This didn’t have to work.
In the five long years since the Orioles’ rebuild began, a playoff spot — which they clinched Sunday when the Cleveland Guardians beat the Texas Rangers in a game that ended while the O’s and Rays were in the ninth inning — at the end of the line was never a given. More of the period felt stagnant and shameful than expectant or exciting.
The solidification of the Orioles as a playoff team feels, at once, interminable and inevitable. Now that it’s happened, the first part of that goes away. This is the new standard for baseball in Baltimore, and so much of what helped this day arrive is why anything short of October obligations for the Orioles in coming years will be a disappointment.
Just enjoy this, you might say. Let this moment be just that. Given all the losing that preceded Adley Rutschman’s arrival in the majors in May 2022, anyone is entitled to sit back and savor their formal arrival as a postseason contender.
Not me. I had the good fortune of getting paid to watch them lose all those games instead of paying to, and I also immersed myself in the scouting-and-development ecosystem being built to help eventually turn the organization around. The former seemed interminable, and the latter is what made this feel inevitable.
Any number of misfortunes can befall a baseball team to derail its best-laid plans; in the span of five months in 2020, the Orioles lost their best player (Trey Mancini) to colon cancer for the season, lost a year of development on their farm system and nearly lost the career of their top draft pick (Heston Kjerstad) when he was diagnosed with heart inflammation, delaying the start of his career until last summer.
Yet it always felt, to me, like this would work. The realization of that thesis should empower the Orioles to push even higher, no matter what happens in next month’s playoffs.
There are plenty of reasons for that. All of them have to do with how this team got to this point.
They can thank Rutschman for so much — his consistency, his on-base ability and his winning presence. He is the type of player teams dream of when they pick atop the draft, and he’ll likely be joined in the Orioles’ lineup by subsequent top picks Kjerstad and Colton Cowser in the coming years, with that group providing thump and patience, respectively, to an already imposing lineup.
Gunnar Henderson, despite his slow start, might be the team’s MVP. At 22, he’s already a star by virtue of his unbelievable natural talents, his effort and application toward improving them, and the challenging development structure he came up in. He spent that canceled 2020 minor league season as a 19-year-old at the team’s alternate training site, getting overwhelmed by major league-caliber pitching before he figured it out.
His path and upside are often discussed in the same breath as Jackson Holliday, who became baseball’s top prospect shortly after Henderson vacated that spot this summer as he climbed to Triple-A during his first full season at age 19. The league-average age for pitchers he’s facing now is 27. But he’s not the only precocious talent on the farm; Coby Mayo is 21 years old and could end up with a 30-homer season in the high minors, while Samuel Basallo just turned 19 last month and mashed his way to Double-A to end the season.
Just as there are heirs to Rutschman and Henderson at the top of the farm system, there are layers of hitters with lesser pedigrees who are congregating in the high minors and could force their way to Baltimore soon enough.
The same can be said of the pitching program. Grayson Rodriguez, a former first-round pick and top prospect for his entire professional career, emerging as a front-end starter is no surprise. Kyle Bradish doing so was — to everyone outside the Orioles organization — a different story.
When he was acquired in December 2019 in a trade that sent Dylan Bundy to the Angels, he was coming off an uninspiring first full season. The Orioles saw traits they liked — his unique hoppy, cutting fastball shape and ability to spin breaking balls among them — targeted him and nurtured him into one of the game’s breakout starting pitchers.
Their efforts with Tyler Wells and Dean Kremer to solidify them as major league starters shouldn’t be overlooked, either, and are underway with a new generation of arms on the farm. Without the benefit of high draft picks on the mound, they’ve used trades and talent identification to bring in pitchers with traits they know they can enhance and skill sets they know work in their system to create a uniquely talented crop of minor league talent there as well.
Pitching is fickle, though. Their two best relievers this season — Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano — essentially came out of nowhere. Bautista was a forgotten man on their farm when executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias & Co. arrived in 2019 and developed him into an All-Star closer after nearly a decade in the minors. Cano came in a trade last summer without much success to his name and joined Bautista among the game’s All-Stars in Seattle this year.
They’re part of a bullpen full of one-time castoffs, all of whom have improved when given the opportunity to pitch in the majors consistently and under the tutelage of the Orioles’ pitching coaches. And they won’t be the last; the identification of players who can help in any and all avenues of acquiring talent will be more important than ever to an Orioles team that will be looking to supplement a playoff core going forward.
And then there’s the experienced core of this team — Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle. They have, at one point or another, put the team on their grown-man shoulders and helped win a series, a week, even a month. They have accumulated years of major league experience and have used it to mature and evolve as players, making them at their best now that the Orioles are good.
Eventually, they’ll leave in free agency or get too expensive and be traded, and the Rutschmans and Hendersons of the world will be better than they are now through years of major league education.
Making the playoffs and competing for a championship was always the near-term goal of this rebuild, though that was obscured at times by the fact that for years nothing seemed to be getting better on the major league side.
All the while, this pipeline of talent that appears to be sustainable was in progress. It’s ongoing, and without high draft picks going forward will need to be maintained by continued evolution of their development processes.
But the major league winning is now in progress, too. This is now the floor, expectations-wise, for these Orioles. Everything that has helped them make the playoffs is worth celebrating. Congratulations. Now, don’t stop through October, and don’t settle for anything less than October going forward.