April 19, 2024
Baltimore was tied for MLB's worst team just two years ago. Now it's leading the AL with a roster full of young talent.

By Noah Trister | The Associated Press

No matter where the A’s play their home games in the coming seasons, the franchise has a lot of ground to make up before returning to relevance.

Roster teardowns, one-sided trades and other poor personnel decisions have razed a team that until recently was one of the league’s shining examples of how to get the most out of less. Despite consistently having one of the league’s lowest payrolls, the A’s reached the playoffs three straight years from 2018-20 and six times in nine seasons starting in 2012.

This season, the A’s are 53 games under .500 (33-88) and are going to give the 1962 New York Mets a run for their money for the worst record in the modern era.

Along come the revitalized Baltimore Orioles, who open a weekend series at the Coliseum on Friday night, a recent league laughing stock that is providing a glimpse at how quickly fortunes can change – even on a modest budget.

Two years after losing 110 games, the Orioles are suddenly overflowing with talent up and down the organization.

Baltimore is at the top of a loaded AL East, two games ahead of Tampa Bay. In addition to a young big league core that includes Rookie of the Year candidate Gunnar Henderson and All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman, the Orioles have eight prospects ranked in the top 100 by MLB Pipeline — including Jackson Holliday at No. 1.

Despite the fourth-lowest payroll in the majors – just under $70.4 million, according to Spotrac.com (the A’s are last at $58.6M) – Baltimore looks like a team that could make a lengthy postseason run this year.

If that doesn’t happen, the groundwork is still set for an extended period of contention for a franchise that lost at least 108 games in every non-shortened season from 2018-21 and hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2016.

“I’m very happy with the spot that this organization’s in right now, being currently in first place in arguably the strongest division of all-time, and then having the No. 1 farm system,” general manager Mike Elias said recently. “But it’s very clear to me that this season’s not over, and we have a lot of work left to do. We haven’t won anything yet.”

Elias took over the Baltimore front office before the 2019 season, having been part of a similar rebuild while working for the Houston Astros. The Orioles remained mostly uncompetitive for the next three years, but Rutschman reached the majors in 2022 and they improved to 83-79. Now they’ve taken another big step.

“I’d like to say I set out to be in first place five years from starting, especially with everything that we went through, but I did not,” Elias said. “I never sat down and wrote that out. Particularly through the Astros experience, kind of lived the fact that the timelines can be a little quicker than expected if things go well.”

High draft picks from all that losing have helped.

Rutschman and Holliday were No. 1 overall selections. The Orioles have also been productive a little further down, landing Westburg at No. 30 in 2020 and Henderson at No. 42 the previous year.

By comparison, the A’s have had just four top-10 draft picks in the past decade and haven’t had a top-three pick since Mark Mulder was the No. 2 overall pick in 1998. Many of the A’s top picks over the past decade also have failed to pan out — Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Sean Murphy (a third-rounder) are the only homegrown stars to emerge in recent years, and all were traded for cost-cutting reasons.

When the A’s reached the playoffs five times in seven seasons from 2000-2007, they augmented homegrown talent such as Mulder, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada with roster moves that at the time seemed to go mostly under the radar.

The Orioles’ Elias acquired Kyle Bradish (currently seventh in the AL in ERA) in a trade for Dylan Bundy in 2019. Reliever Yennier Cano came over in a deal last year for Jorge López. This season, Cano became an All-Star.

Other, even quieter moves have turned out beautifully. Infielder Ramón Urías was a waiver claim in 2020 and won a Gold Glove last year. Ryan O’Hearn was acquired from Kansas City for cash before this season, and he has the highest OPS on the 2023 Orioles at .847.

And players acquired during the pre-Elias era — like outfielders Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander — have made big contributions too. Grayson Rodriguez, drafted with the 11th pick in 2018, has shown promise recently after arriving in the majors this year as a top pitching prospect.

Félix Bautista — the 6-foot-8 closer nicknamed “Mountain” — might be the most dominant reliever in baseball, averaging almost two strikeouts per inning and tied for the league lead with 32 saves. Baltimore signed him to a minor league deal back in 2016, six years before his big league debut.

So the Orioles have built a roster that could make any GM envious. It’s a team with plenty of young, cost-controlled talent — good enough to contend now, and stocked with prospects who may have a chance to help soon enough.

The concern is that Baltimore might end up with a logjam — if the infield eventually includes Holliday at shortstop, Henderson at third base and Westburg at second, that leaves little room for Urías or former A’s infield prospect Jorge Mateo.

Mateo, who the A’s acquired in 2017 from the Yankees as part of the deal for Sonny Gray and was still a minor leaguer when he was traded to San Diego three years later, is batting just .208 at the moment but has 60 steals since the start of last season. The Orioles started him in center recently, using their surplus of infielders to help an outfield that’s dealing with some injuries. Ortiz is also a middle infielder, adding to the sense that Baltimore has too many young position players in its system and not quite enough pitching.

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There’s also the question of the team’s meager payroll.

If they want, the Orioles could add a couple stars on huge contracts and still be well below the highest-spending teams. Are they willing to commit a little more money to take full advantage of the opportunity before them? Will they keep Rutschman, Henderson and this group of players together long-term?

Baltimore will certainly be a team to watch this coming offseason, but first the Orioles have bigger priorities — trying to secure a playoff berth and hold on for the division title.

If that all happens, this young team could be the talk of baseball entering the postseason.

“I like seeing our guys being popular and selling jerseys and have people want to watch them,” manager Brandon Hyde said recently, not long before the Orioles hosted a nationally televised Sunday night game. “I think it’s fantastic for everybody.”

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