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Mailbag: Will The Orioles Rebuild Pay Off?

We continue our series of answering subscriber’s mailbag questions with a look at the Orioles.

Andrew from Toronto asks:

I’m a 40-year Orioles fan. I’ve been able to tolerate this rebuild because I know the minors were a mess under the previous regime. But I don’t have a sense of how effectively it’s going as a whole. It’s a highly-rated system, and the top guys are obviously potential stars, but is there a whole team in there? Is it deep enough to be able to trade assets while still building from within? In other words. Has Elias accumulated a bunch of draftees, or are we looking at a good sustainable system for the future?

I don’t think the Orioles farm system has yet reached the level we have seen with teams that have ridden a top farm system to a World Series title.

That’s very hard to do, but we do have a number of recent examples of teams that managed to win a World Series after having top-ranked farm systems during significant rebuilds.

The Braves did it in 2021, but they had one of those once-in-a-generation farm systems a few years ago. The No. 1 farm system in baseball in 2017 and 2018 produced Ronald Acuna Jr., Max Fried, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Ian Anderson, Austin Riley, Mike Soroka, A.J Minter, Huascar Ynoa and Luke Jackson. Yes, the trades they made at the deadline this year helped, but few teams have managed to birth a young core of pitching and hitting talent anywhere close to what Atlanta graduated from 2017-2020.

The 2016 Cubs did it after having the No. 1 farm system in 2015. That system produced Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and traded away Dylan Cease, Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres and Jorge Soler.

And the 2017 Astros did it after having a top-five farm system three times in four years from 2014 to 2017. That farm system produced Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers, George Springer and Yuli Gurriel as well as trade pieces like Josh Hader, Ramon Laureano and Joe Musgrove.

The 2015 Royals did it as well, as the 2011 top-ranked farm system rode Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, a bevy of bullpen arms and some astute trades to a World Series title.

So it can be done. But right now this Orioles farm system does not match up with those systems. The Braves had seven Top 100 Prospects in 2016, eight in 2017, eight in 2018 (including the No. 1 prospect in the game in Acuna) and eight in 2019. The Cubs had six Top 100 Prospects in 2015 including the No. 1 prospect (Kris Bryant) and three more in the Top 20 (Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber). The 2011 Royals had five top 20 prospects (Wil Myers, Hosmer, Moustakas, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb) and nine Top 100 Prospects.

I don’t think the Orioles farm system is comparable with those because it lacks that exceptional depth that separates teams with transformative farm systems from those with elite top prospects. Grayson Rodriguez is as good a pitching prospect as the Braves or Dodgers had, but the Orioles pitching depth doesn’t yet compare to what the Braves were doing a few years ago—and it doesn’t really match the Mariners’ or Pirates' pitching depth right now. As far as position players, Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson are a great starting point, and they have a number of interesting additional position players, but there are few others who are considered potential Top 100 Prospects at this point.

Why aren’t the Orioles there? In part, I’d point to the differences in where they started. Orioles ownership’s decision to effectively punt on the international amateur market for years left the team utterly bereft of talent in an area that produces more than 30% of big leaguers. When the new regime came in, it effectively restarted the club’s international amateur efforts, but that takes years to come to fruition. After Manny Machado was traded away, the club also lacked almost any core talent at the big leagues to either build around or deal. It’s also fair to say that the team’s unwillingness to spend so far on the big league roster has led to some of the worst teams in Orioles history. It also has hindered Baltimore’s ability to find unappreciated talent that it could turn into solid big leaguers or who could then be traded at the trade deadline for prospects.

In 2012, the Astros acquired righthander Joe Musgrove in a deadline deal. Josh Hader came from Baltimore in a July 2013 trade. Outfielder Jake Marisnick arrived in a July 2014 swap. The Cubs picked up shortstop Addison Russell in a trade with the A’s, Jake Arrieta in a deal with the Orioles and Kyle Hendricks in a trade with the Rangers. The Braves landed Huascar Ynoa in a deal that sent away veteran pitcher Jaime Garcia. The Rays most famously turned Chris Archer into Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz.

Since 2019, the Orioles deadline deals have netted them no prospects of significance—they haven’t really had much to trade—and the return from the 2018 trades of Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman and Zach Britton have provided very modest returns.

That’s a significant source of young talent that has not panned out for Baltimore, one that was an important part of other team’s rebuilds.

Understandably, Orioles fans expect a big payoff for enduring that level of bleakness and non-competitiveness at the MLB level. After all, of the past 546 games the Orioles have played over four seasons, they have been more than 10 games out of first place in 438 of them (80%).

Orioles fans seem to have been extremely patient with this rebuild. At the MLB level, Baltimore is enduring the worst stretch the team has ever seen. The three worst winning percentages in Orioles history have occurred in the past four years—yes, this team has been worse than the 1988 Orioles in three of the past four seasons, with only the shortened 2020 season as a break.

Even if the Orioles climb to .500 in 2022 (which seems extremely unlikely), they still have to supplant at least two of the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays to be a playoff team in the next few years. That’s going to be a daunting task.

Successful rebuilds in recent years have taken three to four years. What seems clear is the Orioles rebuild will take longer than that.


Prospect Report: Adley Rutschman Keeps Soaring For Orioles

Adley Rutschman had another excellent night for Baltimore.

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