In his three decades at ESPN, Karl Ravech has seen Major League Baseball go through many phases.
Ravech, the play-by-play announcer for the network’s “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast, said the sport’s current era favors the Orioles.
“It’s a young man’s game,” Ravech said. “There’s no doubt about it. Athleticism plays, and the Orioles have showed it.”
Baltimore has spent the past week as the best team in the American League, and Sunday’s game against the New York Yankees is a result of that success. The young Orioles — led by Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and a cadre of other current or former top prospects — are hosting ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” for the first time in nearly five years.
The last time Camden Yards hosted the national broadcast was Aug. 26, 2018, when the last-place Orioles played the Yankees, a game Baltimore dropped en route to a 115-loss season. The circumstances will be much different Sunday night when Ravech commentators Eduardo Pérez, a 13-year MLB veteran, and David Cone, a former pitcher for the Yankees, announce the game from Oriole Park.
In conversations with The Baltimore Sun, Ravech, Pérez and Cone discussed the Orioles’ success, the trade deadline and whether Baltimore has what it takes to win the World Series this year. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Obviously, the Orioles have been one of the majors’ best teams this season. What stands out to you about how they’re playing of late and how they’ve played all year?
Ravech: Well, you could kind of see it coming last year sort of towards July. I think all the teams in the American League East were above .500 at that point. Obviously, there was fading going on, but I think when [general manager] Mike Elias got hired there, I really do think the drafting of Rutschman, I’ve seen Adley play a lot of different levels, especially at the College World Series. I knew there was something very unique about his ability to put bat to ball, to play on a big stage and succeed on a big stage and certainly to bring a great deal of confidence to a pitching staff through his ability to call a game and, maybe more important, his reactions and interactions with the players.
We’ve obviously been at ESPN for a long time and have seen some catchers who have just been difference-makers, from Jason Varitek with the World Series in Boston to Buster Posey in San Francisco to [the Kansas City Royals’] Salvador Perez, most of those teams that have prolonged success have that guy behind the plate, and I think Rutschman changed the entire to a stratosphere that the Orioles are going to live in for several years.
Pérez: They’re beating the good teams. They’re beating the teams that are above .500, and they’re doing it in different ways. It’s not just one guy. Also what stands out is you’ve got the [second-lowest] payroll in the game but big-time talent. When you have players that believe in each other and you have the leadership of Adley behind the plate, you can tell that he’s been doing the work with pitching. That plays in a major way. This is a team that is hungry, it has a lot of talent at the minor league level, it’s got a lot of talent at the major league level. They’re not afraid to bring [the prospects] up. They brought him up and put him in positions to succeed.
Cone: I think the thing that stands out more than anything is there’s kind of this energy from their youth movement there that makes them really fun to watch. They have a good aura, a good energy about them. I think everybody has just taken note of the back of their bullpen. [Félix] Bautista is just so good, historically good. He just jumps right out at you when you look at the numbers, when you watch them play, when they get a lead. Other teams know it. The good teams I played on all had that. We had Mariano Rivera at the back end of our bullpen. You saw if you got a lead, you’re going to win, and I think the Orioles have that feeling now.
Have you been surprised at all about how good they’ve been this season and how quickly they’ve been able to go from the worst team in the majors two years ago to having the best record in the AL?
Ravech: It doesn’t happen a lot. I will say I think one of the valuable lessons we’ve learned through baseball the last few years is if you spend a lot of money it just about assures that you will be in a race — just about assures, it doesn’t guarantee it. And when you don’t spend a lot, it almost guarantees that you’re not. In the end, if you have the ability like Mike Elias and his staff have done and you draft players that are really good and you hit on them, prior to them demanding a lot of money and the system affording them the opportunity to make a lot of money, you have a chance to win.
They’re not all 21 or 22 [years old], some of them are, but Ryan O’Hearn has figured it out, and some organizations have unique abilities to take one one of these guys who had all the talent in the world, but it was almost like you were digging for oil and until you strike the right vein, you’re kind of flailing. They struck the right vein. He’s 30 years old, and he’s been a huge part of this.
Pérez: I’m not, and the reason I’m not is because I do know Mike Elias and Sig [Mejdal] really well. I was with them with the [Houston] Astros the year we lost 111 games, I was the bench coach. It was about the process, it was about identifying, it was about bringing in quality players, it was about bringing in a specific type of player. And all of a sudden, Baltimore was able to pluck those outliers and put them as the general manager and the assistant general manager and start the process. It would be ugly at the beginning, but if you look at the years, it’s pretty much almost mirrored at how success has happened in Baltimore and how it happened in Houston from the time that Jeff Luhnow took over and Sig and Mike were a part of their player development side of it.
When I look at it, they are actually right on point now. What the skeptics were wondering was whether in the American League East, can that play? Can that same recipe happen? I think there are a couple things that came into play in a major way. One was “Walltimore” that changed dramatically the way that pitchers are perceived there and the way guys approach their hitting, and the way that they’ve drafted and signed international players and [developed pitchers]. The other part is also the schedule. I think having a balanced schedule has played in their favor, even though, yes, they have beat a lot of teams that are above .500, they don’t have to go out and play 18 to 19 times against the same teams within the division.
Cone: I think the surprise was more last year. We kind of saw this coming after last year a little bit. We did the [Little League Classic], and I got a chance to talk to Brandon Hyde a little bit. You could just sense that he was excited about what they had there and what was coming. To me, it’s nice to see Brandon hang around for the good times because he went through the bad times. A lot of managers don’t get the chance to hang around for the turnaround after a rebuild. To me, he’s one of the most deserving managers around for what he’s done there and what he’s been through.
The trade deadline is two days away. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said the Orioles are operating as buyers with an eye on pitching. What do you think Baltimore should do at the deadline?
Ravech: I think every team that is currently in a race could use bullpen help. I don’t think it’s a surprise that the [Atlanta] Braves last year went out and got bullpen help late. I don’t think it’s a surprise that the Braves this year went out already and got two relievers. The Red Sox traded Kiké Hernández for two relievers.
As you know, teams approach the postseason differently. You will see a starter come out of the bullpen, we see it all the time, but as many arms as you can get would help. I don’t know what the Orioles get from John Means, if he’s anything, but it’s a nice name to have come back [from Tommy John elbow reconstruction] if he can be anything. If you really want to make a splash and the [New York] Mets are selling, I’m doing everything I can to bring [Justin] Verlander back to that Virginia area. It gives you a horse, it gives you experience, it’s a staff that could certainly use somebody like that.
Pérez: Look, they have the funds for it, right? With a $61 million payroll, they do definitely have the funds for it. The thing with this is that people sometimes don’t understand is they look at what they need now. But if you know that you have a really good shot in the postseason, it’s about making sure that you have the flexibility for your postseason roster. You have to protect yourself from any type of injury that happens in the next two months.
When you look at the Orioles, you have to look at the depth. They brought in Aaron Hicks, I think it played huge for them. But you still need those arms. You can never have enough of them. You have the top three arms in the bullpen, and they just added [Shintaro Fujinami] to it, you have him and [Yennier] Cano and Bautista. Those two guys have done great in the regular season with little to no experience in the postseason. So maybe look at the roster and say, ‘OK, do I need a veteran presence?’ I know those conversations are going to be had. The good thing is, Mike and Sig have experienced the postseason, so they know also how to build a postseason roster.
Cone: I guess the short answer is yes. I’ve seen what a front-line starter can do. You know the back end of the game is secure with Bautista and Cano. It’s a balance of power changer. Verlander from the [Detroit] Tigers to Houston in 2017. History is sort of littered with examples of that. A front-line start can be a difference-maker for them.
The Orioles are overachieving for the second straight year. Do you think they have what it takes to win a World Series this season?
Ravech: You have to look around, and when you look at the Houston Astros, who have a Framber Valdez, and you look at the Atlanta Braves, who have Spencer Strider and Max Fried, and you wonder if the Orioles are equipped to go up against those teams. And the answer to that question is you likely lose those games. You don’t necessarily have that ace, and I do think you need those power pitchers to win a World Series.
Pérez: They have the best record in the American League, don’t they? All you have to do is get your foot in the door. Sometimes it’s names that you expect to get hot. October is where heroes are made. You saw it with [Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Randy] Arozarena a couple years ago, we saw it with Kiké Hernández when he got hot, and I think we’ll continue to see it throughout the history of the game. Of course they have a chance, and so do the other [five] that get in in the American League.
Cone: Anything can happen, obviously. I know that’s kind of a cop-out answer. I don’t think anybody who watches the Orioles feel like they’re a finished product by any means. We know there are more prospects on the way, and we know there’s more to be done. This is really their first crack at being really serious contenders at the trade deadline to be able to add or have the wherewithal to add or be in a position to add. They’re not a finished product, but they can make some noise right now, absolutely.