Bryant vs. Henderson? Lester vs. Burnes? How this year's Orioles compare to the historic 2016 Cubs (2024)

  • Bryant vs. Henderson? Lester vs. Burnes? How this year's Orioles compare to the historic 2016 Cubs (1)

    David Schoenfield, ESPN Senior WriterJun 28, 2024, 11:00 AM

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    • Covers MLB for ESPN.com
    • Former deputy editor of Page 2
    • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

The Baltimore Orioles, with Gunnar Henderson blasting home runs to lead the majors' best offense and Corbin Burnes contending for a Cy Young Award, are reminiscent of the 2016 Chicago Cubs -- and we do not make that comparison lightly. That Cubs team, after all, became one of the most famous in baseball history when it ended a 108-year championship drought by winning Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings.

The Orioles' drought extends only to 1983, a mere 41 years, so Orioles fans have decades to go to match the suffering of Cubs fans. Like the 2016 Cubs, however, the Orioles are a powerhouse team, strong in all facets of the game and constructed around a dynamic young core that suggests, even if a World Series title doesn't happen this season, they should be in the running for titles for years to come.

There's no guarantee of that happening, of course. The Cubs somewhat surprisingly never came close to matching their dominant 2016 season, when they won 104 games. They did reach the NLCS the following season and made the playoffs in 2018, but they missed it in 2019 because of a late-season fade. And by 2021, they were trading off those young stars of the 2016 team and rebuilding.

Baltimore has one problem that the Cubs didn't have in 2016: American League East rival New York Yankees. The Cubs cruised to a division title and were already leading the National League Central by 10 games at this date on the calendar that year.

Still, there are a lot of similarities between the two clubs. Ahead of Baltimore's matchup against the reigning champion Texas Rangers on "Sunday Night Baseball" (7 p.m. ET), let's dig into some of those and see what they tell us about the future of the 2024 Orioles and their World Series aspirations.

The architect: Theo Epstein/Mike Elias

Epstein deservedly has earned his place as one of the top executives in the game's history as the curse-busting top executive for the 2004 Boston Red Sox and then the Cubs. When he took over the Cubs in 2021, he embarked on a controversial strategy: Losing was going to be OK for a few years so that they could reap high draft picks as a result, as he rebuilt the organization's talent base. The Cubs would lose 101 games that first season to earn the second pick in the 2013 draft -- a power-hitting third baseman from the University of San Diego named Kris Bryant.

The Cubs' top-10 picks under Epstein were Albert Almora, Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ (and the previous regime had drafted Javier Baez ninth overall in 2011). Epstein would also trade for a young first baseman named Anthony Rizzo, who had struggled in a 49-game stint as a rookie with the San Diego Padres in 2011, and shortstop Addison Russell, who had been the 11th pick in 2012.

At the same time Epstein was building the Cubs, the Astros embarked on a similar -- if even more extreme -- plan under Jeff Luhnow as they underwent their own rebuild. Elias was Luhnow's scouting director in those initial seasons before becoming Houston's assistant general manager. The Orioles then hired Elias as their general manager prior to the 2019 season.

Elias didn't have to tear down the organization when he got to Baltimore: It was already at rock bottom, coming off a 47-115 season in 2018. Like Epstein and Luhnow, he embarked on a similar reconstruction plan, focusing on drafting position players early in the draft -- viewed as more predictable than pitchers -- and then figuring out the pitching side of things.

The Orioles had the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman was the consensus top player and while teams will sometimes take a lower-rated player to save bonus money for later in the draft -- the Astros did this when they drafted Carlos Correa first overall in 2012, signing him to a below-slot bonus -- the Orioles smartly didn't do that, giving Rutschman the largest bonus in the draft.

Then the Orioles hit their home run: With the first pick of the second round, they drafted Henderson at 42nd overall and gave him the largest bonus of that round. We're getting 20 years ahead of ourselves here, but the only team to draft and sign two Hall of Famers in the same draft is the 1976 Detroit Tigers, who drafted Alan Trammell and Jack Morris (they also drafted Ozzie Smith, although he returned to college).

In 2020, the Orioles had two first-round picks and took college position players Heston Kjerstad and Jordan Westburg. In 2021, they took college outfielder Colton Cowser with the fifth pick. With the first overall pick again in 2022, they took high school shortstop Jackson Holliday. With some solid players already in the organization when Elias took over -- including Anthony Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins -- the Orioles had their offensive foundation.

The MVP candidate: Kris Bryant/Gunnar Henderson

They don't play the same position and Henderson is a year younger, but it's hard not to compare the 2016 version of Bryant with the 2024 version of Henderson we're seeing. Both were in their second season in the majors and coming off similar Rookie of the Year campaigns (26 home runs, 135 OPS+ for Bryant; 28 home runs, 126 OPS+ for Henderson). Both players also had people doubting their athleticism on the field -- some scouts didn't think Bryant would be able to handle third base, just as some didn't believe Henderson would stick at shortstop. Bryant was the NL MVP in 2016, hitting .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs, 102 RBIs and a league-leading 121 runs for a 7.3 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference), which also led the league.

That's a heck of a season.

Henderson is having a better one -- and, barring injury, it won't be particularly close. We've only just hit the halfway point and with 24 home runs and a 180 OPS+, Henderson is already at 6.0 WAR. He's not a slam dunk for the MVP award because he plays in the same league as Aaron Judge, but he's on pace for one of the greatest seasons in Orioles history. The only two 10-WAR seasons came from Cal Ripken Jr. in 1984 (10.0) and 1991 (11.5), both seasons that credit Ripken with ridiculous defensive value. Henderson beats Ripken at the plate -- although he probably won't quite get to Frank Robinson's franchise-record 198 OPS+ in his Triple Crown year of 1966. The only players with a 10-WAR season at age 23 or younger in MLB history: Mike Trout, Ripken, Willie Mays, Ted Williams (twice) and Ty Cobb.

This is where we should mention that Bryant has never matched his 2016 season. He had 5.7 WAR in 2017 and 4.4 in 2019 but has battled injuries since, and a grievance he filed against the Cubs over service time manipulation hung over the player-club relationship for years. It's a difficult career to evaluate, but here's a hot take: Even if he had remained healthy, I don't think Bryant was destined for a career as one of the best power hitters in the game.

While Bryant certainly deserved MVP in 2016, he also cleaned up that year against the Cincinnati Reds, who had one of the worst pitching staffs of all time. Bryant hit .364 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs in 19 games against them; that's a whole bunch of big numbers against one team. Also: Bryant never had elite raw power. Even in his MVP year, his average exit velocity was at the 54th percentile and his hard-hit rate (percentage of balls at 95-plus mph) at the 60th percentile. By 2019, those numbers had dropped to 19th and 24th percentiles, respectively. It's hard to know how much the injuries factor into all this (including getting hit in the head early in the 2018 season), but his power had already started to decline in 2017.

Now look at Henderson in 2024: 97th percentile exit velo, 98th percentile hard-hit rate, 95th percentile in the new bat speed metric. His chase rate is also excellent, in the 91st percentile. These are the tools of an elite power hitter. Henderson's average exit velo is 93.9 mph* Bryant never topped 90 mph. Henderson could still cut down on his swing-and-miss and get to a slightly more optimal launch angle -- that was Bryant's best trait -- and if he does that, he'll have more seasons like the one he's having this year. Factor in the one-year age difference, and it feels like Henderson is simply on a higher level than Bryant was, even at Bryant's peak.

The catcher: Willson Contreras/Adley Rutschman

Contreras was a 24-year-old rookie on the 2016 Cubs, hitting .282/.357/.488 in 76 games for a 122 OPS+ -- numbers not all that different from Rutschman's rookie season at the same age in 2022, when he hit .254/.362/.445 for a 131 OPS+. Before signing with the Cardinals as a free agent in 2023, Contreras had been a good player with the Cubs -- he made three All-Star teams and had four 20-homer seasons -- but he never quite became the big star his rookie season foretold.

That was the case with most of the Cubs' young core: They didn't improve. Bryant was unable to repeat his 2016 season; Schwarber's best OPS+ during his years with the Cubs was his rookie season in 2015; Almora never developed as a hitter; and Russell had a 3.7-WAR season in 2016 at age 22 but was persona non grata by 2019 after he served a suspension for violating the league's domestic violence policy. Only Baez got better -- for a short time, anyway -- but even his career with the Cubs ended in disappointment.

Rutschman, meanwhile, finished 12th in the MVP voting as a rookie, ninth last season and appears on his way to another top-10 finish this year. By his standards, he's having a bit of an odd statistical season, walking a lot less but hitting for more power and a higher average, but the output remains valuable and he's already topped 3 WAR. With Contreras, the questions about his defense and how he worked with the pitching staff always seemed to be there. There are no such issues with Rutschman, who is viewed as the quiet team leader.

The Orioles control Rutschman through 2027; they've probably missed the window to sign him to a long-term extension, but it's still comforting to know you have perhaps the game's best catcher for the next three-plus seasons.

The infielder: Javier Baez/Jordan Westburg

Baez was 23 years old in 2016, his first full season in the majors. With Russell entrenched as the starting shortstop, Baez was the utility guy who played some third base (when Bryant played the outfield), some second and filled in for Russell at short. Baez would have his breakout season in 2018, hitting .290 with 34 home runs and ranking second in the NL with 83 extra-base hits and first with 111 RBIs. He finished second in the MVP voting and followed up that 6.4 WAR season with 6.6 WAR in 2019, when he put up out-of-this-world defensive metrics at shortstop.

And ... that was kind of it. He struggled during the COVID-shortened 2020 season as his already poor plate discipline completely cratered, and the Cubs, unable to sign him, traded him to the Mets in 2021 before he hit free agency. Given his poor production with the Tigers the last three seasons, the Cubs escaped a bad contract.

Westburg was the 30th overall pick in 2020 out of Mississippi State and is in his first full season in the majors. Like Baez, he's played wherever he's been needed, splitting his time between second and third base, and while he'll never match the electrifying aspects of Baez's game, he's on his way to a 5-WAR season. His current 145 OPS+ is higher than the single-season best of Baez's career (129 in 2018).

Like Baez, Westburg could improve his control of the strike zone. His chase rate is in the 33rd percentile, and his whiff rate in the 23rd percentile, leading to a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio (although not as poor as Baez's). Westburg has upper-echelon raw power, but below-average bat speed. It all adds up to a volatile profile. Baez managed to sustain his top value for just two seasons. We'll have to see if Westburg will learn to stabilize his performance in future seasons.

The prospect: Gleyber Torres/Jackson Holliday

Not only did the Cubs have a young base of big league talent -- they had more talent in the farm system: Happ, Torres, Eloy Jimenez, Jeimer Candelario, Isaac Paredes and Dylan Cease were among the team's prospects. By midseason of 2016, Torres had risen to the top of the group after performing well in High-A as a 19-year-old (and would begin 2017 as one of the top prospects in the game). The Cubs had a major hole on their roster, however: They needed a closer. A few days before the trade deadline, they traded Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. It was a steep price to pay for a rental, but, hey, they were trying to end a 108-year-old curse. (Jimenez and Cease would go to the Chicago White Sox the following year for Jose Quintana while Candelario and Paredes went to the Tigers for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson).

The Orioles also remain loaded with prospects. In Kiley McDaniel's updated top 50 prospects list, Holliday ranked second in the majors, Coby Mayo sixth, Samuel Basallo 16th and Heston Kjerstad 47th. Connor Norby is also tearing up Triple-A for a second straight season. All position players. Meanwhile, the Orioles have some positions they could potentially upgrade: starting pitcher (with Kyle Bradish out for the season), center field (Mullins has struggled, although picked it up a bit of late) or even closer (Craig Kimbrel has been fine, but do you trust him in October?).

Unlike Torres in Chicago, Holliday did debut with Baltimore this season, playing for the major-league team for 16 days before being optioned back to the minors as he struggled at the plate. Holliday, however, isn't going anywhere and could still end up playing an important role in the second half, though Elias does have the pieces to add at the trade deadline, if he so chooses.

The veteran offseason pick-up: Jon Lester/Corbin Burnes

Epstein and the Cubs had one advantage compared to the Orioles: They supplemented the young core with big-dollar free agents -- something the Orioles, at least so far, have refrained from pursuing. In 2015, the Cubs signed Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract to anchor the rotation; for 2016, they added John Lackey, signed Jason Heyward to an $184 million contract (keep in mind that Heyward was still just 26 at the time), signed utility man Ben Zobrist and re-signed center fielder Dexter Fowler as a free agent. Those five players combined for 16.9 WAR in 2016, with Lester's 5.6 leading the way. Lester went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, finishing second in the Cy Young voting, and was the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the NLDS, Game 1 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series -- and he pitched three innings in relief in Game 7 of the World Series.

In contrast, the only big-name free agent on the Orioles' roster is Kimbrel, and he's in Baltimore on a one-year deal. In order to get his ace, Elias traded infielder Joey Ortiz to the Milwaukee Brewers for Burnes, who's on a one-year rental in Baltimore before he hits free agency. Burnes has been excellent, going 8-3 with a 2.28 ERA. Like Lester in 2016, he should be in the running for Cy Young honors.

Unlike the 2016 Cubs, however, the Orioles have had injury issues in the rotation. The Cubs' top five starters -- Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Lackey and Jason Hammel -- each made at least 29 starts and started a total 152 of the team's 162 games. The Orioles have lost Bradish and John Means to Tommy John surgery and Tyler Wells for two-plus months after he had elbow surgery. Grayson Rodriguez (a first-round pick the year before Elias arrived) and Cole Irvin (acquired last year from the A's) have been solid while 34-year-old Albert Suarez, who had last pitched in the majors in 2017, has been a big surprise. The rotation, despite the injuries, is fifth in the majors in FanGraphs WAR (the Cubs were second in 2016).

So, are the Orioles building a dynasty?

Indeed, maybe there's a lesson for the Orioles to draw from the Cubs. While the Cubs' young core didn't end up being as transcendent as it appeared it would become in 2016, the pitching was perhaps the main reason the Cubs didn't develop into a dynasty. Arrieta left as a free agent after 2017 while Lackey retired after that season. Lester had a 4.14 ERA over his final four seasons in Chicago. Hendricks hasn't come close to matching the 2.10 ERA he had in 2016. The Cubs were unable to come up with the prospects to replace those guys and had to make trades for Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels and sign Yu Darvish as a free agent, but their rotation was never as good as it was in 2016.

That's the final lesson/comparison here: You never know what the future holds. Maybe the Orioles are building a dynasty -- or maybe this will be the best team they'll have. The Cubs went for it in 2016, making that trade for Chapman as the final piece of the puzzle. Will the Orioles do the same? Maybe they make a blockbuster trade for a controllable starter like Garrett Crochet of the White Sox or deal for a rental starter like Detroit's Jack Flaherty, who has re-discovered himself after scuffling for a couple years with injuries and command (including for two months with the Orioles last season). Maybe they roll the dice on injury-prone center fielder Luis Robert Jr.

In the meantime: There are still the Yankees to deal with.

Bryant vs. Henderson? Lester vs. Burnes? How this year's Orioles compare to the historic 2016 Cubs (2024)
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