Major League Baseball
Orioles' remarkable rebuild keyed by veterans as much as youth
Major League Baseball

Orioles' remarkable rebuild keyed by veterans as much as youth

Updated May. 25, 2023 3:49 p.m. ET

NEW YORK — The 2021 Baltimore Orioles lost 110 games, the sixth-worst mark in the wild-card era. Their season was a demoralizing dumpster fire full of inept offensive showings and a league-worst 5.85 team ERA. The Opening Day and everyday outfield? Anthony Santander in right, Cedric Mullins in center and Austin Hays in left.

The 2023 Baltimore Orioles, 49 games into the season, are playing at a 105-win pace. The past two months have been an invigorating thrill ride full of late-game drama and inevitable offensive outbursts, Baltimore's 9-6 comeback victory Wednesday night in the Bronx a prime example. The Opening Day and everyday outfield? Santander in right, Mullins in center and Hays in left.

"I remember, last year, after we swept [Anaheim] at home, I was like wow, this is a winning club," Hays told FOX Sports before Wednesday’s game against the Yankees. "At that point it wasn’t just about showing up to survive another day. [Winning] makes everything more fun; the locker room, the stadium atmosphere, all of it."

In Baltimore, much has changed, yet much has not. 


Even though the 32-17 Orioles have MLB’s third-youngest roster, they are way more than a straightforward youth movement, at least right now. Because while Baltimore still has one of the sport’s best farm systems, a squadron of established players has carried the high-flying birds to new heights.

Besides franchise catcher Adley Rutschman (whose immense influence should not be understated), the Orioles’ 10 best players by WAR are 27 or older. The O’s best pitcher this season, Tyler Wells, is a 28-year-old former Rule 5 pick in his third season with the club. Fourth-year Orioles regular Ryan Mountcastle remains productive despite his swing-happy approach and horrible batted-ball luck. Jorge Mateo, a 28-year-old former top prospect shot in the dark, has cooled off in May after his volcanic April, but remains a core piece thanks to his baserunning and defense. Adam Frazier, a veteran on a bargain bin one-year deal, has inexplicably raked. 

But the core outfield group of Santander, Mullins and Hays has brought real stability and impact to Baltimore’s lineup. Santander has been a beast in May after a slow start, his adjusted OPS now 21% better than league average. Mullins, currently 39% better than league average, is one of only two players alongside Ronald Acuña Jr. with at least eight homers and at least 10 steals. And Hays, currently 31% better than league average, is one of only 13 qualified big leaguers with a batting average over .300. 

And though Santander and Mullins are 28 years old and Hays is still just 27, these are not newbies. Hays and Santander debuted with the Orioles in 2017, Mullins in 2018. 

For context: All three appeared in starting lineups with the long-since-departed Adam Jones. None of Santander, Mullins and Hays were acquired by the current Mike Elias-led baseball operations group. This is a trio that endured the messy muck of Baltimore’s lengthy rebuild, and came out the other side as key members of a surging playoff contender.

"I remember we weren't really getting caught up in how bad it was or how much we were losing," Hays told FOX Sports about his 2021 experience with Mullins and Santander. "It was like, 'Listen, this is our opportunity. This is our chance to solidify ourselves. So when the team does turn around, we're going to be a part of that.'

"That’s where our focus was. That was our narrative. We talked about that a lot."

A third-round pick out of Jacksonville University back in 2016, Hays was by far the highest-touted of the three. Mullins was a 2015 13th-round flier out of Campbell University (enrollment: 5,272) who developed legit juice after entering pro ball. Santander was a Rule 5 pick the Orioles nabbed from Cleveland after the 2016 season, who’d barely appeared on any top prospect lists.

Since the start of 2021, the triumvirate has started a combined 850 games in the outfield for the Orioles. They are the only team to have an identical starting outfield on Opening Day 2021 and Opening Day 2023. Mullins and Hays are particularly close friends, having roomed together on the road back in Double-A in 2016.

"When we were coming up, some people had this picture painted of a center-field battle, like, who is it gonna be, Hays or Mullins?" Hays said. "But we didn’t care who played center as long as we got to be in the outfield together."

Will the Baltimore Orioles win the World Series in the next three years?

That continuity has been vital for the second-place Orioles, who have yet to receive consistent contributions from their top two prospects, pitcher Grayson Rodriguez and infielder Gunnar Henderson. The 21-year-old Henderson has looked much improved over recent weeks, but has yet to completely tap into the talent that made him the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball ahead of the year. And Rodriguez, one of the top three pitching prospects in the game, is off to a rocky rollercoaster start as a big-leaguer, sporting a 6.21 ERA through nine starts.

But despite the hype, there’s less pressure on top prospects like Henderson, Rodriguez and infielder Joey Ortiz to perform immediately, because of how well the rest of the team is clicking. 

And for the 23-year-old Rodriguez, who, before this season had spent his entire career in the minors alongside fellow highly-touted Orioles prospects, it’s been an eye-opening experience to watch the big league lineup do its thing.

"Our dudes in the minors are nasty, yeah. But I'd never been on a team with Hays or Cedric or Santander before," Rodriguez told FOX Sports. "And all three of ‘em right now, when they're up to bat, you know it's probably going to be a piss missile." 

Rodriguez is correct that Baltimore’s farm system remains absolutely stacked with talented hitters like Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad, Jordan Westburg, Coby Mayo and Connor Norby, not to mention last year’s No. 1 pick Jackson Holliday. Eventually, members of that wave will either solidify themselves as impact big leaguers or get dealt away for impact pitching. But for now, the Orioles do not have to rush their young talent to the big leagues, and that’s because players 

Losing for a half-decade to accumulate top draft picks and international signees cannot jump-start a rebuild all by itself (see: Tigers and Royals). To become a consistent contender, an organization must uncover a few diamonds in the rough during the lean years. This is a familiar conversation around any struggling ballclub: Which players on this bad team will be on the next good team?

So yes, the Orioles went full tank, ripping their roster to the studs year after year for the dream of a better tomorrow, but along the way they discovered three outstanding outfielders. The O’s gave Santander, Mullins and Hays the opportunity to fail, the space to improve and the necessary tools to develop into better players.

And now, everyone in Baltimore is reaping the benefits. 

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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