It was only last year that the Baltimore Orioles suffered 19 straight defeats en route to their third 100-loss campaign in the last three full seasons. That'll happen during a rebuild, and theirs clearly still needed work.
But is that still true a year later?
In no time at all, the Orioles have become a real player in the American League postseason picture. Their 10-game winning streak—the franchise's first since Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Mussina still roamed the dugout in 1999—is part of an 18-7 run since June 16 that has propelled them over the .500 mark to 45-44. They won 52 games in 2021.
Because the New York Yankees (62-27) have basically refused to lose all season, first place in the AL East remains a whopping 17 games out of the Orioles' reach. Yet the same is not true of the AL wild-card race, as the O's are only 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, who are both 47-43, for the third and final slot.
Trouble is, the odds that Baltimore will make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 remain slim. FanGraphs, for example, grants it only a 2.2 percent chance.
The Orioles don't necessarily have to accept those odds, but with the Aug. 2 trade deadline inching closer, the clock is ticking for them to lean one way or the other.
Anatomy of a Winning Streak: Some Hitting and Lots of Pitching and Defense
Baltimore's run differential really captures how much more competitive it's been of late:
- First 64 Games: Minus-48
- Last 25 Games: Plus-42
Because it came June 15, Adley Rutschman's first career home run isn't a perfect demarcation point. There is nonetheless a correlation that can't be ignored, as it isn't terribly surprising that the Orioles have started winning games as the now-former No. 1 prospect has found his stroke with an .876 OPS since that fateful date.
In addition to the club's 24-year-old catcher, Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander have also had their bats going. Since June 16, that foursome has been 21 points better than average to the tune of a 121 wRC+.
The common ingredient here is dripping with irony. Whereas the Orioles infamously discouraged cutters while Dan Duquette was running baseball operations from 2011 to 2018, manager Brandon Hyde and general manager Mike Elias clearly feel differently. Their starters boast an MLB-high 20.4 percent cutter usage since June 16 with a 4.5 run value to match.
The Baltimore bullpen, meanwhile, is going about as strong as it has been all season. It has a 2.89 ERA since June 16, and All-Star closer Jorge Lopez and rookie setup man Felix Bautista have combined to strike out 43.9 percent of batters.
The athleticism of the Orioles defense has also been a factor. A hard thing to measure, to be sure, but the O's notably rank behind only the New York Mets and Houston Astros in allowing a .344 average on hard-hit balls in play since June 16. Luck is a factor, but there was more than that at play on outs such as this one and this one.
The Orioles have gotten good because they've played good baseball. It's funny how that works, and it points to the obvious question: Why wouldn't Elias want to buy in to the club's budding playoff run?
And Yet There Is a Case for the Orioles to Sell
If it's a promise Orioles fans are looking for, Elias has only vagaries to offer for now.
"We're going to be looking at different things. There will be moving parts," he said Monday, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. "It's potentially not going to be a black-and-white path with which way we will approach the deadline. I'm looking forward to seeing what new information the next few weeks bring, both from our team and what happens around the league."
One might expect more enthusiasm from an executive whose team is playing its best baseball in six years, yet the potentially unsustainable nature of the Orioles' improved play is perhaps justification enough for Elias' waffling.
The offense isn't thriving on an abundance of home runs and walks or a shortage of strikeouts but rather a spike in productivity with runners in scoring position, with their average going from .222 prior to June 15 to .274 since June 16. And as good as the starting pitchers have been lately, it's hard to maintain both a 29th-ranked ground-ball percentage and top-ranked home run-to-fly ball ratio.
Throw in the fact that the Orioles haven't exactly been taking on world-beaters—their last three opponents are among MLB's 11 worst teams—and Elias has ample reason to believe that the "what goes up must come down" rule will apply to his team.
Besides, the farm system could use a boost.
Though B/R's Joel Reuter ranked Baltimore's talent pool at No. 4 on May 30, that was when Rutschman still had prospect eligibility and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez was healthy. That's no longer true of the former, while the latter has no time table for his return from a strained right lat.
The Orioles hypothetically have plenty of room to add to MLB's lowest payroll. That may not be the reality, though. Elias has been transparent that big spending in free agency is not in the team's future. Perhaps uncoincidentally, the sons of owner Peter Angelos are suing each other over control of the franchise.
If this means the Orioles won't simply buy what they can't develop in-house, then arguably the best thing they can do between now and Aug. 2 is add more pieces to develop.
At the least, they could rent slugger Trey Mancini before free agency calls his number at the end of the year. Ditto for right-hander Jordan Lyles, while controllable pieces such as Santander (through 2024) and Lopez (2024) or even Mullins (2025) and fellow outfielder Austin Hays (2025) could fetch more substantial hauls.
Or They Could Take a Cue from Trey Mancini
Even if the Orioles aren't as ahead of schedule with their rebuild as it seems right now, they're sure as heck not behind schedule.
Rebuilding is about making incremental progress by developing young players and teaching veterans new tricks. The Orioles are competitive now precisely because they've succeeded on both fronts. To the former, there's Mountcastle, Hays and especially Rutschman. To the latter, Mullins and Lopez were afterthoughts before certain adjustments led them to stardom.
If another barometer of rebuilding progress is fan interest, Elias and the club's decision-makers would do well to notice what Mancini has about the changing environment at Oriole Park at Camden Yards:
MLB Network @MLBNetwork
"There hasn't been an energy like that in Camden Yards since my rookie year in 2017."<a href="https://twitter.com/TreyMancini?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TreyMancini</a> highlights the <a href="https://twitter.com/Orioles?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Orioles</a>' flawless homestand, the play of rookie teammate Adley Rutschman and more on <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PregameSpread?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PregameSpread</a>.<a href="https://twitter.com/adnansvirk?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@adnansvirk</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Birdland?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Birdland</a> <a href="https://t.co/LTaHAWgGr8">pic.twitter.com/LTaHAWgGr8</a>
Under these circumstances, to sell at the deadline would be, well, a hard sell.
Especially since the Orioles stand to give their farm system the boost it needs by drafting, say, Druw Jones or Jackson Holliday with the No. 1 pick on Sunday, there wouldn't be much sense in pivoting for the future by trading parts of said future. Certainly, they stand a better chance of building on this year's step forward if Santander, Lopez, Mullins, Hays and others stick around for 2023 and beyond.
As he's a reasonably productive hitter who could probably land a low- or even mid-level prospect in a trade, there's more sense in moving Mancini. At least in a vacuum sort of sense anyway.
Outside the vacuum, though, Mancini is the team's longest-tenured player and, oh yeah, a cancer survivor who was the AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2021. They love him as much in the clubhouse as they do in the bleachers, so to remove him from a surprise playoff run even for a blue-chip prospect would constitute a baffling failure to read the room.
This doesn't mean the Orioles have to go in the opposite direction and mortgage their farm system to acquire name-brand players at the trade deadline.
Blake Snell, as Rosenthal suggested, or Pablo Lopez, as MLB.com's Mark Feinsand proposed, would be nice, but the Orioles could do just as well going on a buy-low search for controllable players who need changes of scenery. To throw a few names out there: Think Miguel Andujar, Dominic Smith or Miguel Sano.
It wouldn't be a full-on charge, but this approach would sure beat a retreat. Because even if there may come a time when the Orioles will have to live to fight another day, they shouldn't be asked to do that while they're only starting to land punches.