When the Miami Marlins needed pitching help after their coronavirus outbreak this summer, they turned to the Baltimore Orioles. A few weeks later, when the Atlanta Braves wanted a starter, they also made a deal with the Orioles. The Mets and the Colorado Rockies got relievers from Baltimore, too.
Trading veterans for prospects is standard for rebuilding teams with slim postseason hopes. Yet as the Orioles arrived at Yankee Stadium for a doubleheader on Friday, they know they could leave in position for a playoff spot.
The Orioles entered Friday at 20-22, and the Yankees, who dropped three of four in Baltimore last weekend, were 22-21. If the Orioles sweep the doubleheader, they will stand a half-game ahead of the Yankees for the second wild card — the No. 8 seed — in an expanded playoff field.
The lowly could overtake the lordly, even with some former teammates now scattered across the majors.
“It was sad to see those guys leave; they were a big part of our team,” said Pat Valaika, who has played six positions for the Orioles this season. “But our attitude was that’s just another opportunity for somebody to fill that role — and we have a lot of talented players. That’s what gets not really talked about that much: our team is talented. We have a few veteran guys, but we’re young and I think a lot of people underestimated us, and that’s kind of fun.”
The Orioles did not trade star players — their deals included Richard Bleier to Miami, Tommy Milone to Atlanta, Mychal Givens to Colorado and Miguel Castro to the Mets — but, then, they did not really have stars, anyway. They lost 115 games in 2018 and 108 last year, with Mike Elias taking over for Dan Duquette as general manager in between.
Elias, a former pitcher for Yale and scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, has been in this spot before. After the 2011 season, he was named scouting director for the Houston Astros, who were then the majors’ worst team. Under General Manager Jeff Luhnow, the Astros slashed payroll, compiled a lot of losses and a lot of high draft picks, and soon became a power.
An overlooked part of their rise — which has been marred by a sign-stealing scheme that cost Luhnow, and others, their jobs — may be playing out again in Baltimore. While the Astros were considered to have a barren farm system a decade ago, their new front office did inherit Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer — a future Most Valuable Player, Cy Young Award winner and World Series M.V.P.
This summer, the Orioles are showing Elias that they, too, could have more long-term answers than many people realized.
“I thought the farm system was underrated, and the perception of it was hurt a little bit by the lack of an international component,” Elias said, adding that a more modern approach to player development had helped the existing prospects. “It turned out that we absolutely inherited a lot of good talent that was drafted and acquired in trade by Dan Duquette and the people here beforehand. That is a huge boon for us.”
Elias added: “Our goal — especially the type of franchise we are and division we’re in — is that we’re one of these teams, we hope, like Cleveland or the Rays, that can just kind of keep the assembly line moving.”
Part of the reason for the recent trades, Elias said, was to give opportunities to the products of that assembly line. The rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin have joined the rotation in the last two weeks, and the former first-round draft picks Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate — traded from the Yankees for Zack Britton in 2018 — are getting longer looks in the bullpen.
Outfielders Ryan Mountcastle and D.J. Stewart, also former first-round picks, had helped the offense average 4.98 runs per game through Wednesday, trailing only the Chicago White Sox and the Astros in the A.L.
“There’s not really any weak spot in our lineup,” Valaika said. “People have different skill sets; there’s some power guys, some guys with speed. We’re not one-dimensional, just waiting for the long ball. We can manufacture runs pretty well.”
The Orioles ranked seventh in the majors in slugging percentage through Wednesday, at .450, but also had the most sacrifice bunts, with 13 (six teams, including the Yankees, had none). The infielders Renato Nunez and Hanser Alberto, both of whom joined the Orioles as waiver claims, have continued their progress, as has the injured outfielder Anthony Santander, a Rule 5 draft pick under Duquette in 2016.
As a whole, Elias said, the group is still in a “nascent stage,” and the results from a 60-game season can be misleading. The Orioles will likely continue on their rebuilding plan this winter: focusing on marginal acquisitions without blocking young players’ development. Their most heralded prospects — catcher Adley Rutschman, pitcher Grayson Rodriguez and outfielder Heston Kjerstad — have not yet arrived to the majors.
But if nothing else, almost in spite of themselves, the Orioles have presented the Yankees with an unexpected late-summer threat. The intangible benefits of a pennant race can only help in time.
“We’re playing games that matter late in the year,” Manager Brandon Hyde said. “That’s how you improve; that’s how you build character as a team. That’s what you play for all year, is to play til the end of the season in games that mean a lot.”