The 2022 season saw the Orioles put together one of the most impressive rookie classes in franchise history. While former No. 1 pick Adley Rutschman stole the lion’s share of the praise and headlines, what really stood out about the 2022 rookie class was the depth. Closer Félix Bautista led an impressive group of relievers that got important contributions from rookies Bryan Baker, Joey Krehbiel and Nick Vespi. Rutschman was joined by outfielder Kyle Stowers and utility man Terrin Vavra to make up a solid trio of rookie position players. Kyle Bradish rounded out the class by becoming an important part of the Orioles rotation, both in 2022 and going forward.
All in all, the eight-player class of Baby Birds was able to bring an even greater impact to Baltimore than the legendary rookie class of 1989. The rookies on the Why Not? Orioles—led by Rookie of the Year winner Gregg Olson, starter Bob Milacki and third baseman Craig Worthington—combined to contribute 9.7 WAR to that upstart ballclub. While Rutschman and Co. couldn’t match that group by taking home Rookie of the Year hardware, they did manage to pass them in WAR, totaling 9.8 during the 2022 season.
Given the historical nature of the 2022 class’ contributions, some Orioles fans may think it an insurmountable task to top them in 2023. But not only could the 2023 rookie class reach the heights of the ‘22 class, I think it’s likely that they could pass them.
Despite making their debuts in 2022, star prospects Gunnar Henderson and DL Hall maintain their rookie eligibility going into 2023. So, ten years from now, when the Orioles have added some more World Series trophies to their trophy case, history will look back and count them among the 2023 rookie class.
This is a huge advantage from the get-go for this coming season’s batch of rookies. From their cameos at the end of 2022, we already know that both Henderson and Hall have the ability to make high-level impacts for the Orioles in 2023. Gunnar’s 116-at-bat audition showed that he could approach the 25-30 HR/100 RBI during his full rookie season.
The SOUND this homer made off the bat. Wow.— Connor Newcomb (@ConnorNewcomb_) September 27, 2022
Gunnar. Henderson. pic.twitter.com/0jSqbLLFIA
While it remains to be seen whether Hall will be used primarily as a starter or reliever this season, we know that he has the stuff to rack up plenty of Ks. It’s easy to imagine that in a full season, Henderson and Hall could approach the 7.8 combined WAR that Rutschman and Bautista put up last season.
I'm thankful for DL Hall.— Connor Newcomb (@ConnorNewcomb_) November 24, 2022
He's gonna dominate in 2023.
Here are all 19 of his strikeouts with the Orioles this season pic.twitter.com/G3rj1GSf6i
The ace up the sleeve
While it’s not a certainty, it seems pretty likely that Grayson Rodriguez—the Orioles #2 prospect and the #2 right-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball—will come out of spring training as a member of the Orioles rotation. The expectation for Rodriguez is not just to come in and compete at the big league level, but rather come and be one of the O’s best starters right away.
In making Rodriguez’s case for Rookie of the Year, MLB.com’s Sam Dykstra compared Rodriguez favorably to NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Spencer Strider, writing, “he’s a better prospect than Spencer Strider was at this time last year. We saw what he accomplished when given a full year in the bigs.” Strider is coming off a rookie season in which he finished with a 2.67 ERA and 202 Ks over 131.2 innings. That is the type of dominance Rodriguez is capable of.
Final line for Grayson Rodriguez:— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) September 22, 2022
3.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 7 K. 83/53 pic.twitter.com/GcTPdHHi1Y
Yes, it’s always good to temper expectations somewhat when talking about rookie pitchers. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that Rodriguez could match or better the 4.4 WAR that John Means put up in his rookie season. If he even gets close to that number, Rodriguez’s contributions—along with Hall and Henderson—might be enough for the ‘23 class to pass the ‘22 class with just those three players.
The “will they or won’t they?” prospects
After the trio of Hall, Henderson and Rodriguez, there are a bunch of prospects lurking below the surface, ready to make an impact if called on. Once the season gets underway, Colton Cowser is surely the player Birdland will be clamoring for the most. The former No. 5 overall pick from the 2021 draft had a breakout season in 2022, rising all the way from High-A Aberdeen to Triple-A Norfolk by season’s end. The Orioles front office will undoubtedly want to see Cowser get more at-bats for the Tides to start 2023, as he only put up .219 average in 102 AAA at-bats to end last season. However, if Cowser starts the new season on a hot streak, it seems very possible that he could get an end of May/early June debut—similar to Adley’s timeline in 2022.
Then there’s the glut of infield talent that will be pushing for playing time in Baltimore sooner rather than later. Connor Norby seems to be close to a debut after he led all Orioles minor leaguers with 29 HRs in 2022. However, Jordan Westburg may be ahead of him after hitting .265 with 27 HRs and 106 between Bowie and Norfolk last year. What may ultimately get Westburg called up ahead of Norby is his age (he’s a year older) and his defensive versatility. While Norby will probably bounce between second base and left field at the major league level, Westburg should offer depth at second, short and third. Joey Ortiz may also push for a promotion, looking to build on his strong showing at Norfolk to end the 2022 season.
When or if Norby, Westburg or Ortiz debut in 2023 will come down to the performance of Vavra and free agent signing Adam Frazier. With Henderson, Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías likely the starters at third, short and second, respectively, Vavra and Frazier will be the first men up to provide infield depth. If any of them get off to slow starts, one of these middle infielders will be on the bus up from Norfolk. With any significant contributions from Norby, Westburg or Ortiz, added to the performances of Henderson, Hall and Rodriguez, it feels like a sure thing that the 2023 class will pass the 2022 class and rewrite the record books.