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Burning Questions: How much losing is too much losing in Baltimore?

Burning Questions: How much losing is too much losing in Baltimore?

Baseball is finally back everyone! To help usher in the new season, NBC Sports Washington's Andrew Gillis and Ryan Wormeli are going to run through a series of burning questions surrounding the Orioles.

First up is the question on the minds of every fan of a rebuilding franchise in the history of sports: How much losing is too much?

Ryan Wormeli: Hello Andrew! Hope you enjoyed winter while it was here, because baseball is *back*. Spring Training began this week with the four best words in the English language: Pitchers and catchers report.

They say hope springs eternal, but that may not be true for this year's Orioles. They've lost at least 100 games in back-to-back seasons, and things don't look much brighter entering 2020. On the one hand, that may not be such a bad thing — especially with a talent like Kumar Rocker looming as the potential number one draft pick in 2021.

But honestly, losing is no fun. Nobody cheers for a team because they enjoy losses, and it sure would be nice to see a few more wins in Charm City this year.

GM Mike Elias has made no secret about wanting to build a long-term talent pipeline in Baltimore, but when will it be time for the Orioles to prioritize short-term performance again? Will they ever lose fewer than 100 games again? How much losing is too much losing? 

Andrew Gillis: Hey, Worm. Doesn't it feel like the Ravens' season just ended? I figured you'd need a break from me, but here come the O's.

As the Orioles season arrives, fans shouldn't expect a Ravens-esque run this year — or any year in the near future. And while losing isn't fun, per se, it should be "fun" for the Orioles for at least another season. 

Bear with me here. 

The Orioles aren't going to be good this season. If there's anyone who thinks they've got a shot at competing, I've got some bad news. So, it's time to embrace the tank. This year is all about losing, and it won't be a fun time at Camden Yards come July, August and September. I get that. It's not going to be easy for locals watching the other contenders' fans fill Baltimore this summer. But greener pastures are ahead for the franchise — as long as they keep losing. 

They have an ascending prospect pool with Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Ryan Mountcastle all on the Top 100 list according to MLB.com. While that may not be the best way to evaluate a farm system, the O's are certainly moving in the right direction. Still, it needs another elite player to join the league's elite. That comes after another terrible season. 

Losing 100 games for the third straight season may not sound like a responsible plan, but if the Orioles want to build their farm system with top talent, they have to be in position to pick that talent in the first place. And while you can find players throughout the draft that can turn into studs (Mike Trout waves hello) the most effective way is to fall flat for a few years in a row, ensuring you get your choice of the lot.

Ryan: Let's be clear: I can always use a break from you. But I'm also pretty excited Opening Day is mere weeks away.

I understand the argument that it's *smart* for the Orioles to lose more games for another year or two, but you'll never convince me it's "fun." Fun is what we saw from 2012-14. What we've seen from 2018-present is necessary, perhaps, but brutal.

Your point about the draft is a strong one. The best way to contend is to draft well, and the best way to draft well is to draft high. But picking at the top of the draft doesn't guarantee anything — just look at Elias' time with the Astros. Cheating scandals aside, Houston provided the rebuilding template the O's want to follow, and they picked two busts in Mark Appel and Brady Aiken with number one picks in back-to-back drafts. Yes, they also took Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman early, but the MLB Draft is a major crapshoot. Who's to say the Orioles would take a player closer to Correa/Bregman than Appel/Aiken?

Far more important for the Orioles is their ability to identify talent in other areas (trades, international signings and in-house options) and how they develop that talent. Losing is a habit, and if the bulk of the core of the next great Orioles team is already in the organization, fans should hope they start breaking that habit as soon as possible. No one expects a 90-win season, but 70 would be a nice change of pace representing some forward momentum.

Even if you do trust their ability at the top of the draft, let's not forget what's coming. You say they need to add another top prospect? Well they've already earned the chance to take one with the second pick this June. Isn't asking for yet another top-three pick in 2021 just getting greedy?

Andrew: I hear you, but a "fun" season for the Orioles in 2020 isn't the same as a fun season for the rest of the sport. Winning 53 games and winning 67 games could be the difference between picking first and picking, say, ninth. You have to be willing to sacrifice fun now for fun later at the big league level, which means the minor leagues are going to be a blast. Fun this season should be watching Rutschman wreck Frederick and Bowie, DL Hall continue to rise through the prospect rankings, or Ryan Mountcastle solidify himself as a big-leaguer. None of those things will have a big impact on the big league club, and if we're being honest, does that extra 14-15 wins really matter in the grand scheme of things? 

The Orioles will have Rutschman and Rodriguez as some of the top prospects in baseball heading into 2021, but the No. 2 overall pick this June and potentially another top two or three pick in 2021 would give the Orioles four potential top 30ish prospects in all of baseball. Paired with guys like DL Hall and eventually a few Gunnar Henderson-types and all of a sudden the Death Star is fully operational. 

Yes, the Orioles will need to pick players throughout the draft that are productive at the big-league level to nail this rebuild, but the easiest and quickest way is to funnel top-tier talent into the system as quickly as possible. Losing can be contagious, but the Astros won just 56, 55 and 51 games for a three-year period before they started to turn things around. In year four of that rebuild? 70 wins. These things take time, and quite frankly, 100-plus losses is exactly what the Orioles need for at least another season. 

(I am very, *very* pro-tanking, and a firm believer that The Process should be trusted at all times.)

If we're having this conversation in February of 2021 and I insist it's worthwhile for the Orioles to win 52 games again, then please smack me upside the head. But to me, there's one more year you've got to truly bottom out. Rutschman, Hall and Rodriguez all have MLB ETAs of 2021, so there's still another year before help is on the way. Even then, there will be some growing pains to work out with such a young roster. The Orioles organization, while moving in the right direction, is still in dire need of talent. A rebuild works better when you're able to market Adley Rutschman and Co. That's what one more horrendous season brings the Orioles. 

Ryan: I suppose the "Co." will be a pretty integral part of the equation next to Adley Rutschman in the grand scheme of things. The idea of four top 30 prospects in baseball and a top-five farm system has the prospect hound in me salivating, but fans in Baltimore have heard about the cavalry on the horizon before.

I'm pro-tanking as well, at least under the rules of the sport as currently constructed. But at a certain point, it has to become about winning again, otherwise what was it all for? I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least a little bit worried about keeping fans engaged through a half-decade of, if not intentional losing, at the very least accepted losing.

If I can't convince you the value of a 70-win season in 2020, maybe Elias himself can? In an interview with The Athletic, the Orioles' GM was asked if winning 65-70 games and dropping to the eighth pick in the 2021 draft would be counterproductive. His reaction was pretty direct.

"I would love it," he said. "The more games that we win, the happier we are."

Of course, Elias was also clear that who was leading the charge behind those wins matters too. His judgment of the 2020 season won't rely on wins and losses, but it will depend on the further development of Austin Hays, Hanser Alberto, and even grizzled veteran Trey Mancini. But even if he isn't evaluating the organization on its place in the standings, it's hard to imagine guys like Hays and Mancini taking major steps forward without seeing improvement in the standings.

Those extra 15 wins may not matter down the line, but their source might, especially if it comes from the young core already forming in Baltimore. Austin Hays turning into an above average Major League outfielder is more valuable in the long run than drafting a 21-year old 16 months from now who may reach the big leagues by 2024 if we're lucky, and may become a star if we're super duper lucky, right?

Elias seems to think so. You wouldn't dare disagree with the man leading your beloved Process, would you?

Andrew: At a certain point it becomes about winning, but that's not here just yet. While Elias does want the team to be ahead of schedule, he also said earlier this week he's realistic about the team's expectations headed into the season. If the Orioles lose more than 100 games, Elias isn't going to lose any sleep over it. 

But yes, the who is much more important than the why. My contention is that the prospects in Delmarva, Frederick, Bowie and Norfolk matter much more than the few prospects who will play at Camden Yards this season. The Orioles should be more concerned with the development of their younger players in the organization compared to guys that will graduate to the majors this season. If Hays and Mountcastle take steps forward, that's clearly a positive step — but it's also not one that will impact the W/L margin too much. If the Orioles reach 65 wins, that tells me some players who likely won't be here in a handful of years performed above expectations. That could be a good or a bad thing, but the focus should be on the guys Elias has brought in since 2018. 

Those are two separate entities when you talk about guys like Hays becoming valuable Major League players and the team's win/loss record reflecting their improvements. Finding diamonds in the rough adds depth to the prospect pool — where the Orioles need improvements — but you've got to take some risks and see what sticks. 

And as for The Process? Why the Orioles still haven't released a "Trust The Process" shirt with the Orioles 'O' in the word "process," I have no idea.

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Orioles are not letting postponement get in the way of their pitchers' development

Orioles are not letting postponement get in the way of their pitchers' development

The Orioles were supposed to be in the midst of their opening series of the 2020 season against the Yankees this weekend.

But due to the league’s shutdown because of coronavirus, Camden Yards remained empty on what would have been Opening Day. 

Now, the Orioles are stuck with decisions on how to keep their players — notably their pitchers — in form for whenever the season comes back. The problem is, however, that no one knows when baseball will return.

“I think we’ll hopefully have a better idea as we go along,” manager Brandon Hyde said a little over a week ago on a conference call, “But as of right now, it’s a real individualized plan for everybody that our medical team as well as our trainers, strength coaches, pitching coaches, have all gotten together with on conference calls and how we were going to really talk and put these plans in place for our pitchers.”

John Means, who was likely the starter for the season opener against the Yankees, has already kept up with live batting practices.

For a young team like the Orioles, development is paramount. That’s not the easiest thing to work through when there’s not a set end date for baseball’s return.

“But the first thing was to get our pitchers in a healthy place, a safe place, and now we’re talking about what kind of throwing program that they’re going to be on here for a while with an unclear date of when that’s going to end,” Hyde continued.

While the starting rotation, likely, would’ve been a bit older at the outset of the season with Asher Wojciechowski (31), Alex Cobb (32) and Wade LeBlanc (35) all figured to see significant innings, the youth movement of the pitching staff was likely to come later in the season. 

Now, there’s a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding a unit that was the league’s worst just a season ago.

“I think it is impactful in that there’s a lot of development to be had by a lot of players, obviously,” Hyde said. “This can cripple the development a little bit in that you want guys to get innings, you want guys to get at-bats, you want the guys to go through full seasons. That’s really important, especially early on in understanding what it takes to live through a full season and to compete for a full season, so that’s going to be cut short. But it’s something that everybody is dealing with.”

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The quietest Opening Day in Camden Yards’ history

The quietest Opening Day in Camden Yards’ history

BALTIMORE — At first glance, the corner of West Camden and Eutaw Street in Baltimore offered no signs anything was amiss. 

The wind breezed lightly through the city on a late-March afternoon, where the temperature neared 60 degrees and partly cloudy skies allowed the sun to shine bright on an early spring day. 

The trees that bloomed all around Oriole Park at Camden Yards at every street corner meant warmer weather was here and baseball season had arrived.

On Thursday, though, there was no baseball. There won’t be baseball Friday either, and there won’t be baseball for, at the very least, a few more weeks — and perhaps longer. 

Two weeks ago, Major League Baseball announced the postponement of the regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic. There still isn’t a known start date for the 2020 regular season. Instead of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole making his AL East debut against John Means — the likely starter for the Orioles — baseball stood still.

“It’s going to be weird knowing that we’re not playing,” manager Brandon Hyde said last Thursday on a conference call. “But there are a lot bigger things than Opening Day right now and a lot bigger things going on in the world.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led to businesses operating in a limited capacity, if at all, as every aspect of life around Baltimore and the U.S. has changed drastically in the last two weeks. As Thursday proved, not even the Orioles are insusceptible. 

Opening Day almost assuredly wasn’t going to be the start of a miraculous run toward relevance for the Orioles. But it was the first chance for fans to see the new look Orioles squad, now in the second year of a rebuild, try and get halfway to the total wins they had over the Yankees last season — two. 

And with the game postponed, perhaps the most human part of Opening Day was canceled, too.

Pickles Pub wasn’t filled to the brim with Orioles fans clad in orange and black, paying no mind to the time or the drinks in their hands. Street vendors weren’t selling hot dogs to parents and kids who decided playing hooky for the day would be a better use of their time. 

John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” didn’t blare through the speakers in the late afternoon for the seventh-inning stretch, either. 

Instead, one of baseball’s most beautiful parks was quiet on the most celebrated day of the season.

Neighborhood streets and parking lots around Camden Yards were filled with cars, but only because everyone sat at home with no baseball game to attend to. 

The earliest, and 66th, Opening Day in Baltimore Orioles history didn’t happen. The Orioles are now ontrack, should the season resume, for the latest Opening Day in history. 

For now, the park will remain closed. Over 10 days ago, the CDC recommended gatherings of more than 50 people be stopped for at least eight weeks, which could lead to some clues as to when Eutaw Street is filled once again.

That reality is, however, that the corner of West Camden and Eutaw will remain quiet for the foreseeable future. 

Opening Day will come for Baltimore in the 2020 season. 

The biggest question, though, is when?

“Opening Day is such a special day, and there’s a lot of emotions that go through everyone involved in an opening day ceremony,” Hyde said. “It’s something you never forget. This year is going to be pushed back. Now, we’re going to be looking forward to the 2020 opening day, whenever that is.”

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