With Rutschman’s arrival, Orioles hope fun weekend serves as turning point to shedding rebuilding status

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Time will reveal whether this truly marked the turning point for the Orioles and the eventual sunsetting of that requisite “rebuilding” word that’s been attached to their name for multiple years now.

What began with Rougned Odor’s walk-off home run on Thursday afternoon and concluded with Adley Rutschman — the man of the hour — crossing home plate on Sunday evening marked a fun weekend of hope and some fulfillment for the biggest diehards who’ve tried their best to remain invested in a club that’s nearly 200 games under .500 since the start of 2018. Of course, it was that franchise-worst 47-115 season that brought wholesale changes and made it possible for general manager Mike Elias to select Rutschman with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft. And after talking about that talented switch-hitting catcher out of Oregon State for so long that he almost felt like a mythical being, Rutschman finally appeared on Saturday night, soaking in the moment in front of the enthusiastic 17,573 fans gathered at Camden Yards.

Regardless of your opinion on the timing of his promotion announcement, such a modest crowd — as well as the so-so 23,778 present for Youth Baseball and Softball Day on Sunday — reflected just how many fans the Orioles have lost along the way and will try to recapture in the coming weeks, months, and years, but it made Rutschman’s arrival no less significant. His debut hopefully signals more meaningful baseball on the horizon and less talk about the last few years of losing that accomplished little beyond improving the organization’s draft position and bonus pools. One should prepare for some more bumps in the road as legitimate talents like Rutschman arrive and acclimated to the majors, but the days of enduring so many defeats with a roster having many more placeholders than prospects have certainly run their course four years into this rebuild.

Even if Rutschman manages to fulfill every bit of the extraordinary hype in a way Matt Wieters couldn’t more than a decade ago, we know there’s still work to be done to turn these Orioles into a contender, especially playing in the American League East. And even if those who’ve watched the 2022 club are heartened by a more consistent level of competitiveness on a nightly basis than in recent seasons, their 17-25 record entering Monday still leaves them on a pace approaching 100 losses. But more talent is on the way, which will hopefully ease some of the messianic-like expectations for the 24-year-old catcher and make this club better as the season progresses.

Sure, Rutschman becoming that perennial All-Star and MVP candidate in the way Buster Posey did for San Francisco would make this journey easier, but perhaps it will be Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall headlining as a Cy Young-caliber duo in the coming years. Maybe 20-year-old infielder Gunnar Henderson — labeled a “flagship” from a player development standpoint by Elias over the weekend — will continue rising to elite prospect status. Or, any number of other talents in the system could prove to be the biggest difference-makers in the years to come.

The whole point of the talent pipeline the Orioles have attempted to build is to provide an abundance of options, knowing some prospects won’t make it and others may eventually be traded for established major league talent. Naturally, Rutschman has garnered the most attention as only the second first overall pick in club history and the first draft choice of the Elias era, but the Orioles will need much more than his potential stardom to get to where they want to be.

Not one to offer much rhetoric or false hope in his public comments since arriving in November of 2018, Elias provided his most optimistic “state of the Orioles” yet the morning after Rutschman debuted and tripled for his first major league hit. It was the same way Wieters and Manny Machado cashed in for the first time in their own major league careers years ago, but one can only hope it signaled the approach of an even more successful and sustainable era of winning baseball than the previous one under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter, which was fun but fleeting.

Orioles fans who didn’t experience the glory days of the 1960s through the early 1980s certainly deserve it after so much forgettable baseball for the better part of the last four decades. And while Elias isn’t the type to give much attention to narratives driven by media or fans, what he described Sunday morning sure sounded like a turning point.

“I think everyone in the company — ownership on down — is very pleased with the foundation, the processes that have been laid, the infrastructure that we have across our organization right now,” Elias said. “It’s just about building and growing from here. We’ve got blue skies ahead of us. We’ve got a No. 1 farm system. We’ve got a young, talented major league team. We have payroll flexibility. We’re past the pandemic, and there’s going to be more and more people coming into the ballpark. We’re going to be renovating this place. There’s a lot to look forward to. I’m very excited. I feel like the most difficult, arduous part of the work that we’ve had to do is kind of behind us.

“I think we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us in keeping guys healthy, making the right draft picks, making the right free-agent signings, bringing the right players in here — all that normal stuff that every baseball team faces. But I think the challenges that we had that were unique to the Orioles — not having international, analytics, modernizing player development, all that stuff — that’s in a really good spot. And we have a pipeline underneath the young, talented team you’ve seen right in front of us. We’ve just got to make a lot of smart decisions going forward, and we know that’s not easy either.”

Fans couldn’t help but come away from this weekend smiling after the Orioles registered walk-off wins in three of four games for the first time since 1974. They took two of three from Tampa Bay, who had won 15 straight games against Baltimore prior to Friday night. And yes, Rutschman finally arrived at Camden Yards with an undeniable presence and crossed home plate with the winning run on Sunday, that euphoric look on his face serving as the best sign yet that brighter days are ahead.

If Rutschman and others on the way to Baltimore prove to be as good as advertised and Elias and — most importantly — ownership take the necessary steps to augment that talent, the enthusiastic reception he received Saturday and Sunday will only be scratching the surface.