In January, if I told you the Orioles would be a few games over .500 in the middle of August with a legitimate chance at making the playoffs, you’d probably laugh at me and think I was a crazed O’s fan who was in denial of the team being in the middle of a rebuilding phase. Then, if I told you they’d be doing all this without arguably their best player, Trey Mancini, you’d…probably just keep laughing at me.
Well, here we are.
Okay, okay. There is the caveat of COVID-19 life, being only 20 games in after August 15th with 40 games remaining, and having a 16-team playoff picture, but hey, it is what it is. Here we are (insert that Paul Rudd “look at us” meme).
Whether or not this is a complete fluke is debatable. Every single aspect of the team is outperforming projections. The offense is top five in OPS with every player not named Chris Davis or Austin Hays turning some heads. The pitching staff, while not being infallible, has been adequate with four starters having sub-4.00 ERAs. And the bullpen has been a reliable stable presence.
There have been comparisons to the 2019 Mariners. I’m not here to tell you the Orioles aren’t similar. Last season’s Mariners team started out of the gate on fire, winning 13 of their first 15, before plummeting back down to Earth and failing to eclipse the 70-win mark. Even with their hot start, it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Birds hit a rough patch and fail to even win 25 games in this shortened season. It’s hard to be overly confident that the likes of Rio Ruiz, Renato Nunez, Hanser Alberto, and Alex Cobb will all continue to be all-star quality players the rest of the season. Of course, it’s possible, and it would be a joy to see the movie Major League basically play out in real life. But a reality check is just as likely, if not more.
There is somewhat of an odd question that’s popped up as the Orioles continue to win: “Should they actually want to win?”. Well, that question can be answered two ways. The long way and the short way. Let’s start with the long way.
One can see the Orioles and cynically think, “Yeah, it’s nice seeing a team expected to suck refuse to lie down and surprise everyone with their winning ways. But even if they make the playoffs, it’s likely that they’ll just crash out to a team like the Yankees who are better in every way. And in doing so, it hurts the rebuild. They need that first overall pick! Look at what the Astros did, and do that.”
It’s true. The Astros were atrocious for three years, losing 106+ games from 2011-2013, only to turn it all around in the latter half of the decade, winning 101+ games from 2017-2019 and winning a World Series in the process (I’m not here to discuss trash can banging and wiretapping). Obviously, their rebuild worked.
But did it work only because they lost 324 games in a three year period and received the first overall pick multiple times? No, not really. It helped, of course, but let’s review those first overall picks.
From 2012-2014, the Astros had the first overall pick each year. In 2012 they drafted shortstop Carlos Correa. No one would say this was a mistake. Correa is an All-Star quality player who helped the team win a World Series.
In 2013, the Astros drafted pitcher Mark Appel with the first overall pick. He never made the majors and is no longer in baseball.
In 2014, they drafted pitcher Brady Aiken… He didn’t even sign with the Astros.
They were compensated with the second overall pick in 2015 that turned into Alex Bregman, who’s now their starting third baseman and an All-Star. Thus, in the end, it turned out alright. Mind you, by 2015, the Astros were already a playoff team. So, yes, Bregman was vital to a World Series, but they were already a good team before his arrival.
What exactly does this mean for the Orioles? It means that losing isn’t everything. A rebuild is not as simple as: be terrible, get multiple first overall draft picks, win the World Series in four years. Obviously, it requires a lot more than that. It requires good drafting in general, regardless of which overall pick you have. It requires good scouting, good coaching, good player development, and good
cheating…uhh culture, yeah, a good winning culture. Plus, it’s not like this process has just started. The Orioles have been in this rebuild for a few years now. They already acquired a few top draft picks, as they picked Adley Ruschtman with the first overall pick in 2019 and Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick this year.
So to finish the “long way” answer, yes. Of course the Orioles should want to win. Their fans should want them to win. This isn’t a sport like football where losing guarantees you a star QB that will turn the franchise around. Drafting is important, but in a different way. Development is a much bigger factor in baseball than other American sports. A rebuild doesn’t necessarily mean “let’s lose 110 games for three years and be good after that”. It simply means starting over. And in doing so, you’re probably going to lose a bunch, especially in the beginning.
If the Orioles collapse and fall back to the bottom of the standings this season, that’s okay. They weren’t expected to be good anyway. They have played like a team with nothing to lose and it’s been fun while it lasted. If they happen to make the playoffs this year, great. That doesn’t mean the rebuild is complete.
The “short way” to answer the question “Should the Orioles want to win?”: Yes. What kind of question is this? The organization should want to win. Their fans should want them to win. Regardless of the scenario, you should always want to win. Even when everyone else thinks you’re supposed to lose.
Photo credit: Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles on Twitter)