NEWS

Baltimore’s depth fueled its best regular season in decades. Now comes the real test. – The Denver Post



Judging by regular-season wins and losses, Mike Elias has built Baltimore’s best roster in his lifetime.

But these Orioles want to be evaluated by more than that. Later this month, they will get the chance.

The Orioles’ 101 victories mark the franchise’s most in the 162-game regular season since 1979, three years before Elias, their executive vice president and general manager, was born. Months before his first birthday, a Baltimore team that won 98 games added seven more in October to become the 1983 World Series champion. The Orioles haven’t hung a pennant since.

This group can end that four-decade drought. Elias has constructed an overwhelmingly deep roster, nailing his early-round draft picks, making savvy veteran additions and executing under-the-radar trades that paid off exceptionally. En route to winning the American League East, Baltimore posted a winning record against all of the other four teams in what’s regarded as baseball’s most challenging division.

“The American League East is not fun,” Elias said. “One of the benefits of it is it prepares you for everything. They’ve had everything thrown at them the last five years, you can imagine. They’re as prepared as anybody.”

The Orioles’ knack for having a different hero each night has fueled their successes over the past six months. Now comes the question of how it will fare in the rest of this one.

“That’s been one of our strengths this year: our versatility and our depth,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Just having the most depth you can have is so key in a six-month season.”

But the value it provides in a five- or seven-game series will determine how far the Orioles go in the playoffs. Throughout the season, Hyde has rotated who starts on the infield and outfield to keep players fresh and used matchups with his bullpen and bench to put them in advantageous positions. The value in the former is reduced in a postseason matchup with intermittent days off, but the latter becomes essential.

“There’s different things I can do to try to help us win a game,” Hyde said. “I have pieces I can play with.”

A lot of them. The bullpen is loaded with arms with varying specialties, even if All-Star closer Félix Bautista’s upcoming Tommy John elbow reconstruction will prevent his high-strikeout arsenal from being available. Offensively, Hyde has said often this year that he has 13 hitters he wants to play. That only ended in September, when expanded rosters upped his stated value.

“It’s not one through nine,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “It’s one through 14.”

The approach has meant even as some Orioles hitters have slumped, others have been on hot streaks. The club has rarely gone cold at once; Baltimore has played 91 straight multigame series without being swept, an AL record. But despite their success in aggregate, the Orioles lack a hitter who stands among the game’s best. Entering Sunday’s regular-season finale, 361 hitters had come to the plate at least 200 times this season, and no Orioles ranked in the top 50 in OPS. But four appeared in the top 100, and nine were in the top 200.

“We’ve had a different guy step up each and every night,” veteran backup catcher James McCann said. “We’re not relying on just one guy to hit the big homer or drive in the big run.”

Perhaps one of their rising stars enjoying a late surge will build on it. After struggling in his first 30 games, infielder Gunnar Henderson has since hit 25 home runs with an .851 OPS to reestablish himself as the favorite to be AL Rookie of the Year. Last year’s runner-up for that honor, catcher Adley Rutschman has held the status of being the face of the organization since he was selected atop the 2019 draft and has lived up to the billing. His transformative impact could bleed into October, especially after he batted .290/.409/.516 in September. First baseman Ryan Mountcastle entered Sunday hitting .330 with a .908 OPS in 54 games after returning from a monthlong absence with vertigo.

That’s not to mention outfielders Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander — among the few players who appeared for Hyde’s first three Orioles teams and are now part of this one — or Ryan O’Hearn and Aaron Hicks, cut loose by their previous organizations only to thrive in Baltimore. Along with McCann, Hyde’s postseason options could also include second baseman Adam Frazier, who has shown a knack for coming through in the clutch; rookies Jordan Westburg and Heston Kjerstad, who have quickly adapted to the challenges of the major leagues; versatile infielders Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo, both skilled defenders with the latter being one of the fastest players in the majors.

Among those 14 players are three switch-hitters, five left-handed bats and six who hit from the right side, affording Hyde balance and depth.

“You look down in our dugout, anytime there’s a pitching change, man, there’s three guys standing by the bat rack ready to roll,” McCann said.

It will be intriguing to see how Hyde deploys lineups in the postseason; Mateo has started all but four of the Orioles’ 53 games this season against left-handed starters, but having him start negates Hyde’s ability to use his speed in a key situation.

“He gets on base, he scores,” Hyde has said, but putting Mateo on as a pinch-runner would increase that possibility.

Several machinations exist on the pitching side, too. Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, who ranked first and third in the AL in second-half ERA, seem assured rotation spots, with John Means’ performance since returning from Tommy John elbow reconstruction likely putting him in the same category.

“Probably one of the most complete teams you’re gonna find,” Bradish said. “It’ll be fun.”

The days off during the ALDS series will let Baltimore use at least one of its starting pitchers as a reliever, reinforcing a unit that has dealt with a hefty workload down the stretch. Since losing Bautista in late August, the Orioles’ bullpen has, on the surface, pitched just as well, with a 3.54 ERA since Bautista went on the injured list after putting up a 3.55 mark with him healthy — though its collective strikeout rate has fallen from 26.5% to 20.1% in that span.

Regardless, it remains a versatile group that allows Hyde to use each pitcher in spots he believes they will have the most success. It’s expected the Orioles’ postseason bullpen will include three left-handers with varying skill sets in Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez and DL Hall, meaning Hyde can be aggressive early by bringing one in to face a left-handed hitter without necessarily hampering his options for later in games.

“It’s three different left-handers,” Hyde said, “and I like all of them.”

Three of the right-handers in Hyde’s bullpen — Yennier Cano, Tyler Wells and Jacob Webb — have been effective against both right-handed and left-handed hitters. The final spots will belong to one of the Orioles’ starters, presumably Dean Kremer or Kyle Gibson, with the possibility only one of Baltimore’s two trade deadline acquisitions, Jack Flaherty and Shintaro Fujinami, make the roster after both struggled to find consistency.

In the same way the Orioles’ offensive approach isn’t built around one player, the same has been true of their bullpen since Bautista’s injury. Hyde will continue to mix and match as he sees fit to get through postseason games, with the Orioles managing to go 21-13 — a 100-win pace — without Bautista. In that span, they have lost only one series.

Winning three more will bring a title to Baltimore.

What’s to come?

Holding the AL’s best record, the Orioles get five days off before they begin postseason play Saturday with Game 1 of the ALDS. The club will take Monday off entirely — Camden Yards is hosting a public memorial for franchise icon Brooks Robinson — before practicing each of the next four days, simulating game action and finalizing roster decisions.

Aspects of the Orioles’ ALDS roster will be determined by who their opponent is, which will be either the Tampa Bay Rays or the Texas Rangers, the top two wild-card teams who play a best-of-three series this week. Baltimore was 8-5 against Tampa Bay but had an even run differential; only one of those eight victories came by more than two runs. The Orioles split their six games with the Rangers, all of which came before June.

What was good?

The Orioles entered last week having played 17 straight games. Their day off last Monday seemed to be the reset the bullpen needed.

Also benefiting from some longer starts out of the rotation, Baltimore’s relievers allowed four earned runs in 21 2/3 innings — a 1.66 ERA — with a sub-1.000 WHIP across last week’s six games. Notably, the group nearly struck out a third of opposing hitters, a much-needed uptick.

The bullpen officially lost Bautista for the rest of the season last week. It rallied around him, a welcome sign heading into the postseason.

What wasn’t?

Thursday was, in Elias’ words, “one of the best nights in Orioles history.” It’s unfortunate half of what was worth celebrating was an exaggeration.

Six innings before the Orioles beat the Boston Red Sox to clinch the AL East, CEO and Chairman John Angelos appeared alongside Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on the scoreboard announcing a “deal” that would keep the team in Baltimore for the next three decades.

“Earlier today, the Orioles, Gov. Wes Moore and the State of Maryland, and the Maryland Stadium Authority agreed to a deal that will keep the Orioles in Baltimore and at Camden Yards for at least the next 30 years!!” the scoreboard announcement read.

Given the midgame fanfare, it’s understandable that anyone who read that would think the Orioles’ lease saga had finally been resolved. But, as the sides revealed Friday morning, it turns out the “deal” was a nonbinding memorandum of understanding and that the current agreement still expires Dec. 31, with much still to be resolved before then.

“It just seems a little dirty,” Rob Barron, an Orioles fan from Ellicott City, said on the Camden Yards concourse before Friday’s game, a sentiment that was echoed among the fan base.

The victory lap on the scoreboard tugged attention away from the signature moment of this breakout team’s tremendous season, only for it to be walked back the morning after. It’s nice that the state and team are making continued progress, but how about keeping updates off the scoreboard until the actual lease is done?

On the farm

The Orioles weren’t the only team in the organization that did some celebrating last week.

The Norfolk Tides won the International League and Triple-A championships with a roster featuring nine of Baltimore’s top 14 prospects, according to Baseball America. The Tides have been a force throughout the season, replacing one top prospect with another each time the Orioles came calling.

Between the Tides’ titles, Hyde noted that both winning and development are important in the upper minors.

“For me, it goes hand in hand,” Hyde said. “I’ve always been a believer in winning in the minor leagues always helps in developing a winning mindset. I think that when you’re winning in the minor leagues, that means players are playing well, also, and it’s just not a maybe a couple prospects but a collective group, and I think that that helps motivate. Playing in postseason games in the minor leagues, I’ve managed some, you feel pressure, you feel like you want to win and you come to the park with anticipation, and it’s just not development at that point because you’re trying to win games. All that’s been very beneficial.”

ALDS, Game 1

Rays/Rangers at Orioles

Saturday, TBA

TV: Fox or FS1

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

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