MLB’s biggest surprise? Make way for the Orioles – and the possible start of a successful long run

MLB All-Star Week is a celebration, an exhibition, an honor and a party. It is also, as an unofficial mid-term, the opportunity to take stock of the season that it cuts in two. Stories from 2022 include the unstoppable New York Yankees led by a giant in pursuit of legends, their potential crosstown rivals earning a new reputation under new ownership, and Shohei Ohtani setting up a sequel to his historic season that is somehow equally unmatched.

Those are the headlines, anyway. But look a little closer — especially around the festivities in Los Angeles this week — and you’ll see a startling story taking shape just below the surface: The big, bad Baltimore Orioles are coming, and the rest of baseball better do it. Warning.

The Orioles entered the season as the fifth team in an American League East that had people wondering if a single division could send four teams in October as part of the expanded playoffs. And when all is said and done, and the final standings are set, the Orioles will likely still look like a player also run into baseball’s most grueling glove. But six years after last finishing with a winning record, the team is poised to become a powerhouse. Just as they drew it.

If the plan was to sneak up on the rest of the sport, that became a little more difficult after winning 11 of their last 13 games before the break, including 10 in a row. They are now 46-46, a better record than 12 of the other 29 teams. Ninety-two games into the season, they have just one less win than all of 2018 – the first of three consecutive 162-game seasons they have finished with more than 100 losses (every year since , except the shortened pandemic 2020 ).

They are better, in other words, than they have been in a long time. And that’s just the beginning. After this dark 2018 campaign, the Orioles brought in Mike Elias, one of the architects of the Houston Astros. carefully constructed from laughing stock to champion as the new CEO. And he brought with him Sig Mejdal, NASA engineer turned baseball analytics innovator. Say what you will about the 2017 squad that won a now-tainted trophy, but Houston’s continued dominance in the AL West hinges on more than just sign-stealing. This kind of sustained success is the ultimate goal of any baseball team. And the Orioles have reason to believe they’re on the precipice.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 16: Gunnar Henderson #2 of the Baltimore Orioles is congratulated in the dugout after scoring a run in the first inning during the 2022 SiriusXM All-Star Futures game at Dodger Stadium on Saturday July 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Build baseball’s best farming system

On the first at bat of the first All-Star week event, 21-year-old shortstop Gunnar Henderson walked. A wild pitch later, he was at third base. After a single from his teammate, Henderson scored the first inning of the Futures Game, a premier showcase for minor league talent. It’s an industry-favorite event that barely registers with casual fans, but serves as an effective predictor of the next big leaguers.

Henderson took the starting honors by chopping .294/.428/.540 on Double-A and Triple-A this year, punctuated by a strike for the cycle shortly before the break. According to MLB Pipeline, he’s one of two prospects the Orioles have in the top five midseason, as well as top pitcher and Triple-A Norfolk teammate Grayson Rodriguez. They go a long way to explaining why Baltimore’s agricultural system is considered the best in baseball by a number of different filing systems.

The Norfolk squad, made up of potential contributors and top prospects, are watching the big league club closely. During the Orioles’ recent winning streak, games have always been played in the Triple-A locker room.

“We were like, ok it’s number 8, it’s number 9“Henderson said before the game on Saturday. “It was pretty special to watch. I hate that they lost it, but it was fun when it happened.

And after games, he’ll check in with his friends and the other Orioles Player Development System products, sending Snapchats (I thought that was just pictures, but apparently that’s how kids communicate nowadays) to someone who has about half a season ahead of him in Baltimore’s baseball dominance plan. When Adley Rutschman made his debut in late May, it marked what many Baltimore fans saw as an inflection point. The lows of 2018 had earned them the first draft pick in 2019, and with that, they had selected the college hitting receiver. Until he achieved prospect status just before the all-star break, Rutschman was at the top of most prospect lists — the clearest sign of sunnier times to come and an unwitting testament to the usefulness tanking.

ST PETERSBURG, FL - JULY 15: Ramon Urias #29 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrates with Austin Hays #21 after hitting a two-run homer in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 15, 2022 in St. Petersburg , Florida.  (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

ST PETERSBURG, FL – JULY 15: Ramon Urias #29 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrates with Austin Hays #21 after hitting a two-run homer in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 15, 2022 in St. Petersburg , Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Follow the Astros plan

As part of MLB’s (mostly ineffective) efforts to make the draft a marquee event, the first round is now held in the public square on the day between the Futures Game and the Home Run Derby. As commissioner Rob Manfred busied himself, waiting to announce the first overall pick, the folk fight song “Orioles Magic” played.

“Nothing could be more exciting. Nothing could be more fun,” the jingle insists. “The magic of the Orioles, feel it happen.”

For the second time in the last four drafts, the Orioles had the first overall pick in 2022. And with a toss – specifically implemented to limit the type of rebuilding Baltimore has undertaken – set to come into effect next year, theirs was the guaranteed last – always first choice. They tanked just in time to justify themselves.

In what Elias called a last-minute decision, the Orioles selected Jackson Holliday, a high school shortstop who hit .685 with 17 home runs during his senior season and is the son of seven-time All-Star Matt. Holiday. It’s too early to tell how it will turn out each time he arrives at Camden Yards, but it represented a chance for the Baltimore brass to capitalize on their 110-game losing streak and reaffirm their commitment to the process.

“Definitely not something that factored into the selection of the first overall pick,” Elias said of the recent string of major league-level success on Zoom with reporters during the draft. “That was the perspective we wanted to add to the pipeline.”

Staying the course despite the blips and pushbacks is key to a successful rebuild, but Elias hinted in his explanation as to why at least some fans trust him.

“When you’re a shortstop, it’s hard to get stuck,” he said, referring to the defensive skill required to play that position that translates around the infield. “When I was in Houston, we took Alex Bregman the year [Carlos] Correa debuted, and we never worried about it. Sure enough, we’ve found a way to get these two great players into the lineup.

It was 2015, Houston took Bregman second overall. He made his debut the following season, and until Correa left last offseason, the Astros made the playoffs five times and won the pennant in three of those years. The Orioles envision a similar run in the not-too-distant future, explicitly betting on the possibility of replicating what worked in Houston.

“Obviously the plan Mike [Elias] and sign [Mejdal] brought in from Houston is a big part of it,” Orioles director of draft operations Brad Ciolek said. who has been with the club full-time since 2013 and previously as a trainee. “The information that’s available to us now, we never really had before.”

Whether this plan — in which a team hits rock bottom to more efficiently restock its farming system — is bad for baseball is a more complicated question than whether Baltimore fans have reason to hope 100-loss days are over. behind them.

“Honestly, I think it’s a pretty big milestone for us to make this pick — and the next three picks we’ll have — on a night when our group finishes with a record .500,” Elias said. minutes after selecting Holiday. “We are adding a big new wave to the bottom of what is a great farming system. I say it all the time, our division is ridiculous. We have to tangle with these four extraordinarily well-run and well-resourced organizations. But I think this Orioles organization has been in the healthiest place for a very long time, and it got a whole lot healthier 20 minutes ago.

And wherever the team ends up at the end of this season, that’s bad news for the rest of baseball.

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