The Orioles had an excellent weekend against the Cleveland Indians, winning consecutive games by 13-0 scores before dropping the series finale Sunday.
It was a rare bright spot in an otherwise ugly 2019 season for Baltimore, which hadn’t won a series since April or two games in a row since early May. The club suffered a 10-game losing streak in mid-June and, at 24-59, holds the worst record in baseball as it begins an arduous organizational rebuild.
This is nothing new, however, for the Orioles’ first-year executive vice president, Mike Elias, and manager Brandon Hyde. The two are veterans of the rebuilding process — and they know that the 2019 season, as painful as it may be at times, is a steppingstone that could lead to greater things in Baltimore.
Seven years ago, Elias and Hyde were hired by clubs that were essentially starting over from scratch. Elias was named the Houston Astros’ director of amateur scouting in 2012, coming over from the St. Louis Cardinals with newly hired Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Hyde joined the Chicago Cubs in December 2011 as their minor league field coordinator, then was promoted to director of player development the following August. He was hired by the Cubs’ new front office tandem of president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.
The Astros and Cubs were each coming off a stretch of disappointing seasons, and the new regimes had a multi-year plan for rebuilding — just like this year’s Orioles. By necessity, that meant each club would take its lumps on the field while the front office tried to replenish the talent level throughout the organization.
For each team, that first year of the rebuild was ugly at the major league level.
The Astros, at the halfway point of the 2012 season, were 32-49 — bad, but not atrocious. Their solid infield included Carlos Lee, Jose Altuve, Jed Lowrie and Chris Johnson. Their five regular starting pitchers at that point were ace Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ, Jordan Lyles, and Lucas Harrell, who weren’t spectacular but took their turns consistently. They cobbled together a decent bullpen anchored by veteran closer Brett Myers, along with right-handers Brandon Lyon and Wilton Lopez and lefty Wesley Wright.
It wasn’t until the halfway point that the Astros truly cratered. In July, they made a series of payroll-cutting trades that gutted the roster of veterans, dealing away Lee, Happ, Lyon, Myers , Rodriguez and Johnson. They attempted to patch the roster holes with journeyman minor leaguers and waiver wire fodder, with the results you might expect.
“It was one thing to plan not to devote resources to a club that was going to lose anyway, but another entirely to live with the ramifications of that plan,” wrote Ben Reiter in Astroball: The New Way to Win It All. “What type of players could the Astros pay so little? Those who were, by and large, not ready for any league above Triple-A. It was not a formula for winning.”
From June 28 through the end of the season, the Astros went 23-64. That included a 3-24 record in July and 5-22 in August. The Houston faithful grew restless. “Members of the Astros’ quickly dwindling fan base made T-shirts silk-screened with the new nicknames they had bestowed upon their once beloved, if perennially frustrating, club,” Reiter wrote. “They were now the LASTROS or, alternatively, the DISASTROS. Attendance fell to 1.6 million, barely half of what the (Astros) drew less than a decade before, and catastrophically lower than league average.”
The 2012 Astros became synonymous with shoddy play. One particularly ugly defensive sequence — in which three infielders collided trying to field a bunt, then the ball was thrown away by both the first baseman and the rightfielder, scoring the go-ahead run — was the subject of national media mockery for months.
Fans of the 2019 Orioles can relate. In a May contest in Cleveland, the Orioles infield turned a bases-loaded grounder into two runs and no outs, taking the sports world by storm for all the wrong reasons.
The Astros finished 2012 with a 55-107 record, the worst mark in the majors that year and the worst in their history to that point. They scored the fewest runs in MLB, 26 behind the closest team. Houston carried the second-worst ERA in the National League and were second to last in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs.
Elsewhere in the division, things weren’t much better for the Cubs.
At the 81-game mark, Chicago sat in the cellar with an 31-50 record. They’d already suffered an 11-game losing streak in the middle of May. Their most recognizable player, 12-year Cubs veteran Kerry Wood, had retired in May after posting an 8.31 ERA in 10 games. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano was in the sixth season of an eight-year, $136-million contract, tying up payroll. And their most productive hitter was one who had no future with the club: 29-year-old Bryan LaHair, who parlayed a red-hot first half into an All-Star selection, then fell off sharply and never played in the majors past that season.
The Cubs, like the Astros, spent much of the season dealing away their unneeded veterans. Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster and former Rookie of the Year catcher Geovany Soto, two of the club’s longest tenured players, were traded at the July 31 deadline. Complementary pieces such as left-hander Paul Maholm, outfielder Reed Johnson and utility man Jeff Baker were also sent to new homes.
The Cubs petered out in the final two months. From August on, they went 18-42, with almost a third of those wins coming against the fellow also-ran Astros (including a walkoff victory in the final game of the season). The Cubs’ final record was 61-101, saddling them with their first 100-loss season since 1966, and they joined the Astros as the only 2012 clubs to achieve that dubious distinction. The two clubs sat at the bottom of the NL Central, which was the Astros’ final season in that division before moving to the AL West in 2013.
Still, while the clubs struggled on the field, the 2012 Astros and Cubs set the groundwork for the success that was to come.
For Houston, the biggest development of that season was the emergence of their 5-foot-6 second baseman Altuve, who put up an All-Star campaign in his first full year in the majors. Altuve increased his OBP by 43 points in 2012, just the start of an improvement that would eventually lead him to AL MVP honors in 2017.
Each club saw the midseason debut of a player who would form an important part of their future core. On June 17, the Astros called up 24-year-old left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who wasn’t one of their most highly touted prospects but was putting up solid numbers at Triple-A Oklahoma City. In his second major league start, Keuchel threw a complete game to beat the Indians. Within three years, he was a Cy Young winner and the Astros’ ace.
In Chicago, the Cubs promoted 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whom they’d acquired from San Diego in January, to the majors on June 26. Epstein and Hoyer were plenty familiar with Rizzo, who was a promising Red Sox prospect when the duo worked in Boston and was traded to the Padres when Hoyer was their GM.
In his third organization, Rizzo flourished. After his first 11 games with the Cubs, Rizzo was batting .386 with a 1.150 OPS, four home runs and nine RBIs. He claimed the everyday first base job and hasn’t relinquished it since. In his eight years as a Cub, the three-time All-Star has 210 homers and 691 RBIs, and counting.
The two clubs bolstered their rosters in other ways, too. The Cubs’ trade of Dempster landed them right-handed prospect Kyle Hendricks, who became the staff’s ERA leader during their championship run in 2016. The Astros, led by Elias, found game-changing talent in the 2012 amateur draft, headlined by No. 1 overall pick and now All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa. They also plucked right-hander Lance McCullers, a 2017 All-Star and postseason standout, with the No. 41 overall pick.
As unwatchable as those 2012 seasons may have been for Astros and Cubs fans, they marked a new beginning for the two teams. Both clubs, despite their awful records, planted seeds that year that sprouted into future success. By 2015, the Astros and Cubs were back in the playoffs. The Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and the Astros followed suit a year later.
Elias and Hyde have had first-hand experience with how difficult the first year of a rebuild can be. The 2019 Orioles are no exception, and — record-wise, at least — they’ve struggled even more than the Astros and Cubs did. Baltimore held a 23-58 mark at the halfway point, eight games worse than the 2012 Cubs were at the same benchmark, and nine games behind the Astros. Even after winning this weekend’s series against the Indians, the Orioles are on pace to finish 47-115, notably worse than the 2012 Astros and Cubs.
Still, it’s not about wins and losses. What matters this year is whether the Orioles can start putting together the building blocks for their next contending club. Is the Orioles’ version of Rizzo or Keuchel ready to debut this season? Is there a building block like Altuve already on the roster? Will Adley Rutschman, or another 2019 Orioles draft pick, become the next Correa? Will the Orioles swing any trades for a future contributor like Hendricks?
Those questions can’t be answered yet. But Elias and Hyde know as well as anyone how successful the rebuilding process can be if done right. Though it may be tough to stomach now, Orioles fans could one day look back at the 2019 season as the year the club’s turnaround truly began.