After the Orioles clinched their first playoff spot since 2016, general manager Mike Elias took a minute to reflect on those who came before him.
“Dan Duquette and his staff, some of the drafts they had before I got here, there’s no way we can do this in five years without having [Cedric] Mullins and [John] Means and [Austin] Hays and [Anthony] Santander and those guys already,” he said. “So just want to thank everybody.”
Elias and his crew did the heavy lifting. But this team, the one that has a chance to make a deep postseason run, started to come together nine years ago, when John Means was picked on the third day of the 2014 draft. Jacob Webb, the final piece, arrived only two months ago.
Every player took his own path to Baltimore. Here are their stories, from Means all the way to Webb.
The survivors: 2014 to 2017
In 2014, Means, a college pitcher out of West Virginia, expected to be picked in the sixth through 10th round. But he sat through the entire second day of the draft, waiting and waiting for his phone to ring. He went to bed frustrated, wary of what the last day of the draft would bring.
The next day, he and his family were at Braum’s, a Midwest fast food chain, enjoying burgers and shakes when the call finally came. The Orioles had picked him in the 11th round, 331st overall, on June 7, 2014.
The family took a picture outside Braum’s on their way out to commemorate the occasion.
“It was special,” Means said. “The Orioles were so random to me. I didn’t know anything about them.”
A year later, on June 9-10, 2015, Ryan Mountcastle (Round 1, Pick 31), Ryan McKenna (Round 4, 133) and Mullins (Round 13, Pick 403) were selected. Then came Hays (Round 3, Pick 91) on June 9, 2016.
A few thousand miles away, Félix Bautista was working away in the Dominican Republic. He had been released by the Marlins in 2015 after two seasons in the organization, but he knew his journey wasn’t over. He just needed to add a little strength and put on a little weight.
The improvements were evident. He could throw harder already, and his command, always a work in progress, was improving. The Orioles saw something in him. On Aug. 4, 2016, they signed him to a minor league contract.
Santander (Dec. 8, 2016) would soon join the organization after the Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft from Cleveland.
They are the survivors. Four — Means, Mullins, Hays and Santander — would debut and suffer through 100-loss seasons. Mountcastle would join them in the majors in 2020. McKenna and Bautista watched those days from the minors, waiting for their chance to make an impact.
The last of the old regime: 2017 to 2018
DL Hall was at the beach with his family on June 12, 2017, when the Orioles did something they hadn’t done since 2002. They picked a left-handed pitcher out of high school in the first round.
Hall, from Valdosta, Georgia, was selected 21st overall. He would be joined a year later, on June 4, 2018, by another first-round pitcher after the Orioles took Grayson Rodriguez as the 11th pick.
A few weeks after the 2018 draft, Dean Kremer, a young pitcher in the Dodgers organization, was preparing to make his second start in Double-A when things started to get fishy. His scheduled outing was pushed back a few days, which alone wouldn’t raise concerns. But then it happened again. And again.
“In between the second and the third, guys in the clubhouse were like, ‘ooo, you’re being traded,’” Kremer said. “And I was like, no, the deadline’s not until the end of the month. I didn’t think anything of it.”
On July 18, 2018, Kremer was again expecting to start, the fourth time he had been rescheduled. He arrived to the stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, though, and knew something was up. He stayed in his street clothes and, an hour before the game, got the call. He was being traded to Baltimore, along with Breyvic Valera, Yusniel Díaz, Zach Pop and Rylan Bannon, for superstar Manny Machado.
That day signified not only the start of the rebuild but the beginning of the end for Duquette and his staff’s tenure in Baltimore. They would be replaced after the season by Elias, who has steered the ship since Nov. 16, 2018, and his crew.
Laying the groundwork: 2019 to 2022
Elias was hailed for his track record of drafting elite prospects during his tenure with the Astros. On June 3, 2019, that was put to the test for the first time.
He didn’t go the traditional route. With the top pick in the draft, the Orioles took a catcher, the first time that had happened since 2002.
But this wasn’t just a normal catcher. This was a switch hitter, a guy who was known for being a leader at Oregon State. As his name was announced, Adley Rutschman, surrounded by family and teammates in Oregon, stood up and hugged his dad first before retreating to his seat.
“I really like their leadership at the top,” Rutschman said to MLB Network. “I think they are heading in a great direction.”
That path became clearer when, across the country, a 17-year-old named Gunnar Henderson was selected 41 picks later. Rutschman and Henderson — strangers at the time separated by over 2,000 miles — would unite a franchise.
Next came Kyle Bradish, one of four players traded to Baltimore on Dec. 4, 2019, for Dylan Bundy. There would be more draft picks — Heston Kjerstad, second overall, and Jordan Westburg, 30th, in 2020. And some wire transactions — Ramón Urías from the Cardinals on Feb. 11, 2020, Jorge Mateo from the Padres on Aug. 5, 2021, and Cionel Pérez from the Reds on Nov. 24, 2021.
On the field, the Orioles were still a 100-loss team. In the shadows, though, the framework of the 2023 team was starting to come together.
A mindset shift: 2022
The Orioles came across as sellers once again at the midseason trade deadline in 2022. The return, though, has been crucial to their 2023 campaign.
Yennier Canó was initially offered a contract by Baltimore in 2019, but he opted to sign with the Twins instead as an international free agent.
Three years later, on Aug. 2, 2022, Canó woke up to news that he was going to be a first-time father. He was elated. Canó had just been optioned after his second stint in the majors, though, and had to get on a flight that afternoon to join the Twins’ Triple-A team.
When he landed, he turned on his phone. Missed calls and messages flooded the screen. He had been traded to the Orioles as part of a four-prospect deal. Jorge López, Baltimore’s closer at the time, and cash considerations were heading to the Twins.
The Orioles finished 2022 just outside the playoff picture, but it was clear they were on the right track. They added two free agents on one-year contracts — Kyle Gibson on Dec. 5, 2022, for $10 million and Adam Frazier on Dec. 15, 2022, for $8 million.
With the holidays approaching, it seemed that would be it for the year. James McCann thought so too.
On Dec. 22, 2022, he was looking at Christmas lights with his wife and twin boys. At around 9 p.m., he got the news that he had been traded from the Mets to the Orioles.
“The kids obviously don’t understand; they were wondering why we stopped driving,” he said. “It was one of those whirlwind moments.”
The final pieces: 2023
Shortly after the New Year, the Orioles made a seemingly un-newsworthy move Jan. 3 when they acquired Ryan O’Hearn from the Royals for cash considerations. He would be designated for assignment two days later and sent outright to Norfolk, but he still received an invitation to major league spring training.
Cole Irvin came a few weeks later, the Orioles, in need of another starter, acquiring him from the Athletics on Jan. 26.
As O’Hearn and Irvin fought for their spots in Sarasota, Florida, Danny Coulombe was in a hot tub in Arizona trying to figure out what was next after the Twins’ reassigned him to minor league camp. He had a clause in his contract that said another team could claim him if he didn’t make the major league roster. The Orioles took advantage, scooping him up on March 27.
The season started three days later, and it was clear right away that this could be a big year for the Orioles. In New York, Aaron Hicks was on the opposite trajectory.
He was designated for assignment and released by the Yankees in late May. He was home when the Orioles called him. They sealed the deal May 30. Once a rival, Hicks was now heading to Baltimore to replace an injured Mullins in center field.
The Orioles made a little splash at the July trade deadline, picking up Shintaro Fujinami from the A’s on July 19 and Jack Flaherty on Aug. 1 just minutes before the deadline.
The last piece came Aug. 7. Webb had solid numbers, but the Angels went all in at the deadline and needed to clear roster space. The Orioles were a surprise.
But, like his teammates who came to Baltimore before him, he was just happy for a chance.