When Baltimore took Ben McDonald with the top choice in the 1989 draft, it was just one small part of a thrilling season for the Orioles.
They had the No. 1 pick was because the previous year had been terrible, but by the time they actually made the selection, the Orioles were in first place in the AL East, on their way to becoming one of baseball’s classic underdog stories. In fact, McDonald was drafted on June 5, 1989 — the same day Baltimore won a season-high eighth game in a row.
This year’s Orioles are suddenly drawing comparisons to that ‘89 team. After entering the season in the midst of a difficult rebuild — Baltimore will pick first in the draft Sunday for the second time in four years — the Orioles have become one of the game’s biggest surprises over the past few weeks. A 10-game winning streak put Baltimore briefly above .500. As the All-Star break approaches, the Orioles have almost as many victories (45) as they did all of last year (52).
A playoff spot still seems unlikely, but at this point, Baltimore is only 2 1/2 games behind the final wild card in the American League.
“It’s been fun to watch this team, man,” said McDonald, a right-hander who pitched nine seasons in the majors and is now part of Orioles TV broadcasts. “It reminds me a lot of that ’89 team in some ways, where they got some confidence and then took off.”
The 1989 team occupies a special place in the hearts of Baltimore fans. The 1988 Orioles lost 107 games, and that didn’t do justice to what a laughingstock they were after an 0-21 start. There wasn’t much reason to expect a quick turnaround in ’89, but shockingly, Baltimore led the AL East by 7 1/2 games in the middle of July.
The division ultimately came down to the final series of the season in Toronto. The Orioles lost the first two games, allowing the Blue Jays to clinch the title. Baltimore did win the finale, with McDonald — who was already in the majors the same year he was drafted — earning his first career victory.
The current Orioles rose from similar depths as that ‘89 team. Baltimore dropped 110 games last year, including a 19-game skid that nearly tied the 1988 team’s mark for the longest losing streak in American League history. Even before this July surge, the Orioles looked more competitive, thanks in part to an improved-but-still-fairly-anonymous bullpen.
Then Baltimore began its winning streak with a victory at Minnesota before sweeping series against the Rangers, Angels and Cubs. It’s been a pleasant surprise for Orioles fans, who figured to spend much of the season monitoring the progress of minor league prospects and looking to the draft and trade deadline as opportunities to add more of them.
“I think that we’re in store for a lot of good stuff here for the next few years,” general manager Mike Elias said. “I’m very happy that it’s kind of reflected right now during this stretch of play so plainly for our fans.”
This run by the Orioles may actually complicate the rest of the month for Elias. Baltimore figured to be a seller at the deadline — 30-year-old Trey Mancini could have some value, and Rougned Odor and Jordan Lyles are on one-year contracts — but in the midst of the team’s first really successful stretch in a while, there could obviously be a temptation to ride it out and chase the postseason.
With the expanded playoffs, it’s not unheard of for a team to pick No. 1 in the draft and then make the postseason in the same year. Minnesota did it in 2017.
“Everything that I do, or that we do, has tradeoffs,” Elias said. “All I can say is, we do everything from a very global, very thoughtful perspective, about what is the right thing to do for the health of the Orioles franchise. And all that’s being taken into consideration for the draft, but also for the trade deadline.”
For all the excitement of 1989, it was basically an outlier. The Orioles sank back under .500 the following year and lost 95 games in 1991. Baltimore traded Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling — all of whom were part of the ‘89 team — for slugger Glenn Davis in a move that backfired badly.
The lesson is that, while Baltimore’s long winning streak was a fun story for fans to rally around, the Orioles still need to make smart roster moves if they’re going to build on it.
Elias hasn’t said too much to tip Baltimore’s hand heading into the draft, but he did say there’s a general feeling in the industry that the first player taken will be a position player, not a pitcher.
Whatever happens over these next few weeks, the good news for Baltimore is that there seems to be more help on the way. In right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and infielder Gunnar Henderson, the Orioles have two of the game’s top five prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. Rodriguez has been sidelined with a lat injury, but Henderson has hit well at Triple-A.
Catcher Adley Rutschman, 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 spot, and a lot of that is the players, and the way that they’re playing up here at the major league level right now,” Elias said. “Then obviously having an excellent group of minor league prospects behind them.”
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