“The rebuild is behind us,” Mike Elias said late last week. The chief architect of Baltimore’s multi-year effort officially announced that the operation has come to a close. The words will likely face the same scrutiny assigned to the “liftoff” proclamation made last year.
People care about the team. They want the club to be competitive, they want it to remain in Baltimore, and they wouldn’t mind a look at the team’s financials if the offer was made.
Fans have ached to hear the rebuild declared complete, but what it actually means remains to be seen. The Orioles have yet to return to the playoffs and did not sign a top free agent to a multi-year contract. The club sent a middle-tier infield prospect to Oakland, but has yet to leverage a wealthy farm system to bring in a difference maker. So, uh, what changed?
Winning is now strategically relevant. Elias said the Orioles will enter the season “with a true non-rebuild mode of going out to win games.” Baltimore, fresh off a surprising 83-win season, appears to be in a position to do just that.
The Orioles will no longer make roster decisions based solely on long-term goals. Players will be placed in a position to help win games this season, and performance should drive playing time.
The first step involved upgrading the veterans in the clubhouse. Adam Frazier and James McCann are both former All Stars expected to provide depth and leadership while still performing on the field.
Frazier will not start everyday if his best attribute involves turning a double play at second base. The guy will have to hit. McCann will be given an opportunity to backup at first base, but his bat will decide how often he breaks the lineup when not sparing Adley Rutschman behind the plate.
The Orioles have reached the point where core players can also serve as mentors. Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander and Austin Hays all know what it takes to grind through an MLB season. Rutschman immediately emerged as a leader, and Mychal Givens returned to add experience to a young and impressive bullpen.
Grayson Rodriguez should make the Opening Day roster if he performs like a top five starting pitcher in Sarasota. Tyler Wells and DL Hall will be placed in the role the Orioles best believe will help the team win games this season.
Elias said there will be a greater balance when prioritizing development in the minors compared to what a player can give at the major league level. Hall immediately comes to mind as a player that could be impacted. The lefty clearly has the stuff to contribute from the bullpen but could prove more valuable as a starter down the stretch. The Orioles will weigh decisions like that with a new mindset in 2023.
Prospects will be made available before the trade deadline. They could also receive a premature path to Baltimore. Joey Ortiz has only 26 games at Triple-A Norfolk but could play defense at Camden Yards right now. The 24-year-old already holds a spot on the 40-man roster and could make an aggressive jump to the bigs if his bat picks up where it left off last season. Injuries could easily present a need for an extra infielder before Ortiz or Jordan Westburg appear truly ready for the show. Again, there’s a new mindset in Baltimore.
The end of the rebuild does not immediately shift Baltimore to “World Series or bust” this year. The Orioles will look for steady improvement from here on out. The payroll should continue to grow after a modest increase this offseason. The Orioles should explore extensions for core players and emerge as a legitimate option for free agents in years to come.
Unfortunately, the switch to win-now mode does not even guarantee winning. The Orioles exceeded expectations by a wide margin last season, and could easily fall short at some point in the future. Either way, the club should operate like a team looking to contend from here on out.
Chris Owings and Rougned Odor aren’t walking through the door in 2023. Orioles fans no longer need to worry about promoting Jahmai Jones or converting Miguel Castro into a starter. Mike Baumann and Bruce Zimmermann are the lone 40-man holdouts from a group that featured Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells.
The Orioles rebuild is officially behind us, and somewhere that slow-motion video of a Mickey Jannis knuckleball gently weeps.