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    Wednesday, May 25, 2022

    The End of Tanking, Post-Script: Evaluating the Start of the Orioles' 2022 Season

    We’re roughly a quarter of the way through the season, and the Orioles have been having an interesting 2022 so far. Not a good one exactly, although I don’t know that anyone expected that much from them. But they’ve been on a run of exciting walk-off wins lately, they just called up their top prospect Adley Rutschman, and they’re only 2.5 games back from the Red Sox after even spending a stretch of time ahead of them (sure, it was only fourth in the division, but you have to start somewhere). They’re 18-26 so far (only a 66-win pace), but things don’t feel as hopeless as they did in years past.

    And that has gotten me thinking about that long-term rebuilding project that they’ve been on. Which makes sense; I did just write a fairly comprehensive breakdown* of the process this past offseason. And for the sake of continuing that comparison to the Houston Astros and their rebuild, it’s maybe worth mentioning that the 2014 Houston team (the one I considered to be corresponding to this year’s Orioles in the rebuild process) were only 16-28 at this point, with their own exciting then-prospect having recently debuted (although George Springer had already been up for a few weeks by this point in the year).

    Granted, none of this is a guarantee that the Orioles will continue on the same trajectory or better. The biggest, final test in their journey is whether they’ll develop their own central core of stars; so Rutschman, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Bruce Zimmermann, et al. will need to need to become above-average or better players, much like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Correa, and so on did for Houston. We’ll see if that continues over the next year or so, and I’m not really sure that there’s much else we can do in the meantime other than sit back and watch.

    But it does make me think about their other moves this past winter, the ones around the edges of that hoped-for core. That third part of my recap included only a partial listing of all of the Orioles’ 2021-2022 offseason moves, since it was published in late December. However, there weren’t too many more transactions of note, besides the additions of Jordan Lyles and Rougned Odor. Chris Owings and Anthony Bemboom made the roster on minor league deals, and they added Robinson Chirinos on a one-year, $900,000 deal. Bemboom was released last week in anticipation of Adley Rutschman’s contract.

    And that’s still bumming me out a little bit. Just like I said repeatedly over the course of that retrospective series, there’s still this lingering sense of “it could have been a little bit better than it is”. As I pointed out in that original piece, the 2014 Astros didn’t bring in a bunch of big free agents or anything, but they did spend some money, and some of those names (Chad Qualls, Collin McHugh, Tony Sipp, Scott Feldman*) were even around on the next successful Astros team.

    *Plus, new 2014 acquisition Dexter Fowler was traded for 2015 starter Luis Valbuena.

    In contrast, just looking down the 2022 Orioles’ WAR leaders on Fangraphs, most of those new additions are bringing up the rear. Chirinos is at the bottom with -0.8, Owings is next at -0.4 despite limited playing time, Bemboom is at -0.2. Odor was at -0.3 until the last week, with a hot streak that has brought him up to an even 0.0. The 2014 Astros’ position players through the first quarter or so of the season look similar, but their negatives were a little less.

    Lyles is the only offseason move that hasn’t been a disappointment; in fact, he’s looking much better than he’s looked in ages. But even then, he was also still just a one-year deal; there’s a better chance he’s back in 2023 than any of those other four, but it’s still not at all guaranteed. And maybe the Orioles will be able to fill out a full supporting cast for 2023 through good development, but it still feels like a more limited approach than what the Astros did. The alternative to that, at this point, is signing a lot of useful bit players in one single offseason, which of course is its own challenge, given that you need to do it all in more or less one swoop.

    And it’s especially disappointing given the smattering of rumors that the Orioles were considering making a big splash in the free agent market; that seemed like a reasonable move, given that most big signings would have been around for a few years until Baltimore would be in better position to compete. An Orioles team that had, say, Carlos Correa or Trevor Story (who one-upped Odor’s current hot streak by winning the most recent AL Player of the Week) would not only have a solid core player for the immediate future, but also wouldn’t be giving as many at bats to Odor and Owings.

    And even ignoring the big names for smaller signings, closer to what those Astros teams did… I don’t know for certain that the Astros’ 2013-14 signings paved the way for their 2014-15 ones, by indicating to players that they were serious about competing in the near future and all that. But I’ve seen others propose that idea, and I can’t imagine it hurts, if nothing else. Given that there are actual reasons to spread out the signings anyway (less competition with other teams, more chance to try and replace different players, etc.), it just seems like extra incentive. There’s not much to be done about all that at this point though, so I guess there’s no use in dwelling on it.

    Ultimately, I don’t know that any of this precludes the chance of a strong end to the 2022 season or successful 2023 season. But it does mean that it feels a little further out of reach than it needs to. Hopefully the rest of the core continues to put up strong seasons, and John Means comes back healthy next year, and so many other things, because these long rebuilding cycles can be miserable and fans need some good news. It just feels like maybe the team is less optimistic about the chance of an imminent turnaround, even though we’ve seen that it can happen.

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