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Anyone who has ever been involved in business undoubtedly knows this: perception is oftentimes just as important as reality.
For Orioles general manager Mike Elias, he's living this. The Baltimore Orioles’ rebuild might be working, but the perception among a growing number of fans these days is that it isn’t.
Fans are having flashbacks of the 2018 season when the Buck Showalter era fully derailed and resulted in Elias’ arrival in the first place. The Orioles won just 47 games that season, finishing an embarrassingly high 61 games out of first place.
The O’s recent stretch of losing is pushing the club closer to the futility that fans experienced in 2018. After Tuesday’s loss to the Twins, the Orioles have lost 16 of their last 18 games. Once just a game below .500, Baltimore now owns baseball’s worst record.
Baltimore’s problems are apparent — the O’s lineup is wholly inconsistent and the club lacks the starting pitching to save the bullpen from eating a lot of innings, which generates a tired group of relievers that are regularly seeing pitchers come and go to keep the unit fresh.
As the Orioles slide further into the depths of AL East hell, Elias is facing criticism that his rebuild isn’t on track.
“We are remaining on target with what we’re trying to do, which is build for a sustainable, competitive playoff-caliber future for this organization for a long time so we do not have to undergo a process this traumatic ever again,” Elias said Tuesday.
Elias raises a fair point — an emphasis on prospect acquisition and player development has thrust the Orioles’ farm system into the same realm as the sport’s best. Several prospects have reached the major leagues already, most notably Ryan Mountcastle and Dean Kremer. But both prospects have seen their fair share of struggles — Mountcastle’s OPS thus far is .612 and Kremer was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk for the second time this season Sunday.
The crème de la crème won’t arrive for another season or two — Adley Rutschman could potentially find himself in Baltimore this season but it’s unlikely, DL Hall is still in Double-A while Grayson Rodriguez and Gunnar Henderson are still at the Single-A level.
As the club’s prospects get the necessary seasoning, fans are forced to watch stopgap solutions at critical positions. Miakel Franco isn’t a long-term answer at third base, Steve Wilkerson shouldn’t be vying for consistent playing time, and pitchers like Matt Harvey, Jorge Lopez and Cesar Valdez shouldn’t be serving in critical roles on an MLB pitching staff.
Those roster deficiencies show up on the field, which shows up in the win-loss column.
“I don't think anyone's happy about the win-loss record,” Elias said. “We haven't been since we've been here. But it's very important for us to remain focused and committed. Overreacting, briefly, to struggles from young players, making rash roster decisions with guys that have bright futures, is not in our long-term nor short-term best interest.”
Technically speaking, Elias is correct. Everyone entered the 2021 season knowing the Orioles would be bad — Fangraphs ensured we all knew by rating the Orioles as the only organization in baseball with an actual zero percent chance of making the postseason. We all knew these losses were coming.
But when some of those early prospects don’t show early returns and the development of other prospects is slower than fans like, you run the risk of alienating a fanbase before the process is followed through on.
And herein lies the risk of tanking.
O’s fans are tired of losing. I don’t blame them — I’m as tired of the losing as anyone — but I’m doing my best to focus on what is theoretically waiting for us in 2-3 years.
Maybe next year, as the Orioles prepare to endure what should hopefully be a less aggravating season, Elias and his brain trust will attempt to put a respectable product on the field. They’ll need to make a better effort than signing guys like Franco and Harvey in the offseason.