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Even as the Orioles fall out of the playoff race, there remains plenty to learn about this team

The season is slipping away from the upstart Birds, but with a bright future there are still storylines worth watching in the final weeks.

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There is still a chance for the Orioles to make the playoffs. That chance is slim, and it would be inadvisable to bet on such a circumstance, but it’s possible. That represents a drastic shift in tone from just a week ago, when the Orioles had a big four-game set against the Blue Jays ahead of them, and fans were dreaming of a magical October run.

Unfortunately, the Orioles proceeded to have a nightmarish week, losing three out of four to said Blue Jays and then two of three to the last-place Red Sox. With just 22 games left on the schedule, the current 5.5-game gap between them and the final AL wild card spot feels impossible to close.

We understand that this team was “supposed” to be bad, but that doesn’t matter much at this point. The reality is that they have actually been among the best teams in baseball since May 1, and they even worked their way into a playoff spot on multiple occasions. It was all there for the taking, so it is disappointing to see those chances go up in smoke.

When it is all said and done, the Orioles fanbase is going to walk away from this season with positive feelings. There will be legitimate gripes about Rougned Odor’s continued presence in the everyday lineup, or the refusal to play Kyle Stowers against left-handed pitching, but those are the exception rather than the rule. The 2022 season has been a blast, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

At the same time, the flaws of this Orioles team have always been plain to see: offensive black holes at several spots in the lineup, starting pitching that has been surprisingly stable while lacking an ace, an effective but shallow bullpen, and room to upgrade at key positions.

Years ago, those would have been minor problems. The team was rebuilding. We were learning about the talent within the organization. Of course there was room for improvement. It’s all part of the process.

But things have changed. This campaign serves as the official turning point for the organization. The rebuild is over, and the core of a playoff team is in place. It’s time for bigger aspirations for the club and bigger expectations from the fans.

Mike Elias acknowledged those feelings just after the trade deadline, saying it was “liftoff from here for this team.” Later on, he expanded on that thought, laying out a plan to “significantly escalate the payroll” over the winter through arbitration, free agency, and trades.

We will learn what exactly that means in due time. But for now, it could be useful to use the final few weeks of this season as an opportunity to remove the orange-tinted glasses, watch the Orioles as a cold-hearted, calculating GM, and think about how this team could be overhauled to take advantage of what could be a special core of talent.

Here are a few spots to watch:

An overcrowded outfield

The Orioles have too much talent for too few spots in the outfield. The trio that took the field on Opening Day remains in place, and there are younger reinforcements ready for an opportunity. This feels like an area where something has to give, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how Mike Elias handles things.

You could rationalize just about any scenario. Trading away Anthony Santander at the peak of his value makes sense, but so does keeping him around as one of the few power threats on this roster. Colton Cowser is a top prospect whose path to the big leagues should be cleared, but he might also fetch one heck of a pitcher on the trade market.

The player in this mix that may be easiest to move on from is Austin Hays given the other talent the team has at or near the big league level. The 27-year-old hits arbitration for the first time this winter, and is in the midst of a tough second half to the season. Despite his struggles there should be value on the trade market given his years of team control and track record.

An opening at second base

Odor will not be back with the Orioles in 2023. The veteran has provided a necessary shock to the team’s clubhouse culture, and for that he will be invited to the inevitable World Series parade. But a 75 OPS+ is not good enough to be an everyday player on a team with hopes of making a World Series run.

According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Orioles plan for their infield in 2023 is to make Gunnar Henderson their everyday third baseman and to keep Jorge Mateo at shortstop. But there is no clear answer to the void at second base.

The free agent options are lacking unless one of the big-name shortstops is willing to pull a Trevor Story and switch over to second base for the time being. Provided that doesn’t happen, the leading internal option appears to be prospect Jordan Westburg.

Westburg is in the midst of a fine September with Triple-A Norfolk. Over 11 games he has an .876 OPS, and perhaps he could still get a cup of coffee in the big leagues before the year is out. But the Orioles likely prefer the roster flexibility at this point.

Westburg does not need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this winter, so adding him now would limit their ability to protect others, like Joey Ortiz. Injuries have slowed Ortiz’s development, but he has had a nice season split between Bowie and Norfolk. Over 12 games with the latter, Ortiz is 19-for-48 with two home runs and four doubles. If the Orioles were going to promote anyone to get reps at second base before the season is out, Ortiz would probably make more sense.

Sorting out the rotation

Grayson Rodriguez would already be several months into his big league career if the issue with his right lat had not popped up earlier this summer. Instead, he is racing the clock to rehab in time for a debut with the Orioles before the season concludes.

As of this writing, the top pitching prospect in baseball has made two rehab appearances with Double-A Bowie and is expected to move to Triple-A Norfolk for at least one more outing before a call to Baltimore would be on the table.

Provided that all goes well, Rodriguez is poised to open the 2023 season as a member of the big league rotation, but who exactly would be around him on the staff is a bit of a mystery.

The turnaround of the Orioles starting pitching is one of the biggest reasons that this team has been so competitive this season. It hasn’t been a dominant staff, but it has been competitive, which represents a significant step forward.

However, they need to take an even bigger leap if they are going to match the heightened aspirations of the team. That could mean changes are coming despite the unexpected performances.

If you pencil in Rodriguez and assume that the Orioles will make a free agent splash for someone like Carlos Rodon, then that leaves three spots for Tyler Wells, Dean Kremer, Austin Voth, D.L. Hall, Kyle Bradish, and Jordan Lyles, not to mention an eventual return of John Means. Who are the odd men out?

That conversation is worth its own blog, and you can be sure that it will be dissected a million ways before spring rolls back around. But it does illustrate that starting pitching has suddenly become something of a strength for the Orioles, at least from a depth perspective. Tough decisions are coming at that position as well.

There won’t be a game without meaning for the remainder of the 2022 season. Even if the Orioles do eventually fall out of the playoff conversation entirely, there are still things to learn about this current crop of players ahead of one of the most important offseasons in recent memory.