How the Baltimore Orioles became a contender

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY -- Austin Hays debuted for the Baltimore Orioles as a late September call-up in 2017 at 21, a year after Baltimore made its last playoff appearance. The next season, spent by Hays at Double-A, they went 47-115. He returned to the big leagues to play for a 108-loss team in 2019, slogged through the pandemic season (25 wins) and weathered a 110-loss 2021 in hopes of something better. Hope and faith were elemental to everyone in the Orioles' universe, players and fans alike, because without them, the sort of misery that enmeshed the franchise would be too much.

Hays is now 27, and in the afterglow of another victory Monday, he marveled at what surrounded him. The Orioles, now carrying the third-best record in Major League Baseball at 21-10, are not flukes. Yes, they've had an easy schedule, and, certainly tougher days are ahead, with the combined winning percentage of the teams they face in their next eight series .605 -- a collective 98-win pace. But their formula -- outhit the opponent and withstand middling starting pitching with a bullpen that has the best Fielding Independent Pitching number in all of baseball -- is replicable. And the coalescing of the Baltimore clubhouse -- a well-balanced mixture of homegrown players with whom he ascended through the minor leagues, survivors of the Orioles' lowest moments and imports finding the best versions of themselves -- heartens Hays.

"The three of those groups have just bonded together so well here," he said. "And it's created just a really good atmosphere and culture. The team is good. We have talent, but there's a lot of teams that have talent in the locker room just doesn't mesh. It's just meshed so well. It's created a really great culture here."

Catcher Adley Rutschman is quick to point out that culture and winning, though often bedfellows, are not the same thing. Culture, he said, is more about "having a lot of guys on board with the same mindset and the same kind of collective goal. It takes a lot of responsibility off individuals and just makes it more of a teamwide thing, which I really love about our team."

Even if the Orioles' whole is greater than the sum of its parts, those parts matter. In addition to Hays (OPSing .848), the survivors include center fielder Cedric Mullins (with a .375 on-base percentage in the leadoff hole), first baseman Ryan Mountcastle (a team-leading eight home runs), outfielder Anthony Santander (coming off a 33-homer season) and right-hander Dean Kremer (the best remaining player acquired in their 2018 trade-deadline purge). "Even though we stunk, I have a ton of fond memories for a lot of players that were here my first couple years," manager Brandon Hyde said. "Because those guys played their heart out for me."

Baltimore general manager Mike Elias didn't just sit around waiting for the prospects to join the burgeoning core. In August 2021, Baltimore placed a waiver claim on shortstop Jorge Mateo, who blossomed last year, broke out this year and is currently eighth among position players in Wins Above Replacement. Standout reliever Bryan Baker came via waivers, too, three months later, and lefty reliever Cionel Perez two weeks after that. Right-hander Yennier Cano, author of 11 hitless, walk-free innings to start the season, arrived in a trade last July in which the Orioles, on the fringes of contention, dealt closer Jorge Lopez to Minnesota.

Though controversial at the time, the Lopez trade did little to affect the Orioles' ascendancy. It seemed to come down to this: No longer were players coming to the stadium every day with the knowledge a cavernous talent gap existed between them and their opponent. Even if the Orioles' payroll was embarrassingly low -- 30th of 30 teams last season, 29th at an estimated $83 million this year -- they were no longer outclassed before the first pitch.

"Being in a game every night where every at-bat the game's on the line, you have a chance to put the team ahead, it makes the game so much more fun and it just makes it easy to bring energy," Hays said. "And going through that has just made the game so much more enjoyable for us. There's nothing to take for granted. We come in every day excited to try to win a game because we know where it can be and how far away we are from that now."

THE THIRD GROUP inside the Orioles' clubhouse -- the kids -- makes them truly interesting. Tanking teams thrive or crumble based on the success of their ability to draft and develop, and Baltimore already has firmly established itself in the former category -- and that's with a farm system that even after a slew of high-profile graduations remains among the best in the game.

The arrival last year of Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, signaled the beginning of a new era. Since his May 21 debut, the Orioles are 87-64, better than all but five teams, each of which carry championship aspirations: Houston, Toronto, Atlanta, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets.

In less than a year, Rutschman has established himself as an archetypal franchise player: wildly talented, willing leader and giver of his now-signature Adley Hug -- most of which are delivered to far larger men. No mite at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Rutschman often finds himself swallowed up by Felix Bautista (6-8, 285) and Cano (6-4, 245).

"It's definitely a good hug when a guy of his caliber comes out after pitching a tough ninth, which usually comes with a lot of pressure," Cano said through Brandon Quinones, the team's interpreter and baseball communications assistant. "Getting that hug from him is a really nice feeling. I've been able to work with several different catchers, but when I get to work with Adley, it's like he already knows what pitch I want to throw, and he calls them immediately. So it's great to work with him and I'd be super happy if I got to work with him the rest of my career."

That sentiment is quickly gaining traction around the major leagues. If he's not there already, Rutschman is not far off the title of best catcher in all of MLB -- and yet still humble enough to express a whit of self-doubt as to the quality of his hugs.

"You can't say, oh, I'm a good hugger," Rutschman said. "It's like someone saying, oh, I'm a really nice guy. Well, no, other people get to decide that for you. You don't get to decide that. But also Bautista and Cano haven't given me any feedback, so I don't know if they're just being nice."

They are not. Truth is, everyone around Baltimore's clubhouse adores Rutschman. Certainly his on-field brilliance -- a switch-hitter, he is slashing .315/.429/.472 with four home runs and more walks than strikeouts -- helps matters. But it's more than that.

"He lives up to every expectation," said veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson, who signed as a free agent with Baltimore over the winter. "He takes pride in his catching. He offensively obviously is switching, so it's twice the work as most guys. And I haven't gotten into the weeds with him on it, but my guess is he enjoys the work because if you're a catcher, you have to really enjoy the work, and he has really high expectations for himself. You can tell."

And Rutschman represented just the start of the emergence of Baltimore's young core. Next came third baseman Gunnar Henderson, who had taken over as the top prospect following Rutschman's promotion. Then outfielder Kyle Stowers, followed by their top pitching prospect, Grayson Rodriguez, and one of their plethora of middle infielders, Joey Ortiz. Still to come, likelier sooner than later: outfielder Colton Cowser and infielder Jordan Westburg, who are raking at Triple-A, and Heston Kjerstad, doing the same at Double-A. Not far behind: Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft who's already in High-A and will play the entire season at 19 years old.

When Gibson signed with Baltimore on a one-year, $10 million deal, he knew of the talent the Orioles' young players possessed but not the people they were. Throughout the spring, he learned, they're an almost universally grown-up group, kids in age only, and that whatever the Orioles were doing to develop them, it was working.

"I never would've guessed that all these guys had a good head on their shoulders," Gibson said. "In spring training, there wasn't any stupid stuff going on. They all took care of it like pros. You just don't normally have a team of young guys that professional. ... They're never late. Just the mental mistakes that you normally see with young guys aren't there on or off the field. So it's got to be internal. It's just too much of a coincidence not to be."

TUNE INTO AN Orioles game and you're likely to be treated to a show. When a Baltimore player hits a single, he looks toward his teammates and twists his wrist -- turning on the offensive faucet. A double prompts the runner to do the sprinkler dance -- and the dugout obliges, with those on the top step spewing streams of water. For home runs, the Orioles break out a funnel -- known officially as the Homer Hose and colloquially as the Dong Bong -- and chug water.

The liquid theme came from Rutschman -- "Adley is usually our ideas guy," Stowers said, "he's our creative"-- who earlier this spring debuted it at the team's annual talent show for rookies. Rutschman wasn't sure if he technically qualified -- for finishing second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting last year, he was awarded a full year of service time -- but once he knew his teammates expected participation, he rounded up Henderson, Stowers, Cowser and utilityman Terrin Vavra and prepared for a performance as "Fountain Financial." It was such a hit, the encore went teamwide.

Rutschman's ubiquity in the clubhouse is no accident. He takes leadership seriously, understanding his position as the franchise's fulcrum and giving everyone what they need, whether it's a celebratory postgame hug or a good-luck pregame embrace. Stowers is typically the recipient of that. After Rutschman goes through his customary hand slaps, he and Stowers raise their right arms, lower their left arms and move in for some love.

"It's comforting," Stowers said. "We kind of look at each other before a game. Here we go, got each other's backs. It's like, no matter what happens, we're here for each other.

"I've only been in the organization since 2019, but each year you meet the first-round pick of the draft and you go, man, that's a really good guy, a team-oriented guy who wants to win and help the team win," Stowers continued. "And we've talked about this. I know you say not to talk too much about it, but it starts with the first overall pick. Being someone who's humble. Works hard and does things the right way. Because if that guy's humble, then everyone else is going to follow suit."

Rutschman doesn't want the Orioles to get too far ahead of themselves. As good as life is now, as promising as the future might be even in a pitiless AL East, baseball is an unrelenting challenge, and the moment Baltimore starts to buy the hype, it's liable to return to that place no one wants to go.

So he preaches the same things that got the Orioles where they are. In the minor leagues, Rutschman said, he was struck by how the team's prospects prioritized winning -- even at levels where winning doesn't much matter -- over climbing to the major leagues. The balance between individual and team that is so difficult to strike in the minor leagues, he said, is Three Little Bears-level just right.

"Somehow our guys were still focused on that team aspect of caring about the guy next to him and asking guys how they're doing, what they're going through," Rutschman said. "And to me that's a huge part of the team aspect, and I think you can lose that in the minor leagues and then when you get to big leagues turn that back on. But I don't think guys are having to turn it back on."

And so this franchise, a laughingstock for nearly half a decade, witness to far more ughs than hugs, finds itself reckoning with a phenomenon long ago abandoned in Baltimore: relevancy. Losing, Mullins said, helped teach the Orioles to savor winning, and now they're ever hungrier for it.

"I think we come in with a purpose every single day: winning games," Mullins said. "And it's not just feeling like we want to. It's knowing that we can."