Orioles hanging tough in playoff race, but still need spark Elias should try to provide

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The Orioles remain the best story in baseball.

A year ago at this time, they were in the midst of a 19-game losing streak, the second-longest slide in franchise history that made the light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel feel further away than ever. Now, we’re lamenting Baltimore losing four of its last six to fall 2 1/2 games back of the American League’s final wild-card spot entering Friday’s action.

What a difference 365 days make.

General manager Mike Elias deserves immense credit for rebuilding an organization that was in shambles four years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s beyond reproach as the Orioles have gone 10-6 in August, which coincides with the trades of slugger Trey Mancini and All-Star closer Jorge Lopez. That they didn’t fall apart or throw in the towel in a way many anticipated is a testament to manager Brandon Hyde and a club with a culture that went beyond the presence of Mancini.

Yes, the Orioles are hanging tough in the playoff race, but the truth is Elias made the club worse 2 1/2 weeks ago and has yet to do anything meaningful internally to try to boost its playoff chances. His trip to Arlington to reassure core players about the club’s direction after the trade deadline and his expressed belief on MLB Network Radio that the Orioles will make the playoffs haven’t changed that reality. We know actions speak louder than words.

To be perfectly clear, I liked the Mancini trade as no one could have anticipated Elias dealing a two-month rental to acquire two pitchers now ranking among the organization’s top 15 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. And while the return for Lopez — who had two remaining years of club control — prioritized quantity over quality too much for my liking, we’ll see if pitching prospect Cade Povich proves to be as good as the Orioles believe he can be to validate such a swap.

Part of the justification many used for dealing Mancini at the deadline was clearing a spot for Triple-A Norfolk outfielder Kyle Stowers, who has 51 extra-base hits this season despite not being viewed as an elite prospect. Instead, Elias acquired defensive-minded and speedy outfielder Brett Phillips, who owns a .466 on-base plus slugging percentage this season and barely plays. Yes, Stowers, 24, might struggle like rookie sensation Adley Rutschman did over his first few weeks in the majors and may not even prove to be a long-term piece, but Phillips is a known commodity bringing very little to the table at this point, especially with reserve outfielder Ryan McKenna already on the 26-man roster.

This offense was pretty mediocre even with Mancini, so it’s not shocking that the Orioles have scored three or fewer runs in seven of their last 13 games. But it’s no less frustrating when the Orioles trailed 3-2 in the ninth inning like they did against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday and Hyde had to choose between letting Rougned Odor — and his .639 OPS — bat against a lefty reliever or going to a bench consisting of Tyler Nevin, Robinson Chirinos, and Phillips.

While the struggles of Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle have hindered the lineup for several weeks now and cannot be understated as part of the overall problem, the idea that the Orioles should continue giving such regular at-bats to both Odor and Ramon Urias — who has really scuffled this month — makes no sense with an elite prospect like infielder Gunnar Henderson waiting in the wings at Norfolk. Even if the 21-year-old — who has struck out a bit too much at Triple-A lately despite his terrific overall numbers — gets off to a slow start, you’re still evaluating him to help shape your offseason plans and allowing him to acclimate to the majors in hopes of hitting the ground running in 2023.

And Henderson just might provide a spark similar to how a 20-year-old Manny Machado energized the Orioles down the stretch in that magical 2012 season.

In sizing up the Lopez trade, it was easy pointing to flame-throwing rookie Felix Bautista to take over ninth-inning duties, but the argument was more complicated than replacing your closer since Bautista was already a critical part of a relief chain that lost one of its strongest links, pushing every remaining reliever into spots of higher leverage. Perhaps the bullpen was always going to wear down with how heavily Hyde has needed to lean on the group, but the Orioles’ 4.10 relief ERA in August ranks 18th in the majors and represents their worst month of the season.

Moving pitching prospect DL Hall into a relief role may help, but the signs of bullpen vulnerability are even more reason to try to boost the offense.

Summoning Henderson and Stowers to Baltimore would truly signal the “liftoff from here” that Elias professed two weeks ago. Other than the promotion of Terrin Vavra in late July, the executive’s actions pertaining to the club’s 2022 playoff hopes could be described as passive at best. And while I acknowledge the argument to wait to maintain Henderson’s rookie eligibility for the chance of being awarded a draft pick if he wins the 2023 AL Rookie of the Year, every game is critical at this point with so many teams vying for wild cards.

You never know when it might be too late.

That the Orioles never expected to be in this position and have still managed to win 10 of their first 16 games in August aren’t sufficient reasons to simply be satisfied with standing pat and continuing to say, “Boy, isn’t this fun?” While Elias was correct not to become an irrational buyer at the deadline, he owes it to the current club and the fan base to try to provide a spark.

One criticism I’ve had for the Ravens — an organization whose success dwarfs the Orioles’ over the last quarter-century — is occasionally being too focused on the future to the detriment of the present. Unforeseen or not, the Orioles have a real chance to make the playoffs and aren’t assured of being back in this position in 2023 and beyond. Yes, there’s much optimism for the future, but you never know what could happen in regards to injuries and the development of young players.

The Henderson and Stowers promotions are far from guaranteed to help push these Orioles into the playoffs, but such moves aren’t going to harm long-term plans to any meaningful degree. If the Orioles are so dependent on only the chance of earning a future draft pick — which would come after the first round anyway — to potentially sacrifice a 2022 playoff opportunity, I truly question whether the organization will do what it takes to try to push more serious contenders over the top in the future.

At some point, you have to start acting like the future is now. These current Orioles deserve as much after providing so much joy this season. 

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