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There’s finally a projection system that likes the Orioles

ZiPS, hosted at FanGraphs, sees good things coming in Birdland for 2024

Division Series - Baltimore Orioles v Texas Rangers - Game Three
ZiPS is excited about Gunnar Henderson and a number of his expected teammates.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

One of the constant things about the 2023 Orioles season is that none of the experts or their models ever believed this was going to be a quality team. In some cases, this persisted all the way up through the O’s racking up triple-digit wins for the first time in 43 years. For next year, there’s at least one system that is finally lined up to see good things from the O’s.

The ZiPS projections for the 2024 Orioles are up at FanGraphs and they see a team that’s currently, according to creator Dan Szymborski, set for “the best record in the division.” This may change, he adds, if other teams, especially the Blue Jays, add aggressively while the Orioles do not.

I like looking at ZiPS because it’s thorough with the history it uses for its projections and because its results are freely available publicly. That Szymborski is a Maryland-raised guy with good opinions on pit beef sandwiches and ways of preparing crabs is a nice bonus. If you’re not familiar with ZiPS, you can check out Szymborski’s explainer of his project that’s now 20 years old.

This will probably not be the last projection that looks nice for next year’s Orioles. When you bring back most of a roster that just won 101 games, that had an expected win total of 94 based on its run differential, and when many of the key contributors to that roster now have multiple solid-or-better big league seasons under their belt, that’s going to help make believers of systems that are weighted based on recent performance.

Starting pitchers

  • Kyle Bradish - 2.8 WAR
  • Dean Kremer - 2.6
  • Grayson Rodriguez - 2.0
  • John Means - 1.1
  • Cole Irvin - 1.0

Other depth players in the mix: Cade Povich, Bruce Zimmermann

After watching extremely crappy starting rotations through the tanking years, and bad starting rotations even during the last couple of seasons before the Duquette era fell apart completely, it’s something to see an expectation of the core of a solid rotation show up in the projection. Mike Elias did not use his early draft capital getting pitchers either, and still, this is not a bad group.

Szymborski notes that “it’s still a rotation that’s begging for one high-end starter in free agency.” As you know if you’ve been reading my writing so far this offseason, I agree, though a trade should also be a possibility.

Whether a signing or a deal, there needs to be a move of substance that pushes Irvin or whoever out of being Plan A, and it would probably be good to not have the team assume that Means will be making 30+ starts next year. Those who are excited about starters who reached Triple-A Norfolk this year - Povich, Chayce McDermott, Justin Armbruester - might think one of them could plug in if someone gets hurt. ZiPS finds this trio in the mid-4 range for ERA.

That’s better than having Matt Harvey or Aaron Brooks out there. It’s not better than having Corbin Burnes or Dylan Cease out there, unless things go poorly for those gentlemen.

Kremer’s projection is a bit of a surprise, but ZiPS is now on a two-year crush on Kremer. For 2023, it projected a 2.8 WAR season from Kremer; he finished with 1.5 WAR. The excitement is tempered some for 2024 but still there beyond any big league results Kremer has had to date. We would all like to think that Bradish and Rodriguez can easily exceed these projections, but as far as the simulations are concerned, this is where they end up. Bradish came in at a 3.71 ERA, with Rodriguez at 4.07.

Bullpen

ZiPS projects a collective 2.9 WAR from a unit that includes this top seven:

  • Yennier Cano
  • Danny Coulombe
  • DL Hall
  • Tyler Wells
  • Jacob Webb
  • Cionel Pérez
  • Mike Baumann

Other depth players in the mix: Keegan Akin, Bryan Baker, Dillon Tate, Nick Vespi, Zimmermann.

Things look rougher without Félix Bautista in the picture. The projected combined WAR for the bullpen in last year’s ZiPS was higher, at 3.5. The team had the second-best bullpen by WAR in 2023, but nearly half of that value was Bautista. The conversion of Hall and Wells to relief, if the team decides to convert them to relief, are going to be important for next year’s success. Even with those guys in the mix, this is a group that could probably use a good signing or trade to bolster it.

If Hall or Wells are making starts instead, that’s more need for another signing or trade to keep the likes of Baker and Baumann, each of whom the team lost faith in during the 2023 season, from sticking around in key roles. And I don’t feel too good about Webb popping up there either, nor about any of the depth names. The Orioles went 30-16 in one-run games this past season. If they don’t assemble relievers who can help them come close to matching that, the team will have a tougher time defending its division title.

Outfield

  • Cedric Mullins - 2.9 WAR
  • Anthony Santander - 2.3
  • Austin Hays - 1.9

Heston Kjerstad is also seen in the playing time mix.

Elias is going to have to think long and hard about whether he wants to roll into Opening Day 2024 with the Hays, Mullins, Santander trio as his starting outfield. All of these are guys who have performed at the big league level, and any one of them should be able to hold down a role on a contending team next year.

A question that Elias will have to answer is whether his high-minors prospects can bring higher ceilings, or more certainty of solid performance, than Hays or Santander. Hays’s 2023 was dragged down by two brutal months, while Santander had season totals inflated by two great months and was pedestrian or worse the rest of the time.

If Elias does think that Colton Cowser or Kjerstad are better off getting this playing time, then he has to decide how to get value for the incumbents. If he thinks the prospects need to keep waiting, he will have to consider trading them before other teams figure out that the hype has faded.

The Orioles will probably not be able to sustain success if they just cast aside 2+ win players willy-nilly. They also probably will not be able to sustain success if they don’t get value out of their current top 100-caliber prospects, either through big league performance or through being traded for guys who perform.

Infield

  • Adley Rutschman - 4.8 WAR
  • Gunnar Henderson - 4.5
  • Jackson Holliday - 2.7
  • Jordan Westburg - 2.6
  • Ryan Mountcastle - 1.2

Other depth players in the mix: Jorge Mateo, Connor Norby, Ryan O’Hearn, Joey Ortiz, Ramón Urías

Ordinarily, having a 20-year-old rookie, as Holliday would be next year, debuting and putting up 2.7 WAR is the kind of thing that would require the sacrifice of a firstborn child or something else of priceless value. It’s not even clear that the Orioles will actually set him up as the Opening Day shortstop, or on the OD roster at all. But man, what an exciting projection! Holliday’s top three comparisons in ZiPS include two Hall of Famers and a third, former Oriole Bobby Grich, who should be in the HOF.

Henderson finishing with “only” 4.5 WAR after he checked in at 6.2 bWAR for 2023 would feel a bit disappointing, but he did have “just” a 4.6 fWAR this past season. Rutschman is also in such rare air that 4.8 might feel disappointing, since he exceeded that number (5.4 fWAR) in just 113 games in 2022. This pair has played like stars and ZiPS thinks that will continue. Let’s hope!

As with the outfield, Elias is going to have some decisions to make here. Even more than with Hays and Santander, he’s going to have to think about whether he can do better than either half of the O’Hearn/Mountcastle platoon for first base, or whether one player can beat this platoon entirely. He’s going to have to figure out if Westburg is going to give more value than Urías or Ortiz or Norby, and what to do with the ones who don’t keep the job.

Is it Coby Mayo, projected at 2.0 WAR before ever having played an MLB game, who should end up as the first baseman? Kjerstad? The Orioles lacked a 30+ home run player in 2023 and it would be nice if there’s an internal answer for that since there aren’t many free agents with that kind of power potential. We can hope Henderson will develop into one, since he hit 28 in 2023, but having another certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Compared to last year

ZiPS actually liked the Orioles a good bit heading into 2023, seeing 2+ WAR at every position except for left field. It was not very convinced that there would be a good pitching staff and so it put out an 80-82 projection for the team.

Pitchers exceeded expectations and the hitters came together in a “greater than the sum of their parts” way, in part because of batting much better with men in scoring position (.837 OPS) than with the bases empty (.708 OPS). That’s something that the Orioles may not be able to count on carrying over into 2024 either.

Go ahead and sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto

This doesn’t have anything to do with the ZiPS projections except that ZiPS, like just about every other observer including me and probably also you, thinks that the Orioles should add a great starting pitcher into the mix for 2024. Sign some big checks, John. There are no excuses not to.