Ever since the 2018 Orioles saw their hopes evaporate before they even got out of the month of April, the biggest question there was for fans of the team was simple: When are these guys going to be good again?
To the surprise of just about everyone’s preseason expectations for the team, the 2022 squad gave us three good months in June, July, and August. They were fun months! No one should lose sight of that. What we’re also seeing here in September that three good months isn’t good enough. To get anywhere that matters, it takes something better than this.
The good news is, for the first time since the losing started, we can all start to believe that a lot of pieces are in place for a great Orioles team. They are keeping themselves in the Astros rebuild blueprint, as long as you’re willing to discount the 2020 pandemic-disrupted season. The 2022 O’s are like the 2014 Astros, who won 70 games after winning 51 in the 2013 season. The Orioles, as you know, are already better than that even if they collapse and are unable to get over .500 for this season. Staying on that path means a wild card berth next year.
The next step from here no longer feels like an impossible leap. It’s not guaranteed that the Orioles will be able to make the next step, but you’re not an idiot for believing in it. What the Orioles front office is going to have to do is figure out who are the real keepers for a contending window on the current roster, which prospects can be plugged in, and where they can make significant upgrades either by trade or by free agent signings. If they do it right, this could happen as soon as next year.
When the Orioles are great enough to make it into the postseason and hopefully contend for the division title until deep into the season - or maybe even win it - what will that team look like?
- C - Adley Rutschman
- 1B - Ryan Mountcastle
- 2B - Ramón Urías
- SS - Jorge Mateo
- 3B - Gunnar Henderson
- Waiting in the wings: Whoever doesn’t get traded out of Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, and Connor Norby
Among the decisions that will have to be made in assembling the next great Orioles team are two will-they-or-won’t-they questions about current infielders. Is Ramón Urías good enough to stick around? Is Mountcastle?
If you go by bWAR, Urías is the second-most valuable Oriole this season, behind only Rutschman. He rates very well in defense at third base on Statcast measures, including a 93rd percentile for Outs Above Average. Can he do as well if you put him at second base, where his bat, though currently below league average, would be an improvement over Rougned Odor’s and roughly in line with league-wide performance at the position?
I’m inclined to find out if the answer is yes. Those who’ve been imagining the Orioles signing Carlos Correa might have a different answer. Others who are optimistic about the Westburg/Ortiz/Norby trio might like to see one of those guys in Baltimore right away, with Urías in kind of a “utility infielder, except he’s good enough that you can play him more often” role. The Orioles do need some guys on the bench where it doesn’t feel like a forfeit lineup if they make a start. This applies to the backup catcher role as well.
Mountcastle is another guy here where the Orioles will have to be unsentimental in thinking about him. A team that wants to win 90+ games needs better from its first baseman than the .243/.295/.424 batting line Mountcastle has mustered to date. He rates much better than this in the Statcast x-stats - expected performance based on batted ball quality. 89th percentile xBA, 97th percentile xSLG. If those were his real numbers, he would be in the elite ranks of hitters. They aren’t, of course.
How much is bad luck and how much is Walltimore? Bad luck might improve. Infield defense is about to change with the new anti-shifting rules, even if it’s more likely to change for lefty batters than righties like Mountcastle. The wall is here to stay, and even if you did want to blame the wall, Mountcastle has an OPS that’s 45 points better at home compared to on the road.
I’m leaving Mountcastle here because I’m not excited by any of the first base free agent options, don’t see any prospects who immediately fit here, and if the Orioles are going to improve the roster by trade, I think they shouldn’t use their prospect capital to acquire a first baseman. We might as well give him 2023 to see if it’s bad luck. If he doesn’t start performing closer to those x-stats and the Orioles are contending, he should be a candidate to be replaced midseason.
Henderson and Rutschman require no explanation based on what they’ve done this year. Mateo’s defense and speed do enough to make him a solid shortstop even though his overall batting numbers are subpar.
- LF - Kyle Stowers (first half audition), Colton Cowser (second half)
- CF - Cedric Mullins
- RF - Free agent or trade
- Bench - Ryan McKenna
Here we have another area where the Orioles will have to decide who is up to snuff to push them to greatness. The will-they-or-won’t-they applies also to Hays and Santander.
In contrast to Mountcastle, there’s nothing much on Hays’s Statcast page to make you think he’s had bad luck and deserves better this season. He is hitting at absolute best, average. His defense has really taken a dive in this metric, although I wonder how much of that is affected by Outs Above Average not knowing what to make of the new wall in its first year of existence. His second half split in particular is atrocious: .207/.276/.323. Maybe he’s been playing hurt since July, or maybe when he plays a full season, this is about as good as he can do.
If Hays isn’t part of the answer, what to do with him is tricky. Sending a player to the minors who’s just hitting his first arbitration season after being worth 5.5 bWAR over the last three seasons seems untenable. A trade would be a tough sell unless paired with moves that are obvious upgrades to the roster. Plus, other teams would be seeing everything we’re seeing about Hays; if you think he sucks, other front offices would too. So it’s a bit of a hand-wave to have him out of the picture.
I’m letting Stowers rip for a couple of months to see if he’s got the “it.” If he doesn’t, and the way the Orioles are treating him in 2022 does suggest perhaps they already think this, there are many other Orioles outfield prospects on the march, though only Cowser seems to have plausible chance based on current trajectory to ascend by, say, July of next year.
Santander shifts to be mostly a designated hitter in my imagined great Orioles team. Neither the eye test nor the publicly available defensive metrics are kind to him. He simply does not have the speed to be even an average defender out there. Even this comes with its problems, as he doesn’t really hit enough to be excited about him as a DH.
There are two more seasons before Santander’s a free agent. He might be the kind of player the O’s, entering a good period, should keep until he can sign anywhere he wants, then wish him well and move on with one or more prospects hopefully ready to displace someone else to DH.
- Free agent or trade pitcher
- Grayson Rodriguez
- Free agent or trade pitcher
- Two of the following: Tyler Wells, Dean Kremer, Austin Voth, Kyle Bradish, DL Hall. Second half/depth options: Drew Rom, John Means (after recovery), some minor league contract signing
The next Orioles team that aspires to be great needs to do better than what we’ve seen from Jordan Lyles overall in its starting rotation if it wants to reach that greatness. I appreciate his complete game last night.
Although the Orioles have had some good pitching at times from members of their 2022 rotation, they arrive at season’s end with zero pitchers who’ve spent the whole year in the rotation and have pitched better than average. Kremer has done well in 2/3 of a season’s worth of starts; the same is true of Voth with about a half season worth of starts.
Bradish has had a good second half, though his overall numbers for the year are poor. Wells has had some positives this year, but he’s only pitched at least six innings in five of 23 starts and after Monday’s clunker is a below-average pitcher for the season. Hall is in this group because I’m not counting him as a sure thing for the rotation until he stops walking so many dudes.
A winner’s rotation probably does not contain all of those guys. It might contain the best two of them. The Orioles would have to figure out what to do about the others. They could drop into the bullpen, or to the minors, or both. Of the five guys listed, only Voth could not be optioned to the minors in 2023.
Rodriguez’s inclusion on his own line requires no further explanation. One of the great shames of 2022 is that he suffered the lat injury and we didn’t get to see him unleashed as part of the great Orioles summer we just experienced. It might have been even greater.
For me, the starting rotation is where we’re going to find out how much Mike Elias really meant it when he talked about “significantly escalating the payroll” this coming offseason. They need to go out and get the big money pitcher that Dan Duquette never was able or willing to land, and then they need to be correct that the dude they sign can help them out over the length of the contract, which Duquette was also never able to do with his mid-market adventures.
This is where you can really dream big, if you can talk yourself into thinking a top-flight starting pitcher might actually come to Baltimore now that the team is heading towards respectability and has the left field wall dragging down righty batters. Jacob deGrom is expected to opt out and become a free agent. Justin Verlander is likely to decline his player option. Carlos Rodón seems headed for an opt out as well. They bring different amounts of age and injury risk. They will cost a lot of money. They are all great this year.
Even the wild dreams aren’t going to get two of these pitchers into the Orioles rotation. I think they need another one. That could be a starting pitcher that they could acquire in trade, a guy with 2-3 seasons left before free agency that a bad team is willing to dump as his arbitration number increases. Miami’s Pablo López is one idea of a target here. If Elias likes what he sees internationally, Japanese pitcher Koudai Senga is expected to explore MLB free agency this winter and might be a player to consider as well.
I’ve been writing an article like this each year as the season winds down since 2018. The question has morphed over time as the Orioles chances of medium-term success have changed. My philosophy all along has been not to worry about the bullpen, that when the Orioles are good, they’ll figure it out.
The 2022 bullpen sure seems like good support for this philosophy. Elias shook up the bullpen by trading Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott in the final days before the season. This had the benefit of opening up roster spots and opportunities for other players. Jorge López had such a great run as the closer that he got traded.
Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, and Dillon Tate look like late-inning keepers. Keegan Akin, Bryan Baker, and Joey Krehbiel have had interesting moments. And that’s not even getting into having someone like Bradish or Hall potentially bounce down into the mix. It will be good to keep assembling depth here, because reliever volatility being what it is, odds are at least one of these pitchers will get hurt or suck next year.
The Duquette-era philosophy of offseason roster improvement seemed to boil down to, “Assume everything that went poorly will improve and everything that went well will still go well.” Sometimes they added an unexciting pitcher who nonetheless cost $10+ million per year and sometimes also cost a draft pick. It’s why the Orioles only made the postseason in even years of the 2012-16 run, and why they eventually fell into the abyss.
There are cautionary tales out there for trying to jump from rebuild to contention too soon. Look no farther than the 2022 Detroit Tigers, who, though you wouldn’t know it from how they played against the Orioles, made some big moves in the offseason with an eye on contending this year. They’re 57-91 right now. It’s worth keeping in mind.
Whether from returning players improving, full seasons of prospects who’ve already debuted, new prospects arriving, or free agent or trade acquisitions, I think that the Orioles need to find a way to add at least 12 wins to the tally to go from what they are to great. That seems like it’s going to take three big moves and then some smaller tweaks. Elias is going to have to figure out how different the team will look from what it is right now in order to pull off this feat.
Will we see a 90+ win Orioles team in the 2023 season?