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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A new generation of Oriole Magic


Gunnar Henderson, left, and Adley Rutschman were both minor leaguers at the start of the 2022 season. They have led Baltimore to the best record in the American League this season.

By Tyler Kepner


The past and the future blended seamlessly Saturday at Camden Yards in Baltimore, alternate visions of glory trimmed in orange and black. Between innings, the scoreboard showed clips from the Orioles’ last championship clincher, 40 years ago this fall. When the game resumed, the current players did a sharp imitation.


Flawless defense, stingy pitching, clutch hitting, heady baserunning. A sold-out crowd. Fireworks. A splash zone in the outfield stands — the Bird Bath — to hose down fans after big hits. Another win for the best team in the American League.


Oriole Magic, revisited.


“They remind me a lot of when I came up, with Eddie Murray and Rich Dauer and Mike Flanagan and Dennis Martinez,” said Scott McGregor, the pitcher who closed out the 1983 World Series against Philadelphia and reunited with his former teammates last weekend. “We all came up out of a very successful system, and winning is addictive. Once you get it, you grab ahold of it. And they’re doing that.”


After a weekend sweep of the moribund New York Mets, the Orioles stood at 70-42, atop the AL. They are doing it with a $70 million roster — only Pittsburgh and Oakland spend less — stocked with blossoming prospects, value-priced imports and a few regulars under 30 years old who weathered a deep rebuild.


“It happened a little faster than I thought, honestly,” said first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, whom Baltimore selected out of high school in the first round eight years ago. “From being the worst team in baseball in ’21 to possibly being in the playoffs the next year was a huge step in the right direction. And this year we’ve carried it over.”


The Orioles — who were 83-79 last season and missed the playoffs by three games — were once the standard for consistent excellence. Over 20 seasons through 1983, they won three championships, six AL pennants and 100 more regular-season games than any other franchise.


In the four decades since, the Orioles have never returned to the World Series and rank 26th of 30 teams in winning percentage, at .468. The worst of it came recently, with at least 108 losses in each of the three full seasons from 2018-21. No team since the expansion Mets of the early 1960s had endured such epic futility in such a short period.


General manager Mike Elias, a former assistant with the Houston Astros, took over after the 2018 season, inheriting a team that had gone 47-115. With a threadbare front office and farm system — and no international scouting presence — he initiated a teardown to rival the one that helped make the Astros a powerhouse.


“There was absolutely, in my opinion, no other way to fix the Orioles given where the organization was — and to fix them quickly — than to do what we did, which was concentrate on just pulling young talent in from every direction possible,” Elias said. “I don’t think anything else would have worked. I definitely don’t think anything else would have brought the team to competing for first place within five years.”


A new manager, Brandon Hyde, helped develop a few promising young players — including Mountcastle and outfielders Austin Hays and Anthony Santander — while Elias built a new infrastructure with the backing of John Angelos, the team’s managing partner. With the worst teams allowed to spend the most money on amateur talent, there was little incentive to win in the majors.


“They were super process-based and I was trying to stay that way also, but it’s tough when you’re having to answer questions every night on why you lost and you can’t be 100% honest about some things sometimes,” Hyde said. “So Mike having patience with me, that’s what I appreciate the most.”


Now, Hyde leads a balanced and versatile roster, with high-impact switch-hitters like Santander and catcher Adley Rutschman and athleticism that shows up routinely on the field and the bases. The team is tied for 11th in the majors in on-base plus slugging (.743) and tied for 12th in ERA (4.04), but it seems to be more than the sum of its parts.


“In spring training you could see how many guys were just professionals already — and it’s really rare for young guys to be like that and be ready, mentally, for the big leagues,” said veteran starter Kyle Gibson, whose one-year, $10 million contract was Baltimore’s largest investment last winter.


He added: “And that’s really half the battle. I mean, all these guys are physically gifted; they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. But all the intangibles you can’t really quantify — understanding the game, being able to adjust to the speed of it — can hold people back, and I feel like player development does a really good job of getting these guys ready.”


Rutschman, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, is the rare catcher who bats leadoff; he ranks among the league leaders in walks and on-base percentage. Gunnar Henderson, a second-round pick in that draft, stars at both shortstop and third base, making good on his preseason ranking as the consensus top prospect in baseball.


“I feel like this is exactly what we should be doing, because I’ve been around a lot of these guys and I know what they’re capable of,” Henderson said. “And I feel like we added some pieces and they’ve been flourishing here.”


The most recent addition, right-handed starter Jack Flaherty, should help the Orioles navigate their biggest challenge: cobbling together enough quality innings before turning the game over to overwhelming relievers Yennier Canó and Félix Bautista — and keeping that tandem fresh, too.


Flaherty, who looked strong in his Orioles debut last week in Toronto, arrived from the St. Louis Cardinals through an Aug. 1 trade for three prospects. Elias, who also added right-handed reliever Shintaro Fujinami in a July deal with the Oakland A’s, made both trades while protecting all of the team’s best prospects. The Orioles have a league-high eight prospects on MLB.com’s top 100 list, led by Class AA shortstop Jackson Holliday, the first pick in last year’s draft, at No. 1 overall.


“I don’t think we’re being dogmatic about it; we wouldn’t rule out those types of trades,” Elias said. “Where we’re coming from is, we’re going to have to be scouting- and player development-oriented with a lot of homegrown players. Because of the market size, we’re going to have to be pretty measured if we decide to expend elite prospects for very short-term help.”


The Orioles have just one player, catcher James McCann, signed past this season, though young players like Henderson are under club control. The hard questions will come soon enough, but for now the team is squarely in a honeymoon phase: bountiful present, boundless future, and a lot of affection to go around.


“The atmosphere is phenomenal,” Flaherty said. “Guys are playing together, they really love on each other — and they work, too. You just kind of feel like things are going to go right when you go out there every night.”

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