BALTIMORE -- Two and a half years into their rebuild, the future remains the prevailing theme of the 2021 Baltimore Orioles. Even as they closed out the first half with a 7-5 loss to the White Sox in 10 innings on Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park, team officials were preparing to gather in a conference room high in the warehouse in anticipation of the MLB Draft, owners of another top pick that might, in time, alter the direction of the franchise.
The annual ritual has assumed outsized importance for the Orioles in recent years during their highly public rebuild under executive vice president Mike Elias, who began replenishing what is now one of baseball’s best farm systems in 2019 with the top overall selection of Adley Rutschman. Two picks later, the White Sox chose Andrew Vaughn, seeing an impact slugger who could rise quickly and help end their own multiyear rebuilding project.
These days, Vaughn is contributing to one of the game’s most potent lineups and Rutschman is thriving at Double-A Bowie, their timelines having diverged more by circumstance than anything else. Both are still expected to star for years to come. But it was at least notable, given the timing, the two homers Vaughn hit Sunday before Trey Mancini’s game-tying, pinch-hit two-run homer off All-Star closer Liam Hendriks, just hours ahead this year’s Draft. An inning later, Adam Engel’s three-run homer off Tyler Wells in the 10th provided the difference.
“That’s a tough loss,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Because you like to see guys battle back and win those types of games.”
The result was the seventh loss in eight games for the Orioles (28-61), who limped into the All-Star break having enjoyed soaring highs and weathered extreme lows thus far in 2021. Here are a few things we’ve learned about them -- and the scope of their rebuild -- in the first half:
Legit stars are emerging
First the positives, and they almost all begin with an “M.”
With the emergence of Cedric Mullins, the production from pre-injury John Means (4-2, 2.28 ERA) and the successful return of Mancini, the Orioles can boast three homegrown stars as the cornerstone of their rebuild, now 2 1/2 years in. That only Mullins is an All-Star is more about their place in the standings and Means’ current bout with left shoulder soreness, which he should return from next week.
But all three are pieces the O’s can build around: Mullins (105 hits, 16 home runs, 16 stolen bases) one of baseball’s best all-around players in the first half, Means the author of a historic no-hitter on May 5, and Mancini (16 homers, 55 RBIs, .791 OPS ) back as a real run producer after beating Stage 3 colon cancer.
The question now is how the Orioles will proceed with each. Each is going to draw serious interest come the July 30 Trade Deadline, with the O's clear sellers and suddenly holding their best chips yet of the Elias era. Do they shop their stars? Or do they hold pat, envisioning plugging Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and others in and seeing a roster that can compete sooner than the rest of the industry thinks?
“In a rebuild, having a strong second half of a season is really, really important going into the next year. This is a huge half for us,” Mancini said. “We’ve been going through a lot of growing pains. There are a lot of games we should’ve won and we didn’t. That’s something we need to improve on, and we need to improve on it now.”
The pitching remains an uphill climb
Besides Means’ May 5 no-hitter, the biggest headlines on the pitching side of the organization came from top prospects Rodriguez and DL Hall, who are forming an exciting super-battery with Rutschman down in Double-A. The big league staff, though, struggled across the board, from reclamation veteran Matt Harvey to former prospects Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and others.
Paul Fry and Tanner Scott took tangible steps forward in the bullpen (and look like trade chips), but feel-good story César Valdez fizzled and Hunter Harvey was slowed by more injury trouble. It’s created an environment of opportunity for journeymen like Spenser Watkins, who held Chicago to one run over 4 1/3 innings Sunday in his second big league start.
All told, the Orioles have used 30 pitchers, already the second most of any season in franchise history. Nine made their MLB debut in the first half, which also saw the rotation pitch to a 6.11 ERA. That’s the highest first-half rotation ERA since the Colorado Rockies (also 6.11) in 2012.
“It showed how far away we are pitching-wise,” Hyde said. “We threw well the first month, kind of hung around .500-ish, and then really since the Means no-hitter, we haven’t been able to stay in games on the mound and our rotation is beat up. We don’t have good numbers. Our bullpen is taxed because of it, so a lot of concern there. We somehow have to get our starting pitchers to go a little big longer, be able to be more efficient in getting outs. That being said, we’ve faced really good lineups and these guys struggled. So we need to get better to survive the second half.”
Looking past the headliners, the Orioles are also encouraged by several young hitters who are turning into regular contributors. Though Anthony Santander has regressed amid injuries, others like Austin Haysand Ryan Mountcastle have taken steps forward. Mountcastle (who left Sunday’s game with a left forearm contusion; X-rays were negative) shook off a slow start to have a monster June, and he heads into the break amid the AL rookie leaders in home runs (second, 14), RBIs (second, 48) and slugging (10th, .447).
Hays’ potential impact is plain to see -- when he’s avoiding the trainer’s room for long stretches. Sunday provided an early example, when Hays uncorked a 91.7 mph assist from right field to nab Yoán Moncada at third to end the top of the first, then sent a two-run homer to the opposite field in the bottom of the frame. For the Orioles, the second half will be about their continued development as much as anything.