When Baltimore picked Ben McDonald with the top pick in the 1989 draft, it was just a small part of an exciting season for the Orioles.
They had picked the No. 1 because the previous year had been terrible, but when they actually made the pick, the Orioles were number one in the AL East and on track to become one of baseball’s classic underdog stories. In fact, McDonald was drafted on June 5, 1989 – the same day that Baltimore won an eighth straight game.
This year’s Orioles are suddenly drawing comparisons to that ’89 team. After entering the season amid a difficult rebuild — Baltimore will pick first pick in Draft Sunday for the second time in four years — the Orioles have become one of the game’s biggest surprises in recent weeks. A 10-game winning streak briefly pushed Baltimore above .500. As the All-Star break nears, the Orioles have nearly as many wins (45) as they have all of last year (52).
A playoff spot still seems unlikely, but at this point Baltimore is just 2½ games behind the last wild card in the American League.
“This team was fun to watch, man,” said McDonald, a right-hander who played nine seasons in the majors and is now part of Orioles TV shows. “It reminds me a lot in a way of the ’89 team where they got some confidence and then took off.”
The 1989 team holds a special place in the hearts of Baltimore fans. The 1988 Orioles lost 107 games, and that didn’t live up to their laughing stock from a 21-0 start. There wasn’t much reason to expect a quick turnaround in 1989, but shockingly, Baltimore led the AL East by 7.5 games in mid-July.
The division finally ended in the final series of the season in Toronto. The Orioles lost their first two games, allowing the Blue Jays to win the title. Baltimore won the Finals, with McDonald — who was already in the majors the same year he was drafted — claiming his first career win.
The current Orioles rose from similar depths as the ’89 team. Baltimore lost 110 games last year, including a 19-game slip that almost reached the team’s 1988 mark for the longest losing streak in American League history. Even before that surge in July, the Orioles were looking more competitive, thanks in part to an improved but still fairly anonymous bullpen.
Then Baltimore started their winning streak with a win in Minnesota before winning streaks against the Rangers, Angels and Cubs. It came as a pleasant surprise to Orioles fans, who figured they would spend much of the season monitoring the progress of minor-league prospects and using the draft and trade deadline as an opportunity to add more of them.
“I think we have a lot of good things in store for us over the next few years,” said General Manager Mike Elias. “I am very happy that it is reflected so clearly for our fans at this stage of the game.”
This onslaught of Orioles could complicate the rest of the month for Elias. Baltimore appeared to be a seller as of deadline – 30-year-old Trey Mancini could have some value, and Rougned Odor and Jordan Lyles have one-year deals – but amid the team’s first truly successful stretch in a while there could obviously be a temptation sit it out and chase the postseason.
In the extended playoffs, it’s not uncommon for a team to pick the #1 pick and then make it to the postseason in the same year. Minnesota did it in 2017.
“Everything I do or we do has compromises,” Elias said. “All I can say is that from a very global, very thoughtful perspective, we’re doing everything that’s right for the health of the Orioles franchise. And all of that is taken into account for the draft, but also for the trade deadline.”
For all the excitement of 1989, it was basically a runaway. The Orioles dipped below .500 again the next year, losing 95 games in 1991. Baltimore traded Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling – who were all part of the ’89 team – for slugger Glenn Davis in a move that backfired badly.
The lesson is that while the Orioles’ long winning streak has been a fun story for fans to rally to, the Orioles still need to make smart roster moves if they’re to build on it.
Elias didn’t say too much to tip Baltimore’s hand toward the draft, but he said there’s a general sense in the industry that the first player picked will be a positional player, not a pitcher.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, the good news for Baltimore is that more help appears to be on the way. With right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and infielder Gunnar Henderson, the Orioles have two of the game’s top five picks, according to MLB Pipeline. Rodriguez is out with a lat injury, but Henderson scored well at triple-A.
Catcher Adleyrutschman, the top pick in the 2019 draft, made his big league debut with Baltimore earlier this year.
“I think this organization is in a very healthy place and that’s mostly because of the players and the way they’re playing right now up here at the major league level,” Elias said. “Then they obviously have an excellent group of minor league prospects behind them.”
https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/34254273/baltimore-orioles-reliving-history-season-surge-top-pick-draft Baltimore Orioles reliving history with season surge and top pick in draft