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The Orioles are done rebuilding, but are they ready to win?

Bizarre comments from John Angelos over the weekend suggest that immediate on-field success is not necessarily an expectation for the 2023 Orioles.

Baltimore Orioles Introduce Mike Elias - News Conference Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Orioles are no longer rebuilding. Their GM admitted it a few weeks ago, and ownership publicly agreed over the weekend. It is an obvious yet overdue revelation for a team on the rise that won 83 games last summer. It should be a welcome development among the team’s fanbase. But it seems that the end of a “rebuild” does not—in the mind of John Angelos, anyway—mean it’s time for expectations to significantly rise.

Nathan Ruiz points out in The Baltimore Sun that Angelos seemed non-committal in his answer about the team’s 2023 outlook:

“Now, we all know this year could …” Angelos said before cutting himself off. “Who knows what’ll happen this year? And that’s fine, but we’ve done what we’ve done.”

Angelos didn’t complete the thought, but it was clearly an acknowledgment of possible regression after the Orioles, as Angelos himself put it, “overachieved and overperformed” in 2022. Any internal belief that last year’s breakout was a mirage would help to explain a team projected to begin 2023 with the majors’ second-lowest payroll at nearly $65 million despite its expressed desire to reach the playoffs.

(h/t: The Baltimore Sun/Nathan Ruiz)

This is essentially confirmation of what many in the fanbase have been saying for much of the winter. The Orioles core is talented, but it’s young, and the roster still has clear holes at key spots. They need help. Without it, perhaps this team is good enough to sneak into a playoff spot, but the room for error is minuscule, and the organization itself knows it.

The idea that the Orioles were a tad fortunate in 2022 is not unique to Angelos. They were outscored by 14 runs on the season. Their winning record was a bit of an oddity, and there were several occurrences that you might not expect to repeat. Jorge Mateo emerged out of nowhere to secure the shortstop position, the rotation somehow held things together despite injuries and the lack of an ace, and the ragtag bullpen was one of the sport’s best units.

But rather than truly addressing or reinforcing any of the team’s areas of need, Mike Elias and the Orioles’ front office simply papered over them. Yes, most would agree the team’s roster is more talented right now than it was at the end of the 2022 season, but the difference is marginal when it could have been so much more.

And, apparently, that’s OK? Angelos didn’t seem worried about it. He praised the work of the organization’s “baseball folks” and said that the team has “the resources” to increase payroll when needed.

No one is denying that Elias and his crew have done a nice job getting the Orioles organization up to modern standards when it comes to building a baseball team. There was a lot to get done, and it feels like that “pipeline” the GM always talks about is truly starting to flow.

This progress behind the scenes is the only thing that made poor performance at the major league level somewhat understandable. The Elias-era Orioles had been tough to watch prior to 2022. The COVID-shortened 2020 campaign had some fun moments brought about by small sample size madness, but even that wasn’t enough to make up for what was oftentimes a dreadful on-field product.

As for payroll, Angelos said some more interesting things there.

“There’s a range there that Mike and his team have to determine. Do I have a role in that? Really only to make sure that their recommendations are being properly funded.”

“If you are asking me if we have the resources, we absolutely have the resources, and we plan to keep moving the payroll up.”

“Could payroll be double or triple what it is, or could it be over $100 million? Yeah. But we’re not there yet.”

We have learned this winter that when the Orioles talk about increasing payroll they essentially mean that they are willing to pay the players they already have in-house slightly more each year, depending on arbitration status. So yes, payroll will go up as Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez, and others get more seasoning in the majors and start to be paid closer to their actual worth. But that does not equal more talent flowing to Baltimore.

That is, the Orioles are happy to dish out under-market contracts, or even something fair if it’s for one year. But there is no evidence to suggest that this club is interested in long-term deals with anyone.

That could change, of course. Even the teams that Angelos aspires to be in Milwaukee (Christian Yelich), Tampa (Wander Franco), and Cleveland (José Ramírez) do give out big deals on occasion. But there is no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt here.

But perhaps the most frustrating statement came when Angelos spoke about the contract status of Elias and manager Brandon Hyde.

“I will tell you guys this: I’m here for the long haul. Mike is here for the long haul. Brandon is here for the long haul. We are all fully vested, We’re not going anywhere, and nobody is a short-timer, (no contracts are) expiring in a year or two years or anything like that.”

It is anyone’s guess as to whether any of that is true or not. But let’s assume that it is, and it means that both the GM and the manager are either under contract for multiple seasons to come, or will be soon.

An extension for either one right now seems fair enough. It’s justified coming off a winning season and given the general state of the organization. The farm system is highly thought of, and several of the young guys that have made it to the big leagues have been impactful right away. All of the indications are there of a healthy club, from a baseball perspective at least. But the certainty Angelos puts forth for the next two years (or more) is interesting.

The end of a rebuild should mean measurable progress on the big league stage is coming soon. A team that won 83 games a season ago, spoke about plans to improve over the winter, expects several of its young key contributors to come back even stronger after some big league experience, and gets the benefit of re-balanced schedules should have fairly lofty goals. Repeating those 83 wins should be the baseline.

But what if things don’t go well? What if Rutschman has a sophomore slump? What if Henderson plays more like a rookie? What if Rodriguez looks less than advertised? What if John Means has a setback in recovery? Perhaps some of these are unlikely, but all are possible.

It wouldn’t be as bad as the 100-loss seasons we have endured recently, but the PECOTA boogie man is lurking at a realistic outcome for this team. Considering Elias has indicated several times this offseason that the playoffs are a reachable goal for this team, finishing anywhere near 74 wins would rightly be considered a disappointment.

One would assume repercussions in such a scenario or a look inward. Maybe Cole Irvin didn’t answer all of our pitching needs. Maybe we should have traded one of the 20 shortstop prospects in the high minors for someone that could help in Baltimore. Maybe we should have capitalized on Anthony Santander’s 33-homer season.

But Angelos’ comments make it clear that it won’t be Elias or Hyde that pays the price for any amount of underperformance, at least not after 2023. After all, the team was ahead of schedule. Setbacks are expected.

Instead, the Orioles will stick to the plan, rigid to their ways of team building. Hopefully it works. Hopefully they won’t look back and say they should have spent and built around Rutschman, Henderson, and Rodriguez when they were pre-arbitration and cheap, when there was plenty of room to increase payroll without blowing out the budget. Hopefully.