BALTIMORE — In an alternate timeline, the Orioles might have been playing for a wild-card spot on Wednesday, a day that marked exactly eight years since their last playoff victory.
Or perhaps they would have been closing out their fourth 100-plus-loss campaign in as many full seasons.
That they were much closer to the former than the latter illustrates how historically remarkable this 2022 season truly was. Consider no team since the 1899 St. Louis Perfectos had finished .500 or better in a season after recording at least 110 losses in the prior year. Baltimore’s own Babe Ruth was 4 years old at the time, and the Perfectos would change their name to the Cardinals the following year.
What great fun and memories these Orioles provided as those fans gathered at Camden Yards for Wednesday’s doubleheader recognized that.
It was just six months ago that we were lamenting another mostly dormant offseason and the trade of relievers Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott — from a bullpen perceived to be lacking depth as it was — days before Opening Day, the latest sign that wins and losses again weren’t going to matter in 2022. Top prospect Adley Rutschman was still recovering from a triceps strain that cost him all of major league spring training and the start of the season while ace pitcher John Means was just a couple weeks away from being shut down with elbow problems and undergoing Tommy John surgery in late April.
No one saw this coming as even general manager Mike Elias admitted the dramatic improvement in the win column “just crept up on us” in an “organic” way. The 2022 season will be remembered fondly, but Elias also recognizes an 83-79 record is hardly “mission accomplished” after fans endured such miserable baseball at the major league level these last several years.
No, this is only supposed to be the beginning.
“It’s not going to be easy given who we have to compete against and who we have to play against, but as I said in the summer, I feel like this team is officially in the fight in the American League East, and that’s a big achievement,” Elias said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to be complacent about it. We know that we had some relatively good health this season. We had some guys have good seasons. It’s tough to repeat in this league. Players make adjustments against you — we’ve got a lot of young guys.
“We may have some individual steps back, but we plan to hopefully reinforce this group, keep helping the players improve, and hope that we can take another step forward next season and get into the playoffs that we narrowly missed out on this year.”
Led by very deserving AL Manager of the Year candidate Brandon Hyde, the Orioles have an impressive young nucleus anchored by Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson — two talents who may very well become MVP candidates at some point — with other impact prospects in the pipeline, but this is when the job becomes more complicated. Baltimore has gotten to this point thanks to plenty of sweat equity from everyone connected to baseball operations and a nauseating amount of losing at the major league level affording early draft picks, but let’s not pretend beefing up and refining scouting, analytics, player development, and an international market presence requires more than a fraction of the financial commitment to sustaining an annual major league payroll of $150 million, which is slightly below average in today’s game.
While citing Baltimore as an attractive free-agent destination and place to pitch with its reconstructed left-field wall, Elias fairly pointed out that the Orioles have “very interesting internal candidates for almost every single job,” meaning he won’t feel forced to target one specific player or position to address this offseason. But running it back with the same group and relying solely on prospects isn’t the high-probability play to make the playoffs either. As just one example, duplicating such bullpen success with so many former waiver claims may not prove as successful in the coming years. Ultimately, you can’t become too attached to every solid contributor who’s helped you to this point if you have opportunities to upgrade to take the next step.
Whether through free agency or trades, the Orioles will need to augment their roster with outside talent such as a legitimate starting pitcher or two and an established bat. That surely means a greater financial commitment from the Angelos family, whose legal fight over the control of the club continues to make headlines while the Orioles finally turn the corner on the field.
Asked how that litigation might hinder his ability to improve the major league club, Elias alluded to already overcoming the “challenges and strange things” — such as the pandemic — he’s endured since arriving four years ago.
“I don’t want to announce a budget to the agent community nor the other 29 teams,” Elias said, “but I do continue to view this as an offseason where we’re going to have the flexibility to invest in the major league payroll in a different way than I have done since I’ve been here.
“The moves are going to have to make sense — we’re not going to force it — but we feel that the time is right from a strategic standpoint. In fact, the time is pressing to do that now that we have the foundation of the top farm system in baseball and a major league team that is young and talented.”
Of course, “increasing” payroll is an incredibly low bar, and it remains to be seen just how much Elias can spend and, more importantly, how wisely he does it. The executive acknowledged the inevitability of the Orioles leaning into their “richness in players” in the farm system to trade for established major league talent — Houston traded prospects for All-Star pitchers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole over Elias’ final 15 months with that organization — but you don’t want to be so financially hamstrung to be forced to constantly churn your major league roster and minor-league talent pool to remain a viable contender.
The days of a Cal Ripken playing here for two decades may be over, but it remains challenging growing a strong brand if you’re turning over your roster every few years. Just ask clubs like Tampa Bay and Oakland, who’ve managed plenty of playoffs trips to very little fanfare doing exactly that.
“We’re interested in bringing more fans into the park and bringing our revenues back up and making the organization more healthy from a business standpoint so that we can continue to grow in the future,” Elias said. “That’s all part of it, and I think this is going to be a pretty pivotal next 12 months for us in that regard.”
If the Angelos family isn’t prepared and willing to step up financially, Elias can only do so much to build on this club’s promise.
For anyone who endured the last several seasons, 2022 was a delight full of late-game heroics and unexpected performances. But Orioles fans deserve so much more moving forward as the organization’s last World Series appearance and title is now four decades in the rear-view mirror. Save for a few exceptions, that jewel of a ballpark in downtown Baltimore has been devoid of October memories since opening in 1992.
After rebuilding this organization from the ground up, Elias deserves the resources to try to take the Orioles to heights they haven’t enjoyed since the days of playing on 33rd Street. And doing so would really be something to celebrate at the next Camden Yards anniversary gathering.
It’s the timeline Orioles fans have imagined for a long time, especially while sitting through those brutal 100-plus-loss seasons.