Rebuilding is one of those tricky things. On one hand, an organization is telling its fans that they actually see the need to completely restart, draft well, and focus on player development. Essentially, you are selling a fanbase hope. It is the hope that once all of this losing at the Major League level happens, there will be this nice core of players to root for during a decade long—more or less— window of opportunity. It is selling the idea that the organization will no longer accept mediocrity.
But, on the other hand, there is all that losing. There is a long period of time simply watching the uniform, knowing that most of the current Major Leaguers have no future with the organization. It is frustrating. And, there are simply no guarantees.
That is exactly where the 2020 Orioles are, as currently constituted, right now.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Truthfully, so much has to go right for a rebuild. Perhaps, even the word rebuild is misleading. Does it even exist in the way that most portray it or as most teams sell it?
The Houston Astros are given a lot of credit for rebuilding the right way. I have certainly written about it many times. Yes, their former General Manager Jeff Luhnow completely gutted the organization when he first took over. He traded anyone he could to get bulk prospects, beefing up the worst farm system in the Major Leagues. He hit on a number of draft picks when he had the opportunity to pick high such as Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker. He also drafted current Major Leaguers Tony Kemp, JD Davis, Josh James, and Derek Fisher. During his tenure, he’s also had busts such as Tyler White and AJ Reed.
The Astros that became competitors did have a young core, some of which Luhnow inherited such as Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel. Luhnow did well having three of his draft picks—Correa, McCullers, and Bregman—play a big role in their turnaround.
But, here’s the thing…Luhnow’s rebuild wasn’t just about prospects. No team’s rebuild is solely about building through the organization. He wisely brought in Charlie Morton when there were questions about his ability. Over the years, he traded prospects for Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke. He played the reliever market and the international free agent market well. He wisely moved on from Keuchel rather than overpay.
Luhnow wasn’t the only one to accomplish this. The New York Yankees were struggling just five or so years ago. General Manager Brian Cashman focused more on the farm system, much to the dismay of the win at all cost New York fanbase. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez were the prize farm system prospects. He traded for young prospect now star, Gleyber Torres. The system developed a couple of young pitchers with some still to come. But, once the core of Judge, Sanchez, and Torres were ready, Cashman went to work to fill in via free agency and trades. DJ Lemahieu, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, James Paxton, and a revamped bullpen were all trades and free agent signings.
Theo Epstein did a similar job with the Chicago Cubs, but their core is really Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo. Yes, there are other players on the rosters who were drafted by Epstein and, yes, he leveraged other high picks to bring in Major League talent (see Torres, Gleyber above), but the majority of the roster is comprised of players either traded for or signed as a free agent.
Ok, so what does all of that have to do with the Orioles? Well, pretty much everything.
The Orioles are definitely selling the concept that they are committed to a rebuild. I’ve already written about it and am on board with the idea of a reset. I’ve written that the signing of Jose Iglesias to a cost effective, short term deal made a ton of sense within in the scope of a rebuilding organization. I’ve written that Orioles have a legitimate plan to rebuild and that 2022 looks really promising for the team to actually be exciting. I’ve had discussions on the BSL Board, defending the idea of a rebuild (side note: join the discussion board for the excellent, in-depth talk).
I stand by all of that I’ve said. But, I think all of that is most definitely oversimplified. While the Orioles and Mike Elias are following the rebuild blueprint that his former boss implemented, there are two questions that remain to be answered.
Who, exactly, will comprise that core?
If/when that core is in place, can Elias fill in the rest—the majority—of the roster with quality trades and free agent signings?
The latter, obviously, cannot be answered right now. And, maybe, it never will. But, we can attack the first question a bit.
Right now, the current roster does not likely have a core member of a championship contender.
On the current 28 man roster, there are only really two candidates, Anthony Santander and Austin Hays. Both players have promise, but also have a whole lot more questions than answers.
Hays is off to a rough start during his first 11 games of 2020, but nothing can be read into that right now. Defensively, he is already posting a +2 DRS as the everyday centerfielder, which is quite valuable. 11 strikeouts in 11 games is troubling, but it is simply too early to judge. Perhaps, he develops into a solid everyday player. Those types of players are important to an organization. But, does that mean Hays is one of the core players? Time will tell, but there aren’t many evaluators who believe that Hays will be a star. Given the fact that he is already 24 years old, he is one the cusp of his prime years with little experience. Consider this: Alex Bregman is just 26 years old. Carlos Correa is just 25. Gleyber Torres is just 23. Hays can be a good player, but it is unlikely that he can be a cornerstone player.
Anthony Santander showed a whole lot of promise last season when he hit 20 home runs and 20 doubles in just 97 games. There is power in the switch hitting corner outfielder who is in his age 25 season. Defensively, he is already a +3 according to DRS so there is value beyond his power. But, he’s already 25 years old. Even if he does become a 30 to 40 home run hitter, will he be a part of the core? It is difficult to say. During his brief career, he has shown quite an aversion to taking a walk, which could limit his value if he continues to just be a free swinging hitter. The League will figure him out or he will adjust. Is his ceiling that of a core, superstar player? The power is real, so who knows.
Perhaps, even more importantly, will he be around when the Orioles contend? He’ll be eligible for free agency in 2025 at the age of 30. If he does develop into a star, he’ll be looking at a big contract. Is it wise for the Orioles to hand out a long term deal to a player entering his 30’s? So, it looks like he won’t be around, even if he develops in the best case scenario.
In reality, it looks like the core of a potential playoff contender isn’t on the current roster with the exception of, perhaps, Hays and Santander developing into complimentary players.
So, where’s the core?
The hope is that Elias is developing the farm system and hitting on a couple of his draft picks. Uber prospect Aldley Rutschman looks like the proverbial “can’t miss” guy who likely will be up at some point next season. As exciting as the switch hitting catcher is, there is a definite risk with building around catchers. But, he does look like a special player. So, there is legitimate hope. Right handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez is just 20 years old and is likely two years away from cracking the Major League rotation. Both are regarded as elite level prospects so perhaps they form a core. 2020 first round pick Heston Kjerstad could certainly join that list too if Elias bet correctly on the 21 year old. Maybe those are the three core players that Elias will have to form a roster around. Or, maybe, one or two of the lesser prospects form that core.
The Orioles do have some interesting prospects such as left handed pitcher DL Hall, man without a real position Ryan Mountcastle, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, right hander Dean Kremer, lefty Zack Lowther, right hander Michael Baumann, lefty Keegan Akin, and shortstops Gunner Henderson and Adam Hall.
Mountcastle is the most interesting name in that group as he has hit at every single level and is most ready for a promotion to the show. It is time to see if the 22 year old can hit at the Major League level. While most talent evaluators don’t rank him as an elite prospect, his bat is certainly interesting. At some point soon, the Orioles will need to insert him into the Major League lineup. It will only be then that fans and club evaluators can actually see a legitimate hope of seeing a potential core player this season. He is certainly young enough and already has the Minor League pedigree to be develop into a core player.
Perhaps, I may be overlooking the pitching prospects a bit, but that is by design. With pitchers getting injured at such a prolific rate, it is difficult to project any prospect as a core player. Rodriguez looks like an ace, but health will determine that. And, the other pitchers in the system profile more as a middle of the rotation type or a reliever.
Speaking of relievers, fans may wonder why Hunter Harvey isn’t listed, but a 25 year old pitcher who now projects as a reliever isn’t a cornerstone player.
So, is rebuilding a myth?
No, there is a map that many organizations have followed successfully. But, is there a guarantee? Absolutely not. So many things have to go right. The organization has to find its core. Elias has to show the ability to use his prospects to make trades for the right veterans. He has to show a proclivity to sign the right free agents to compliment the core. It is not as simple as the narrative of “tear it down and build it back up” is written.
Right now, the 2020 Orioles do not have one player who looks like a core player. Perhaps, Ryan Mountcastle is promoted soon and there is finally a look at a long time cornerstone. Maybe Hays and Santander develop quicker and better than projected. But, that’s about the only hope on the Major League roster now. 2020 is more about seeing if there is any complimentary players to keep around, watching the joy that Hanser Alberto plays with, and for Elias to see if he can obtain more prospects for those who won’t be around.
Two Quick Hits…
At 5-7, my bet of the Orioles exceeding their projected win total seems pretty good. All they need is 16 more wins in their next 48 games, assuming they all get played. Can they go 16-32? I think it’s a good bet.
I alluded to it above, but it is a complete joy to watch Hanser Alberto play baseball. Yes, he doesn’t walk and all of the metrics point to him not being able to keep it up. But, he is seemingly defying the odds for an extended period of time. Maybe he’s the exception. All I know is that watching play, watching him start out at .333/358/.529 through the first 12 games is simply fun. I know we focus on long term, analytics, and all of that, but sometimes we should get some joy out of seeing players who seem to really love the sport. Back in the early 90’s, Julio Franco was that kind of guy for me. He wasn’t a star, save for his amazing 1991 season, but he was just so much fun to watch hit. Alberto gives that similar feeling.
First and foremost, a Father. After that, I am a writer and teacher who not only started my own company and published an i-magazine as well as a newsletter, but have been published by USA Today, Operation Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest, Gotham Baseball Magazine, and numerous other publications. As an educator, I have 20 years of classroom experience and am utilizing that experience in my current position as department coordinator. Wrote the book The Teacher And The Admin (https://theteacherandtheadmin.com/the-book/) and operate that website which is dedicated to making education better for kids.