(sigh). The Orioles. Where to begin. It’s not a good sign when your gut reaction regarding an organization’s prospects for the near and medium term future is a hopeless, frustrating head-shake. Owners of a very proud team history, Orioles fans are most dogged by their meddlesome owner, Peter Angelos. On the one hand, Angelos is not stingy on the free agent market, paying ludicrous money as recently as two years ago for Chris Davis. Unfortunately, spending gobs of money unwisely has been the bane of Angelos’ tenure, going back to the Orioles teams of the early 2000s. And as Mets fans ruefully understand, the one burden that organizations almost can never rid themselves of, is problematic ownership. That being said, what are the Baltimore Orioles as they currently stand, and where does their current path seem to be leading them?
The natural place to start would be Manny Machado, now superstar shortstop on the verge of receiving a record-breaking contract in free agency after the 2018 season. While the Orioles finally entertained the idea of trading Machado this past offseason, the bus had already left the station, as MLB teams are hesitant to sacrifice significant long term value for one year of control. The Orioles, who apparently have little to no hope of resigning their young star, will likely revisit trade talks this summer, and if Machado is doing Machado-like things, they can still expect to receive a significant prospect or two. Even for a two month rental. But does the Orioles realization that Machado will soon be wearing a different uniform signal a commitment to rebuild?
A look at the competition in the AL East, and most prognostications picking the Orioles to finish last place in the division in 2018, one would think that Orioles management would dive into a full rebuild, trading off assets such as Jonathan Schoop, Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, etc. for long-term value. But the sense is that Peter Angelos has handed near-complete decision-making reigns over to Buck Showalter, often overriding GM Dan Duquette. The veteran manager may or may not see the advantages of a traditional tear-down, and we may continue to see the Orioles futilely strive to be relevant through distasteful contracts such as the $16 million over 2 years they handed to Andrew Cashner. With money committed to underperforming one-dimensional sluggers suggers like Chris Davis and mark Trumbo, and an inability to put together a strong starting rotation, it feels like the Orioles are spinning their wheels. But that is not even where my biggest beef with the Orioles lies. Given the aforementioned obstacles, the Orioles actually have done a nice job with domestic scouting and player development. But take a look at the interesting collection of talent on the Orioles farm, and you’ll see a critical factor that’s missing.
Minor Leagues and Young, Controllable talent
The Orioles have spent significant resources trying to produce an internal pipeline of pitching through the domestic Amateur Draft. Although it is oft noted how few Orioles pitchers have become dominant, consistent home-grown bigleaguers, you don’t have to go back to Mike Mussina to find a myriad of success stories. While the Orioles garnered the most high-end success out of the arms of Erik Bedard and Chris Tillman, and successfully mined the Asian markets for Wei-yen Chen, the Orioles have found MLB caliber arms through the draft in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Hunter Harvey is healthy, and his high-end stuff appears to be intact. Interesting arms from the last couple of drafts highlight the current farm, in the likes of Keegan Akin and his ability to miss bats, Tanner Scott and his high-voltage late-inning potential arm, and others with potential to pitch in an MLB rotation, such as Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, and DL Hall. The organization has proven it can develop quality relievers (see Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Mychal Givens).
And it’s not just the pitching in the system that remains intriguing. Again, look at the offensive talent accrued through the domestic draft. Austin Hays, nabbed out of Jacksonville University in the 3rd round in 2016, broke out across three minor league levels in 2017, jacking 32 homeruns, and showing the speed necessary to play centerfield. Hays profiles as an above average regular, a very nice get in the 3rd round. Ryan Mountcastle, drafted out of the prep ranks in 2015, enjoys praise from scouts for his ability to hit for power and average, though many project him to move off of shortstop. Chance Sisco is on the verge of being the Orioles everyday backstop, and has done nothing but hit since being taken out of high school in the 2013 draft. Throw in some more interesting bats obtained through the draft, such as Cedric Mullins, Adam Hall, and DJ Stewart, and you start to come around to the idea that the Orioles aren’t actually too bad at this whole scouting and development thing after all.
Did you notice one thing though?
While every other MLB organization has successfully invested in the Latin American market, where are the Orioles success stories? Jomar Reyes was the lone significant investment in recent memory to appear on their prospect lists in recent years. Word that owner Peter Angelos didn’t bother trying to woo Shohei Ohtani due to having moral qualms with the fairness of the stipulations of International Free Agency (IFA) for players under age 25, as set forth in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, is a troubling sign, in combination with the knowledge that on multiple occasions this past year, the Orioles traded away slot money used for signing IFA’s for various domestic assets. If nothing else, the lack of talent in the entire system that was mined out of the hotbeds of Latin America speaks for itself.
So the Orioles are the most frustrating MLB team, for me. A rich history, a beautiful ballpark (though I don’t enjoy bandbox baseball), a solid foundation of domestic scouting and player development, and even an owner that likes to open his wallet. And yet, trying to remain relevant in a division with the two powerhouses, the Blue Jays remind us of that missing piece that enables them to stay pleasantly competitive in the Al East: top flight Latin American talent (in the form of uber-prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). Being deficient in execution in this area is one thing. But to be showing a lack of effort in this crucial area, has got to be the most frustrating thing for a fan to endure. And that, is why the Orioles outlook currently ranks 27th of the 30 MLB teams.