ARLINGTON, Texas — Not to indict any marketing departments, but with the benefit of hindsight, there is a world of difference between the postseason mantras chosen by the Orioles and the Rangers, a gap that I can’t stop thinking about.
From Baltimore, after a season of sprinklers, the Homer Hose and Mr. Splash: “Soak it in.”
From Texas, a spin on a historical, defiant phrase that put it on offense: “Go and take it.”
In retrospect, they reflect the attitudes of two franchises at a pivotal trade deadline. The Orioles largely took a flier on the feel-good young core with chemistry that eventually took them to 101 wins. The Rangers made every move they could to get studs on their team to make their postseason return one worth remembering.
Plenty of risks that Texas took didn’t pan out: Max Scherzer, for example, hasn’t pitched yet in the postseason. But who wouldn’t rather have Jordan Montgomery this postseason instead of Jack Flaherty?
You can’t let any opportunity in the playoffs go to waste. For the Orioles, some will say it was too early for them to compete for a championship, and maybe for Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer, it was.
But it’s so hard to get into these positions, so hard to get No. 1 seeds and be just 11 wins from hanging a banner. I wrote in July that the front office should go for it by using their stockpile of prospects. The Orioles played it safe, and exit the playoffs without any of those 11 wins.
As much as a towel-twirling Camden Yards was a sight for sore eyes, the orange-and-black couldn’t deliver a win on their home turf. While Baltimore had two games to “soak it in,” the drought, in the most meaningful sense, goes on: It will be at least 10 years between home playoffs wins.
The last time either of the Orioles or Rangers played in the postseason was 2016, and their paths back to the postseason looked dramatically different.
The O’s bottomed out for years, relying largely on homegrown talent or young players acquired by trade to blossom. The Rangers also had a 100-loss season, but they opened a sizable war chest and spent for stars such as Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Nathan Eovaldi. Owner Ray Davis made his own mantra: Win at all costs. With the fourth-highest payroll in baseball, a quarter of a billion dollars, it costs a lot.
We all know: The Orioles will never spend that much. They have the third-lowest payroll in baseball, and their owner has already complained about how expensive it might get before signing as much as one long-term, big-money contract. But winning in the postseason — the kind of winning the Orioles really want — is going to require taking risks and spending money.
The Orioles didn’t get much from their low-risk, late-season acquisitions: Flaherty couldn’t be trusted in the rotation; Jacob Webb got hammered; Shintaro Fujinami was shaky enough that he didn’t make the roster in favor of Bryan Baker, who mostly pitched for Norfolk at the end of the year.
The Orioles knew even in July how hard they were leaning on young starters — Kyle Bradish, Rodriguez and Kremer all vastly exceeded their inning numbers — and the bullpen arms of Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano. Their moves didn’t insulate them in those areas, which unfortunately cost them.
As a steward of this team, Mike Elias has a tough job. He’s said many times that he can’t just think about winning in 2023, but must focus on creating a long-term championship window. The Orioles are still on that track, with their top young players under team control for many years. The roster is expected to come back almost intact next season.
It feels like a good omen, too, that the Triple-A Norfolk Tides won a championship. In the rebuild Elias worked on in Houston, the Astros’ Triple-A team won it all in 2015, two years before the big-league club would take it in 2017.
Maybe Connor Norby, Coby Mayo, Heston Kjerstad and Joey Ortiz are the Orioles stars of tomorrow. Maybe for the next three or four years, they make Elias’ tight grasp, not once trading a top-10 prospect, look brilliant. Jackson Holliday obviously has a great chance to be the star Baltimore foresaw when they drafted him first overall last summer.
But the Orioles also need to be concerned about the elements they can’t control: whether a trade deadline favors buyers or sellers, injuries, and what other teams do and spend.
Going all-in for them looks different than it does for the Rangers: spending in the MLB’s middle tier rather than its top, and cashing in some blue-chip prospects for proven veterans who can guide the team in the postseason.
Kyle Gibson got the Orioles plenty far in the regular season, but it’s telling of his limitations that he wasn’t given the Game 3 starting nod. Aaron Hicks was by far the most experienced vet on this roster, and he only got to pinch hit in Game 3. The Orioles need to rise at least one tier higher than in-season free agents to add some experience to the core.
Savvy moves with a low payroll can get you close, but you need more to push over the top. John Angelos has said the Orioles’ goal is to replicate what Tampa Bay has done, competing at a bargain — but shoot, the Rays haven’t won a World Series either, and they haven’t even been back to the ALCS in the last three seasons after coming close to a title in 2020. Angelos will need to show a willingness to write some checks for Elias to make impact additions.
You only get so many cracks at this thing, and there comes a moment to choose when to attack. Hopefully they didn’t miss their best window. Maybe there’s a better one over the next three or four years and the odds are still in their favor to find it. Maybe they will keep adding talent and experience.
Because this can’t be as close as it gets.