Can The Baltimore Orioles Fly Again?
Once, in the 1970s when the Baltimore Orioles were baseball’s most consistently excellent team,
All-Star slugger Eddie Murray, adorned with fabulous mutton chops on his baby bird face, told a
teammate, “It’s great to be young and an Oriole.”
It was great to be an Oriole, once upon a time.
From 1964 to 1983, a stretch of two decades, the Orioles won at least 90 games in 16 of their 20 seasons. The O’s of that era were the gold (or orange) standard of the National Pastime, winning six pennants and three World Series titles, one in each decade: the psychedelic 1960s, the groovy 1970s, and the button-downed 1980s. They were a baseball dynasty.
But since that 1983 season, the Orioles have played in exactly zero World Series. That’s eight fewer
than the Blue Jays and Cardinals, their feathered baseball brethren. That’s two fewer than the
stinkin’ Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays!
The swan dive (bird reference) into mediocrity has been devastating to a once-proud franchise.
Since 1983 (when Cal Ripken Jr. was in rookie season!) the O’s have won exactly three playoff
series. They finished last twice in the 1980s, and lost an embarrassing 21 games in a row to start
the season one year. From 1986 to 2011, a span that bridged the Reagan presidency and the Obama
administration, the Orioles had 16 losing seasons in 26 years. In their last two full seasons,
Baltimore lost a combined 223 games.
That smile on the iconic bird on the cap? It used to be a sign of confidence. Now, it’s apparently an
indication of nervous embarrassment. At least Maryland sports bettors have something to smile
How Bad Are The Birds?
Earl Weaver is not coming back. The Hall of Fame manager whose secret to success was self-
described as “pitching, defense, and three run homers,” left us more than eight years ago. And the
Baltimore pipeline of good managers has gone bone dry. This century the franchise has paid seven
different fellas to manage their team, and none of them could get the O’s to the Fall Classic.
The current Orioles team is in what they now call a “rebuild.” There was a time when it was simply
called “being lousy.” But marketing departments need something to do, so they come up with new
words and phrases.
This season, after opening with a hopeful 12-14 record in April, the Orioles have fallen like a dead
owl from the top of a barn. They went 5-23 in May (ending the month with a 14-game losing skid),
and are 8-17 in June. The Orioles find themselves back in their accustomed perch (bird preference)
in last place. The team can’t get many runners on base: their team on-base percentage is a woeful .300, which means 70 percent of the time they can’t even get the 90 feet to first base. They rank
13th out of 15 teams in the AL in runs scored.
Not to be outdone, the Orioles’ pitching staff is last in the league in runs allowed, while
surrendering the most home runs and hits. The Orioles have three starting pitchers with ERA over 7
runs per game. That’s not a typo. Their best pitcher, John Means, is hurt. The team’s manager,
Brandon Hyde, who probably wants to hide quite often rather than watch his pitching staff, has
already used 28 pitchers this year.
This team: the 2021 version of the Orioles, this flock of seagulls, if you will: they aren’t going to win.
Not this year, not next year, and not if they use many of this core group of players. But the franchise
is assuring their fans that help is on the way.
Can The Orioles Win Again?
Here’s the good news: the Orioles have two players ranked in the top 43 prospects in baseball,
according to FanGraphs. The bad news: both of them (catcher Adley Rutschman and pitcher
Grayson Rodriguez) are in the low-to-mid minors. Neither are projected to get to Baltimore and
make an impact for a few more years. However, given that the Rays recently called up their top
prospect Wander Franco, there is some chirping (bird reference) that the O’s may summon
Rutschman from Double-A this fall for a taste of MLB action.
Here’s some bad news if you like to wear black and orange and root for your baseball team: the
Orioles have been slow to embrace analytics and advanced coaching techniques, and several
prospects in their organization are very young, unproven, and missed most of 2020 because of the
pandemic. That means the rebuild could go on for a few more years, maybe as many as three, unless
the team goes outside the organization to gin up their roster.
A glance at the Baltimore roster yields little to get optimistic about: Trey Mancini is a power-hitting
first baseman but he’s already 29 years old, and he probably won’t be bashing home runs by the
time the Orioles are decent again. Cedric Mullins is an intriguing center fielder who could win a
Gold Glove in the future, and he’s having a breakout season at the plate. Ryan Mountcastle is
basically just a five-years younger version of Mancini, except he doesn’t have a defensive position.
In order to get back into contention in a difficult American League East, the Orioles need to develop
Rutschman and a few other position players to build around. They could pursue a free agent
shortstop like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager this offseason to give themselves a young, established
star to build a lineup around.
But most importantly, for a franchise that used to hatch 20-game winners every spring, the Orioles
have to find a way to improve their pitching. Means has a no-hitter to his credit and he’s a legit #1
starter, so once he’s healthy the Orioles can build from there. The organization has better options for their bullpen than starting rotation, so an emphasis on instruction at the lower levels is
important for starters.
In the tough AL East, where the Orioles have become second-class citizens, they face a wind-in-
your-face flight back to respectability. If they sign a free agent and shepherd a few pitchers to the
big leagues, but 2023, the O’s might be in position to compete for a wild card.