Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter used to call them “nuggets.”
Soon after arriving in Baltimore to direct the final phase of the previous Orioles rebuilding project, Showalter used that term to describe the results of the mining operation that needs to take place to build a contending team from the ground up.
Mike Elias and the new Orioles front office employ different terms and methods to describe the approach they hope will lead to a new era of winning baseball in Baltimore. The goal is to create an “elite talent pipeline” that will keep the team perpetually competitive. But it still involves the same gradual process of adding pieces that will eventually coalesce into a playoff team.
That has already started, even if it’s way too early in that process to predict which prospects currently in development will grow into impact players. Showalter joined a team that already had assembled a nucleus of young talent that was almost ready for prime-time. Executive vice president Dan Duquette would show up 15 months later to put the final touches on the 2012 team that ended the Orioles’ 14-year playoff drought.
Elias is still figuring out what he inherited from the previous administration as the organization assimilates his first draft class. But the long-awaited arrival of 2013 first-round pick Hunter Harvey and the immediate progress of this year’s draft superstar, Adley Rutschman, is creating some excitement at a particularly difficult point in the season when the Orioles need to keep hope alive.
Chicken soup for the soul: The Orioles might be on their way to another 115 losses. But watching Harvey end his second big league relief appearance with a 100 mph fastball and get his first major league victory Tuesday night had to be chicken soup for the soul of their beleaguered fan base.
The fact that it happened the day after Rutschman went 5-for-5 for Short-A Aberdeen and just hours after he was quickly added to the playoff-bound Low-A Delmarva roster made Tuesday seem like a watershed moment in a new Orioles era.
While Elias was brutally honest recently when he was asked whether the Orioles’ encouraging .500 July was a sign that the rebuild was ahead of schedule, he obviously recognizes the need to give the fans an occasional look into the future.
Selling the future: The Orioles have no choice but to sell that future whenever it doesn’t interrupt or infringe on the process. It was only a coincidence that the two roster moves were made after a week when the fan base was shaken by unfounded rumors that the team might allow its Camden Yards lease to expire and move out of town, but it was a happy one.
Harvey, 24, was supposed to be one of Showalter’s “nuggets,” but a string of injuries prevented him from progressing through the organization on the original timeline. Rutschman, 21, is expected to be the face of a new generation of Orioles talent, though fans will have to spend at least the next couple of years tracking his progress from a distance.
In the meantime, they can anticipate the September call-ups of some promising prospects from the old regime, while trying to figure out which players on the current big league roster are potential nuggets and which are simply placeholders.
That will become clearer during the offseason, when we find out whether Elias intends to keep any of the productive veteran players or chooses to use them to help continue to repopulate the lower levels of the minor league system.
Looking for true keepers: It will take longer than that to figure out how many of the young players that have played regularly this year are truly keepers. The front office has been impressed with the progress of outfielder Anthony Santander, but will have to see it continue next year. Rule 5 shortstop Richie Martin has shown he can hold his own at the game’s most challenging infield position, but still has a lot to prove at the plate. Rookie left-hander John Means made the All-Star team, but has lost five of his six games since.
All-purpose infielder Hanser Alberto, who was designated for assignment four times last offseason and now ranks among the American League’s top hitters, is one of the feel-good stories of a feel-bad season. But he probably isn’t projectable because he likely will be pushing 30 by the time the team turns a competitive corner.
Renato Nunez also is a late bloomer who has put up surprising numbers this season and will be under club control through 2024. So he likely will return next year with a chance to prove that he can be a consistent run-producer.
The current roster is an eclectic mix that has suffered mightily from a lack of effective pitching, and it’s hard to imagine next year being much different. For the fans, the waiting might be the hardest part, but if the Orioles can strike gold with a few more players along the way, this rebuilding period will be a lot more bearable.