For the surging Orioles, anything seems possible

For the surging Orioles, anything seems possible

BALTIMORE — James McCann isn’t a future Hall of Famer or a multiple-time all-star, but he has played with those sorts and then some. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera during a bunch of years in Detroit. José Abreu and Tim Anderson with the Chicago White Sox. Max Scherzer, Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor with the New York Mets. Spend 10 seasons as a big league catcher, and you understand what talent looks like.

So when McCann got to the end of spring training with the Baltimore Orioles, he had a backdrop against which to compare his new team. It compared … favorably.

“The Baltimore Orioles 2023 camp is the most talented spring training, from top to bottom, of all the camps I’ve been in,” McCann said Wednesday morning at Camden Yards. “From the first guy in camp to the last guy, I’ve never seen more talent.”

There is a full-on transformation going on up here, one that involved hundreds of losses and at least as many dark days over a span of five years. It is rooted in the talent the Orioles have acquired from all points and in all manners and at so many positions. But it manifests itself in one simple thought that recently wasn’t realistic in Baltimore: If there is a ballgame today, we might as well go out and win it.

“I wanted to be on a team that was going to be competitive and win and have a chance to make a run in the playoffs,” said veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson, a free agent signee who didn’t endure all the losing but is here for the winning. “Not just make the playoffs. I think this is a playoff team. But how far can we go with these young guys and the combination of veterans?

“It’s a situation everyone wants to be in. You want to be taking the mound knowing the game that day matters, not necessarily taking the mound hoping another team wants to trade for you.”

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It is still April, which means it is still early, so absolute declarations are made at some peril. But after Wednesday’s neat-and-tidy 6-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles, who in 2021 lost 110 games, are 16-8 and on a 108-win pace.

Logically, that’s not sustainable. But look around. There are so many positives, anything feels possible. They have now won five straight series. They have talent. They have fun. And they have a formula.

“We’re doing the little things really well,” Manager Brandon Hyde said. “We need to. We’re not going to be first in offense. We’re not going to lead the league in homers. We need to be able to run the bases well, be able to move runners, be able to score runners from third.”

And pitch decently, particularly late in the game, which they did Wednesday and which they do more often than not. We will get to those specifics. But the big picture of what’s happening in Baltimore should be demonstrative of what could happen elsewhere — ahem, Washington — if years of losing include savvy talent acquisition along the way. There are no guarantees. But after a five-season span from 2017 to 2021 yielded more losses than any team in MLB, Baltimore is no longer a baseball backwater. It’s a borderline destination.

“What drew me here,” said Gibson, who arrived with a one-year, $10 million deal, “was the direction of the team.”

We don’t yet know the 2023 results. The trajectory, though, is unarguable. The core of the Orioles comes from the kinds of places you would expect after so many losses. Franchise catcher Adley Rutschman was the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, the reward for a 115-loss 2018. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, a rotation staple of the future who’s just steadying himself during his first month in the majors, was the 11th pick the previous year. Infielder Gunnar Henderson was a revelation as an early second-round pick in Rutschman’s draft. There are other high-end prospects — shortstop Jackson Holliday, outfielder Colton Cowser — on the way. It’s an old formula: Play poorly, draft high, don’t miss.

With elite ability, then, comes borderline swagger.

“From May on last year, our guys started coming to the park expecting to win,” Hyde said. “Just the attitude changed last year. Obviously, we were talented. But a lot of the guys in our clubhouse had never won before, and they just learned how to win.

“Your bullpen does that. The bullpen allowed us to hold leads, be able to come back. It just gives your club confidence.”

He’s right. Headed into play Wednesday, Baltimore relievers had the third-best ERA and had allowed the third-fewest walks and hits per inning pitched in the majors. How that group came together, though, shows the way General Manager Mike Elias and his staff gathered talent around the edges can be as important as the choices made in the spotlight.

The core of this bullpen is the following: Bryan Baker, a waiver claim; Mike Baumann, a third-round pick in 2017; Danny Coulombe, acquired in a seemingly minor trade for cash during this spring training; Yennier Canó, part of a package in a trade-deadline deal with Minnesota last summer; and Félix Bautista, a mountain of a closer who, when 2021 began, hadn’t pitched above Class A.

After Coulombe, Canó and Bautista closed out Wednesday’s win with 3⅓ scoreless innings, that group has combined for a 1.11 ERA and a 0.684 WHIP with 72 strikeouts and just 15 walks across 57 innings. Canó has faced 26 hitters and allowed one to reach base — a hit batsman Wednesday. So between last June 1 and Wednesday, only three American League teams — Houston, Cleveland and Seattle — had won a higher percentage of their games than the Orioles.

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The players have changed. And so has the attitude.

“When you’re showing up and you’re expected to be a 100-loss team, that becomes frustrating, especially when you’re playing the better teams in the [major leagues] that you just don’t match up with,” said McCann, acquired in an offseason trade with the Mets to help guide the 25-year-old Rutschman. “You’re trying to sneak out one game in a series because it just doesn’t line up for you. But when you’ve got a team where you show up every day and you expect to win, it’s fun.”

It makes the job Hyde took in late 2018 fundamentally different from the one he has now. The goal on his first team was to develop players and not be crushed by all those 108 losses.

“What I went through?” Hyde said, and then he laughed loudly. That’s easier now, coming off an 83-79 2022 that established expectations that are absolutely realistic.

“It’s not easy to lose,” he said. “This is a really tough business. You get here, and you know you’re going to struggle for a while. But you want to see growth. You want to see improvement. You kind of wrap your arms around the players, honestly, at that point. ‘Let’s just try to get these guys better. Let’s be competitive every night.’”

And then when the talent arrives, be ready.

“That’s one of the things that [the veterans] have tried to instill in this clubhouse,” McCann said. “ ‘You guys are good. It wasn’t a fluke last year.’ ”

The Tampa Bay Rays, an absolute freight train, lead the Orioles in the AL East. The playoffs are a long way off. But after enduring so many days when winning seemed so unlikely, there is enormous joy in having it seem possible — even probable — with each sunrise.

“You want to be in a winning environment,” Hyde said. “That’s human nature. Every night matters. Not that it didn’t matter before …”

But this is different. When Bautista punched out the final Red Sox hitter Wednesday, he and Rutschman walked toward each other at the center of the diamond. They embraced. Not because this was a particularly meaningful or emotional victory. But because there was a ballgame Wednesday, and the Baltimore Orioles won it. Increasingly, that’s exactly what they expect to do.

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