As another 100-loss year concludes, Orioles eye top-ranked farm system as source of pride

JON MEOLI
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Grayson Rodriguez, the Baltimore Orioles' 2018 first round draft pick, stands on the field during a baseball game between the Orioles and the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Ask Grayson Rodriguez his vision for the Baltimore Orioles’ future, and baseball’s top pitching prospect and Orioles minor leaguer goes big: “Hopefully, a lot of wins and a couple of rings.”

Such World Series aspirations seem far from the team’s reality with another 100-loss season ending Sunday, one of the worst statistical pitching staffs in baseball history, and two weekslong losing streaks that have challenged fans’ endurance.

Sure, there have been highlights: Trey Mancini’s return from colon cancer, the return of fans to Camden Yards after the shortened, TV-only 2020 pandemic summer, a no-hitter by John Means, and breakout seasons from Most Valuable Oriole Cedric Mullins and Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Mountcastle. But it’s been mostly lowlights.

However, team officials point to a minor league system that ranks among the game’s best as the brightest sign that the payoff for a painful but necessary rebuilding process is fast approaching and say developing — not buying — talent is the key to competing from Baltimore.

“While we continue to post records at the major-league level that we don’t want to see and hope are behind us, we have to look at where we’re at relative to where we started,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “We’re now sitting with a consensus top minor league system in the entire league. We’ve got a flexible and clear landscape with our major-league roster going forward, and we’ve had several individual young players emerge on the major-league team this year that we have in our possession for a long time and look like they could be core pieces of a playoff-caliber team.

“Strategically, things are in a great spot over those two-and-a-half years.”

Upgrades in other areas: Team officials also cite recent upgrades and investment in data analytics, player development infrastructure and Latin American scouting as putting the Orioles on course to compete again soon.

Elias characterizes the Orioles’ difficulties at the major league level as the consequence of steps to restore the organization’s foundation to a point where it can compete again, and do so continuously.

For now, the Orioles have plumbed these depths: a 51-107 record that’s tied for the worst in the major leagues entering the final four regular-season games. In fact, since 2016, no team has lost more than these Orioles. They’ve had three consecutive full seasons with more than 100 losses and a near-record 19-game losing streak.

Interest in minors spikes: Still, the Orioles’ prospects are such that observers are taking notice. Bob Phelan, Nick Stevens and Zach Spedden have launched “On The Verge,” a podcast dedicated to Orioles in the pipeline. They’ve seen interest spike since minor league baseball returned in May, with their highlight clips on Twitter and game recaps drawing the attention of fans and players alike.

“We’ve seen our numbers grow and grow,” Phelan said. “It seems the engagement increases every week. It’s pretty crazy.”

Mullins, Means and Mountcastle are potential building blocks on the major league roster. Now, Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman, baseball’s No. 1 overall prospect, are leading the young players climbing the ranks with eyes on Camden Yards.

Elias makes changes: Before 2016, the Orioles used their resources to maximize their major league championship potential. But when Elias took over nearly three years ago, stars such as Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Zack Britton were gone and there were no proven replacements in place.

Elias said the Orioles were “lacking investment and infrastructure in a lot of areas that are very fundamental to how baseball franchises operate in this decade and the last decade.”

As he saw it, the Orioles’ small-market stature made it imperative they develop their own stars and find competitive advantages in lieu of being able to spend money to fix their issues, as many of their rivals do.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was tasked with leading the major league team (he’ll be back in 2022), while a trio of hires in Elias’ first year — assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal, senior director of international scouting Koby Perez and director of player development Matt Blood — re-imagined those departments to put the Orioles on par with their competition.

Unloading veterans and slashing payroll: Meanwhile, Elias stripped the major league roster of experienced and expensive players, slashing payroll significantly and watching the Orioles earn high positions in the draft.

Former No. 1 overall draft pick Rutschman, Rodriguez and fellow top pitching prospect DL Hall are the headliners. Recent draft picks such as Colton Cowser, Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Coby Mayo had outstanding seasons, building the impression that the Orioles’ farm system is trending up.

When Rodriguez made his first start for the Double-A Bowie Baysox with Rutschman behind the plate in June, thousands filled the seats and social media buzzed. People brought gas cans to the game as a symbol for the pitcher to “gas up.”

Phelan, of “On The Verge,” believes interest in Rutschman and Rodriguez initially brought many to the podcast’s feeds, but that the information on the expanding base of prospects has been a draw, as well.

“There’s so much to watch for, with the No. 1 or No. 2-ranked farm system in baseball, depending on where you look, for a reason,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent coming up, and I think it’s going to be fun for these people to get in on the ground floor and get to know these guys before they even make their major league debuts, so they’re more invested once they do come up and start having success.”

An improved mentality: What’s most exciting for Rutschman is a mentality of improvement that’s taken hold.

“The most noticeable thing for me has been one, the people, and two, just the mindset that the whole organization has towards players and player development that comes with just the process-oriented mindset that everyone has here,” Rutschman said. “I really appreciate that, because I feel like guys don’t get the sense of everything being such a failure. They see it as a learning opportunity, and making that switch in their mind has been huge.”

Blood’s philosophy as director of player development is based on challenging players to foster growth, whether in practice or with promotions at the first sign of comfort at a new minor league level.

Trying to push players beyond their limits: To compete in a division in which the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have a significant financial advantage, the Toronto Blue Jays are a burgeoning contender and the Tampa Bay Rays remain one of baseball’s best teams through shrewd transactions and prolific player development, the Orioles know they need to push their players beyond their limits.

“We want to create that environment throughout the minor leagues, where it just becomes natural to the guys whenever that time comes when we need them in the big leagues,” Blood said.

Help is on the way soon: That need could arise quickly. Rutschman and Rodriguez could be summoned to Camden Yards as soon as early next year. Outfielder Kyle Stowers and a host of interesting pitchers might not be far behind. And the minor league system is loaded with fast-moving hitters who could force the Orioles’ hand by getting to Triple-A Norfolk and producing.

In fact, the lineup is expected to be competitive from top to bottom before the pitching staff can say the same. That such a time is on the horizon, as opposed to completely out of sight, isn’t lost on anyone inside the club’s front office.

“We’ve got a long way to go, and the division is a bear. We’ve got to put together a playoff-caliber roster, and there’s a lot of work ahead in doing that,” Elias said. “But, I do feel that we’ve now put the franchise in a very healthy spot, and it was not in a healthy spot going into 2019. I think that’s a big achievement.”