adley Rutschman.
The Orioles selected Rutschman with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, and he seems to be on the fast-track to the Big Leagues; yet, it is unlikely that he would make it this year. Nonetheless, Rutschman is set to develop into a premier all-around catcher, with a fantastic defensive skill set, as well as a powerful bat and solid speed.
Rutschman was drafted just last year, and has already skyrocketed all the way up to sixth on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list. However, like the Detroit Tigers, the Orioles lack promising and young Major League talent to pair with their four top-100 prospects.
Fans can credit both the Orioles and Tigers for at least committing to a solid direction for their franchises, as it is clear that both organizations are rebuilding from the ground up with the goal of establishing a World Series caliber club, rather than to mire in mediocrity as they had before their decision to blow it up.
In the last decade, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, scandal aside, demonstrated the evidence that supported rebuilding rather than just being content with the baseball purgatory of being “good but not great.” In the navigation system of the baseball future, the Orioles have set the correct destination; their intended route and means of getting there may be a bit questionable.
It must be noted that a host of baseball “experts” also doubted the legitimacy of strategies of the Cubs and Astros, only to be shut up by each club winning a World Series. Obviously, the answer of whether or not to rebuild is not this simple; both the Cubs and Astros had luck on their side (and in the case of Houston, cheating as well), yet they were able to put themselves in an ideal position in which to take advantage of their good fortune. This is reality that the Orioles, too, will strive for.
At present, the Orioles do not possess a single player currently on their Major League roster that profiles as an intriguing prospect that Baltimore actually intends to make a part of their next winning team. An argument could be made for Austin Hays, a speedy 24-year-old centerfielder who accumulated 0.9 fWAR in only 21 games played last season, but the timeline for the Orioles indicates that – barring a miracle – they will not reach contention until at least 2022.
Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections expect Hays to hit 21 homers in 2020, yet to be worth just 1.4 fWAR; at best, Hays is a complimentary piece for a playoff team. The same can likely be said for Anthony Santander, who was a surprise contributor for the Orioles in 2019. He totaled 20 homers last season, but his .297 OBP, 97 wRC+ (3% below league-average), and suspect defense combined to limit Santander to 0.7 fWAR.
The superficial talent of the Orioles’ Major League roster does at least serve the purpose of allowing the club to remain competitive on occasion. Trey Mancini has emerged as the clear best player and leader for Baltimore, as evidenced by his breakout 3.6 fWAR mark in 2019. Mancini, already 27 years old, may be the only current Oriole that will be able to stick around long enough to see the light at the end of the dark tunnel of rebuilding.
The Orioles have also been able to discover some useful players that have previously been written off as undesirable or unneeded by other teams. This included Jonathan Villar, who Baltimore acquired from the Brewers in a 2018 trade that netted Jonathan Schoop for Milwaukee. Villar had been a useful player for the Brewers, as he racked up 62 stolen bases, a .826 OPS, and 3.0 fWAR for Milwaukee in 2016. His massive drop off the following season (-0.4 fWAR) led the Brewers to lose faith in him, as he was dumped on Baltimore in a trade of little return value, as Schoop would only be a half-season rental.
Villar would prove that his ‘16 campaign was not a fluke. In 2019 with the Orioles, he set career-highs in homers (24), hits (176), and fWAR (4.0). Seemingly allergic to retaining good players, the Orioles traded him to the Miami Marlins in the offseason, in what was essentially a salary dump. Credit to them for finding good value in a player that the Brewers had given up on, I guess. They were also able to fill the hole that Villar left at shortstop with the veteran José Iglesias, whose glove will help a defense that was the worst in MLB in 2019.
The Orioles also found an interesting bat in the journeyman infielder Hanser Alberto. After spending some time with the Rangers from 2015-2018, Alberto was cut by Texas and claimed by the New York Yankees in November of ‘18. He did not appear in a single game for New York, and was designated for assignment in January of ‘19. He was then claimed by the Orioles, cut once more, claimed by the San Francisco Giants, designated for assignment a final time, and again scooped up by Baltimore in March of ‘19. He ended up playing a key role for the Orioles last season, as he slashed .305/.329/.422, and posted 1.9 fWAR.
Renato Núñez is a remarkably similar case, as he bounced around multiple organizations before finding a home in Baltimore. Before 2019, he had not played more than 73 games in a single season; he appeared in 151 games for the Orioles in ‘19, and mashed 31 homers.
It is certainly important that the Orioles keep unearthing production from unlikely sources, but for their rebuild to actually bear the fruit of winning, they must develop some stars as well.
As for the rest of the Orioles’ 2020 projected Major League roster, a storyline that will not go away will be the contract of Chris Davis, which feels eerily similar to that of Miguel Cabrera. Davis signed a $161 million deal with the Orioles in 2016, as he had established himself as one of the preeminent power hitters in the league in the seasons prior. Davis had crushed at least 47 homers and reached 5.4 or more fWAR twice in three seasons before he signed his megadeal. Suffice to say, he has been downright horrific since, as he has been worth -4.5(!) fWAR over the last two campaigns combined. Perhaps the Orioles are happy to have Davis in the sense that he is their appointed “tank commander”, helping them lose games in order to receive a higher draft pick.
The Baltimore rotation will likely be as abhorrent in 2020 as it has been in recent seasons, as their 5.57 ERA was the third worst in MLB in ‘19. John Means, the Orioles’ lone all-star last year, was one of the best stories in the game; he was practically unknown to most fans as he was the 331st pick of the 2014 draft. Means came out of nowhere to amass 3.0 fWAR last season as a true bright spot in an otherwise dreary season for the club.
The rest of the starting rotation will presumably be full of liabilities. Alex Cobb, should he miraculously stay healthy, will be capable of covering a reasonable amount of innings; the Orioles signed the aging Wade LeBlanc to fulfill the same purpose. Not much should be expected of Asher Wojciechowski and David Hess, who are each young starters who would probably be better suited as minor leaguers.
The bullpen, like the rotation, will set up the opposing team to feast on weak arms. Mychal Givens is at least decent, as his career 3.40 ERA (3.44 FIP) would suggest. Hunter Harvey, a first round pick of the Orioles in 2013, will be worth a look in high-leverage spots. In six career minor league seasons, Harvey has struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings; he recorded 11 strikeouts in 6.1 innings of work at the Major League level in 2019.
There is no doubt that the Orioles view the 2020 season as a rebuilding and developmental one. All fans can hope for is that all of Baltimore’s losing pays off in the long run.
Projected Divisional Finish (AL East):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
Hanser Alberto (1.2)
Trey Mancini (1.9)
Anthony Santander (0.2)
Renato Núñez (0.2)
Chance Sisco (0.9)
Austin Hays (1.4)
Chris Davis (-1.3)
José Iglesias (1.3)
Rio Ruiz (1.0)
John Means (2.1)
Alex Cobb (1.1)
Asher Wojciechowski (0.4)
David Hess (0.3)
Wade LeBlanc (0.7)