The Orioles Are Bad and It Just Might Get Worse

Dylan Bundy tried his best to give a promising vision of the future. This was at spring training in 2019, when the Baltimore Orioles had finished the previous season as the worst team in the major leagues. They were bad and they knew it, but teams like that can always cling to hope.

“I think we’ll look back maybe a year or two from now and see what we had this year,” Bundy said, “and it’ll be kind of a special moment to see what we’ve become.”

Bundy now pitches for the Los Angeles Angels, and he will face the Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Tuesday. He will see firsthand what his old friends have become: the franchise that just can’t win.

The Orioles have dropped 18 consecutive games, the longest losing streak in the majors since the Kansas City Royals lost 19 straight games in 2005. The Orioles have been outscored by 102 runs during their skid, and did not even have a one-run loss until Saturday against Atlanta.

It might get even worse. After three games against the Angels — whose dazzling two-way star, Shohei Ohtani, starts on Wednesday — the Orioles will host the Tampa Bay Rays, who have the best record in the American League.

If they lose all of those games, the Orioles would break the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies’ modern era record of 23 consecutive defeats. The 1889 Louisville Colonels — managed mainly by William Van Winkle Wolf, who went by Chicken — hold the overall mark, with 26.

“We don’t like the fact that we’re here,” General Manager Mike Elias said by phone on Monday. “We want to get out of it. But we don’t believe that it is a reflection of the progress towards building this organization back up so that it gets back into the fight.”

If baseball were boxing, this fight would have been called long ago, perhaps when the Orioles ended May with a streak of 14 losses. Or maybe the Orioles would not have even gotten into the ring: They had no dreams of contending this season, anyway, and could become the first team since the expansion Mets in the 1960s to lose at least 108 games in three consecutive non-abbreviated seasons.

For Elias, a former pitcher at Yale, there is a more recent parallel: the Houston Astros of the 2010s. Elias was an assistant general manager to Jeff Luhnow, who inherited the majors’ weakest team before the 2012 season and kept it that way for two more years, exploiting a system that allows the worst teams to spend the most money on amateur talent.

The blueprint worked for both the Astros and the Chicago Cubs, who both won championships in the 2010s, and as the players’ union negotiates a new collective bargaining agreement with Major League Baseball, it is hoping for rules that discourage so-called tanking. But when Baltimore hired Elias in November 2018, a long, protracted reconstruction seemed like the sensible option.

Under Elias’s predecessor, Dan Duquette, the Orioles led the American League in regular-season victories from 2012 through 2016. But the farm system was thin, the team had essentially abandoned international scouting, and rivals had lapped the Orioles in the use of data. Attendance had cratered, too.

“What do you do?” Elias said. “To us, the answer was undebatable: We start building from the ground up, we renovate the organization, we get all of that infrastructure fixed and up-to-date and we start pumping young talent into the system from every level that we possibly can. We devote all of our resources and energies to those goals, first and foremost, before skipping ahead and doing anything else.”

And so here they are, with a major league-worst 38-85 record that reflects the threadbare payroll. The Orioles’ highest-paid pitcher, Matt Harvey, makes $1 million, and no one besides Chris Davis, who is retired, makes more than $4.75 million. The opening day payroll — $57 million, according to Baseball Prospectus — ranked 27th in the majors, ahead of only Miami, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

None of those teams are contenders, but Tampa Bay has a low payroll (about $67 million on opening day) and finds a way to win. The Rays constantly seek marginal upgrades, often with bargain deals for veterans who can thrive in their environment — and their pitching is the antithesis of the Orioles’ staff.

Baltimore starters have a 6.22 earned run average; no team has been worse in a full season since the 2003 Texas Rangers, at 6.24. Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, who showed promise last summer, have combined to go 0-15 with a 7.62 E.R.A. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, Harvey (6.27) and Jorge Lopez (6.30) have the two highest E.R.A.s in the majors.

The Orioles have two top 10 prospects in Baseball America’s midseason rankings, and both will help the staff in time: catcher Adley Rutschman (No. 1 overall) and the right-hander Greyson Rodriguez (No. 9). But pitching at Camden Yards — especially now — may be a tough sell for free agents with other options.

“It’s a great ballpark, but it’s a cozy ballpark, and you’re in a division where you’re facing great lineups most of the time, and people are aware of that,” Elias said. “You look historically at some of the more successful Oriole teams since the park has opened, and they’ve managed to be successful with good but not great rotations and very strong bullpens.

“So we’re mindful of the fact that we think that our ability to attract free agent pitchers will probably be dependent on us having a good team, first and foremost, and that we’re going to need to import our pitchers via trade or acquisitions while they’re minor leaguers or amateurs.”

The presence of Bundy on Tuesday will be a reminder of how challenging that task may be. The Orioles drafted in the top five each year from 2007 through 2012, choosing pitchers four times: Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Matt Hobgood and Brian Matusz. Only Gausman has become an All-Star, and he had to leave Baltimore to do it.

One homegrown Oriole, the left-hander John Means, has become a rotation fixture. Three others — Trey Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle and Cedric Mullins — could be part of the lineup for the next winning Orioles team.

For now, of course, a winning record seems like a fantasy. These Orioles would settle for one victory as soon as possible, and would be happy to let the Louisville Colonels stand alone.

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