Bust the process: Rebuilt Baltimore Orioles' bright future arrives ahead of schedule

BALTIMORE — For a brief few moments Wednesday, a postcard-perfect scene unfolded near the batting cage at Camden Yards, an idyllic snapshot for a Baltimore Orioles franchise that insisted self-immolation was the only route to prosperity.

Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in this month’s draft, awaited his turn for a semi-ceremonial round of batting practice, hanging on the words of veterans Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini and hitting coach Ryan Fuller before his 18-year-old frame unfurled and slugged a handful of balls into the right field bleachers.

Behind the cage, seven-time All-Star Matt Holliday, Jackson’s father, chatted easily with Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who figuratively took one for the team when three seasons of strip-mined rosters produced 108- and 110-loss seasons, part of a stretch where the club lost more than 100 in three of five years but also earned the chance to select Holliday and franchise cornerstone Adley Rutschman at the top of the draft.

And gazing upon it all like a proud father was executive vice president and GM Mike Elias, who arrived from the uber-innovative Houston Astros as a savior of sorts, toiling largely behind the scenes as Camden Yards turned into a desert and opponents feasted on the desiccated rosters he assembled.

His club would take the field at 49-49, two more wins than the 2018 squad won the entirety of that 115-loss season, a campaign that prompted a housecleaning and Elias’ eventual hiring. Wednesday, then, was something close to the scene Elias envisioned all along – an athletic, contending team fortified by the best farm system in baseball, one that may be equipped to sustain greatness in an always unforgiving American League East.

They're still far from the apex they envision, though the scene was rife with tangible and symbolic reasons that the Orioles have emerged from the darkness.

“I look back now,” Elias said Wednesday of the 2019 day the foundering club introduced Rutschman as its first overall pick, “and this has a totally different feeling to me. Adding Jackson’s talent right now, our organization is in the healthiest spot it’s been in a very long time.

“We’ve got a major league team up here playing a really exciting brand of baseball. They’re young, they’re talented, so many of them are going to here for a while and we’re sitting on the No. 1 farm system in the game. Now, we add someone who I expect will develop into one of the best players in the game.”

Catcher Adley Rutschman leads a young group of players on the Orioles.
Catcher Adley Rutschman leads a young group of players on the Orioles.

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Indeed, Elias has concocted a brew that is steaming perhaps sooner than he envisioned. After Wednesday night’s 6-4 loss in 10 innings to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles stand just four games out of a wild-card spot, full-throated crowds slowly returning to Camden Yards and relishing, in Mancini, a homegrown holdover they love. Elias’ cold-blooded mien would dictate that Mancini and perhaps valued staples like closer Jorge Lopez and rotation anchor Jordan Lyles could be dealt before the Aug. 2 deadline, the better to acquire assets for this bright future.

Elias has only said he may take a “global” approach to the trade deadline, an eye on the future and another on the present. Mancini says he is at “peace” with the outcome at this point, knowing an exit via free agency is likely this winter, anyway.

Yet while sports is increasingly a game of arbitrage in service of an occasionally never-ending “process,” Mancini is quietly thrilled his Orioles have upset even their own best-laid plans.

“It’s been incredible to be a part of. I’m really proud of these guys,” says Mancini, who debuted in 2016, on the last Baltimore team to make the playoffs, suffered through the three 100-loss seasons and survived a bout with colon cancer in 2020 to see this rebuild through.

“Every team has done it differently. But I’m proud of this team because we’ve certainly done much better than people thought we would.”

And that’s forced Elias and his staff into a future they could embrace quicker than they imagined.

'Very, very smart guys'

They’ve lost so predictably and for so long that it’s easy to forget Birdland was in tatters before Elias’s arrival.

The 2018 squad lost 115 games, ending the Dan Duquette-Buck Showalter brain trust but setting up Elias to choose Rutschman, the switch-hitting catcher from Oregon State, No. 1 overall. But Elias and Hyde’s inaugural 2019 year was nearly as grim, with 108 losses including a 2-17 record against the Yankees, a cruel indicator of the climb ahead.

Elias was adamant about competing in the international market, shoring up player development, overturning gems. A semi-palatable squad soldiered through a 25-35 2020 season, but the mirage faded into a 110-loss 2021 debacle, a -297 run differential that was the worst in Baltimore history, a return to last place.

We’ll grant Mancini and Co. their righteous indignation over predictions of 2022 gloom, but the leading indicators were ghastly.

And then, things happened.

Duquette-era holdovers such as left fielder Austin Hays, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and starter Dean Kremer took modest steps forward. A bullpen comprised of waiver claims and late bloomers began dominating. And after years of Elias turning the ends of the 26- and 40-man rosters into casting calls, a viable and athletically potent left side of the infield in third baseman Ramon Urias and blazing-fast shortstop Jorge Mateo emerged from the churn.

It also seems like none of this was an accident.

Take the bullpen, which now ranks third in the majors with a 3.04 ERA.

Ahead of All-Star closer Lopez, Hyde can summon essentially two squadrons of relievers to space out rest days as best he can. And relievers both old and new say the player development process has been key to their prosperity.

Dillon Tate, acquired from the Yankees in July 2018 only to post a 4.61 ERA from 2019-21, credits pitching coach Chris Holt with aiding the evolution of his slider, which he began fiddling with last year and threw just eight times in games. The two have doggedly crafted its shape and  delivery and now, he throws it 18% of the time and uses it effectively as an out pitch, with a 33% whiff rate and the lowest expected batting average (.206) of his three pitches.

He sports a 2.28 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP, shaving a chunk off his 1.24 2021 mark. Perhaps more significant, the scars from 2019-21 are fading.

“Looking back,” says Tate, “it’s all just learning. And everybody’s going to learn at their own speed. Fast forward to now, everybody’s in good spirits, the chemistry’s really high, everybody’s closer than we were before.

“I feel that’s a piece that has to do with us playing much better.”

Cionel Perez wasn’t around for the bad times but found his career at a standstill after failing to earn consistent work with the Astros and flailing (6.38 ERA) in 25 games with Cincinnati last year.

The Orioles claimed him off waivers in November and he began his stint with 11 consecutive scoreless outings on his way to a 1.35 ERA. While, like Tate, his slider has become a dominant offering, he credits Holt’s mindset with instilling aggression throughout the relief corps.

“The word I’ll use to describe it,” says Perez through an interpreter, “is incredible. He’s told all of us something very important and it’s that all of us here have incredible pitches and an incredible arsenal. He tells us that our pitches alone will do the job for us.

“We use that confidence to attack the zone, attack hitters, and I think that’s why we’ve had so much success this year.”

The numbers bear that out: Baltimore ranks fourth in the AL in strikeout-walk ratio at 2.81 and the bullpen’s 2.86 rate ranks second. In 2021, they were last in the AL, 28th in MLB at 2.19.

While the modern big leagues are filled with gushing platitudes for swing doctors, pitch shapers and player development systems, some who have peeked behind Baltimore’s curtain say the turnup is real. Shawn Armstrong, an Oriole reliever from 2019-21, now pitches for the vaunted Rays and also pitched in Cleveland, yet another pitching hothouse.

He believes the Orioles have not yet unleashed the full fury of their proprietary algorithms, but came out of there convinced Elias, longtime consigliere Sig Mejdal and pitching strategy manager Ryan Klimek are the real deals.

“They did a great job helping me out,” says Armstrong. “At the same time, if you’re not building for now, you’re not going to expose all your information to your players, in my opinion. They’re very, very smart guys. They’re not going to give you a whole bunch of information in Year 1 or Year 2 when they’re building their own program.”

The brainpower extends to the hitting side, where Fuller has received significant platitudes for boosting Urias into a potential keeper, with 11 homers and a 118 adjusted OPS in 66 games this season. Cedric Mullins, an All-Star center fielder in 2021, is perhaps their original success story, and while his OPS has fallen from .878 to .709, he’s on track to surpass his 30 steals from a year ago.

“It seems like they know what they’re doing,” Mountcastle says of the Orioles’ modernized coaching staff. “Guys are working hard and buying in and getting better.”

Yet so much of the growth goes beyond the metrics.

‘He’s a lover’

With the major league product largely unwatchable for four seasons, the dwindling loyalists of Camden Yards began casting their eyes to all reaches of the minor leagues, with Rutschman – who edged out Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. as the top pick – the constant focus.

At long last, his debut came on May 21, and he has not disappointed, producing five homers, 18 doubles, a .774 OPS and countless bro hugs from his pitchers when he greets them coming off the mound.

It’s a decidedly collegiate maneuver, but one Rutschman can’t resist and the Orioles embrace.

“First and foremost,” says Rays pitcher Drew Rasmussen, Rutschman’s teammate at Oregon State, “he’s a lover and he wants his teammates to have success just as much as he wants success for himself.”

Rutschman says he’s learned to “compartmentalize” what needs to be done, which is one way he’s helped beat back the expectations that come as a No. 1 overall pick and the face of a rebuild for a thirsty fan base. It’s hard not to love him now: The Orioles have gone 33-25 since his arrival.

If part of the Orioles’ goal was to shield their budding star from the darkest of times, consider it a success. Yet Rutschman appreciates their toil that enabled him to reap the benefits in the future.

“I definitely respect the trials and effort they went through,” he says of the Orioles veterans. “They put in a lot of work, and you’ve got to respect that.”

Perhaps none more than Hyde, the former Chicago Cubs bench coach who inherited a 115-loss team stripped further of talent, navigated a pandemic year with no minor league play in an organization that valued that more than any others, and now has come out the other side.

The curse of a rebuilding manager is often that they don’t get to taste the fruit of their labors. Yet the Orioles picked up Hyde’s 2023 option, and his clubhouse credibility might only be boosted in his ability to stay medium regardless of record.

“He’s the same guy. And that’s incredible to be able to do that,” Mancini says of Hyde. “It’s one of the best qualities a manager can have – to always be the same guy and have faith in his guys. And he’s getting rewarded for it right now.

“He deserves this more than anyone. He’s an incredible manager.”

Says Armstrong: “I think Brandon Hyde’s done a phenomenal job. I have a lot of respect for him. Going through the tough times with us together, I’ll always have a lot of respect for Baltimore. It’s a good group of dudes there.”

Whether they’ll be around come Aug. 3 is up to Elias. Regardless, he may enter an offseason like no other in his tenure, potentially coming off a winning record, with top arms such as DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez hungry to join the rotation and the confidence of knowing he and his staff can pull off the most vexing task in the game – assembling the bullpen.

And then there’s that farm system. Holliday was signed to an $8.19 million bonus as part of a record $17 million signing pool, wrought by the Orioles’ poor 2021. A future left side of the infield featuring Holliday and No. 6 overall prospect Gunnar Henderson, who has 15 home runs and is flourishing at Class AAA, is potentially menacing. Holliday says that it’s “awesome” to join a club that has “the No. 1 farm system, so I’m excited to get in and start learning from people who know more than me and get better.”

As his batting practice session ended, Holliday headed toward a stadium tunnel and, come Thursday, will fly to Sarasota for his first steps as an Oriole minor-leaguer at their Florida complex. Hyde exited the field and crossed paths with Holliday before heading to the clubhouse, another day of game-planning ahead.

“Good luck, man,” Hyde said to Holliday, a bright present and future no longer the stuff of fantasy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baltimore Orioles' bright future arrives ahead of schedule in AL East