If all the one-off rule changes, curious circumstances and off-field concerns looming over every Orioles game make it hard to know exactly what to think of this team at the halfway point, imagine what it must be like for manager Brandon Hyde.
Hyde, hired to shepherd the Orioles to another era of competitive baseball and see which of the castoffs and post-prospects on their roster can make it through the transition period with him, is seeing plenty of candidates. He said Wednesday that part of what’s been enjoyable this year is the solidification of some “building blocks” who can be part of the next winning Orioles team.
No one, however, would have thought winning would be a consideration at this junction. Hyde, when discussing the role of pitching prospect Keegan Akin as he breaks into the big leagues, admitted he’s “in win-now mode,” thanks to the Orioles’ 14-16 start keeping them on the periphery of the American League’s expanded eight-team playoff.
“We’re just in a little different scenario right now where we’re hovering around .500,” Hyde said. “Our team has stayed competitive, so I’m trying to win as many games as possible.”
By the end of the season, he felt they did that much more often. But at the halfway point of 2019, he summarized his first 81 games in charge by acknowledging “losing is hard.”
The goal then, as it remains now, was to get players as much experience as possible and decide whether they could be good enough for a team to win with them down the road.
The list of players he rattled off in that category included outfielder Anthony Santander, catchers Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco, third baseman Rio Ruiz and reliever Tanner Scott.
Santander and Sisco played 48 and 45 games, respectively, last season with the Norfolk Tides.
To be a building block player, Hyde said, the Orioles look at a few things, including performance, improvement and “guys developing at the major league level, playing against the teams that we play against night-in and night-out.”
“We have the toughest schedule in the game, and to be able to take really good at-bats, to defend night-in night-out and improve over the course at a young age, I think you get excited about that,” Hyde said.
Hyde noted that he and executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias have been through rebuilds before with the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, respectively, and there’s a stage where “you’re starting to see guys really be able to compete at this level, [who] are young], and have the tools to do it.”
Those types of checkpoints are arriving, he said.
“You’re looking also down the road of how this is a guy that’s a middle-of-the-order player, or this is a guy that’s going to catch 100 games in the big leagues, in the American League East,” Hyde said. “Those are the type of conversations you have.”
Omitted from that list, which Hyde gave off-the-cuff, were younger players who have been in the Orioles’ system for years such as Akin, new left fielder Ryan Mountcastle, injured outfielder Austin Hays or resurgent center fielder Cedric Mullins (66 games in Norfolk last season). He hasn’t seen a ton of any of them, but they’re going to be big parts of at least their near-term future.
Their roles this summer, though, will be to do what the Orioles need to help them be their best on a given day. For Akin – who pitched in 25 games last season for the Tides – that’s going to be out of the bullpen in the near-term, which Hyde said he doesn’t believe is sacrificing his development despite his future as a starter. That’s simply what he thinks the team needs now, but that doesn’t mean the team’s prospects won’t be part of the plans at all.
Mountcastle – the International League MVP last season with Norfolk – is going to be a middle-of-the-order bat the rest of the way, and took the spot of Dwight Smith Jr. to get that right. At times last year, Smith could have been counted in that potential building block category. Now, he’s in roster limbo after being designated for assignment this weekend.
It takes a pretty wide lens to fit identifying future building blocks and winning now into the same frame. Every game like Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays makes the winning part a little less relevant. Their 10.5% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, hasn’t been this low since they were a surprising 9-7 on Aug. 11.
Maybe the building blocks will look a little sturdier when infielder José Iglesias is back in the lineup holding them all together. Maybe those goals will be in lock step again. Maybe some of the productive players who aren’t considered building blocks will be moved before Monday’s trade deadline.
All that’s certain is what Hyde said to explain how Akin, who is still built up as a starter and got the requisite work in that role, isn’t having any developmental damage done now: “This is a different year.”