The 2023 Orioles have a lot going for them. On the offensive side, the team seems to be in good shape for the present and future. Adley Rutschman hasn’t even played a full season in the bigs and is already one of the best catchers in the game. Gunnar Henderson, who’s played just over a month in the majors, is a Rookie of the Year frontrunner. Capable veterans fill out the lineup, and oodles of promising young prospects are poised to arrive in the majors soon. You don’t have to squint very hard to picture this as the lineup of a future postseason club.
And yet, plenty of prognosticators (looking at you, PECOTA) don’t buy the O’s as a legitimate playoff contender. Their skepticism isn’t entirely unfounded. In the end, the Orioles’ 2023 hopes will likely boil down to one simple question.
Is their starting pitching good enough?
Last season, even as the Orioles took a hugely unexpected step forward with an 83-79 record, their rotation was nothing to write home about. The club’s starting pitchers totaled just 7.2 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs, which ranked 25th out of 30 MLB teams. Their rotation ERA of 4.35 ranked 21st. John Means’ Tommy John surgery robbed the O’s of their ace after just two starts, and while the club cobbled together a workmanlike starting staff for most of the season, few of them excelled. Dean Kremer and Austin Voth were the Orioles’ only above-average starters by ERA+. Generally speaking, the Orioles’ 2022 starting rotation consisted of guys who would keep you in the game but wouldn’t blow anyone away.
From the looks of it, the 2023 staff is shaping up to be much the same way. Despite a free agent market loaded with upper-tier and mid-upper-tier starting pitchers this past offseason, the O’s elected not to sign any hurler who would command a multi-year deal. Perhaps the front office felt totally comfortable that their in-house options would take a step forward. Or perhaps ownership simply refused to loosen the purse strings for anything above the bare-minimum acquisitions. Whatever the case, time will tell whether the O’s blundered by not acquiring a more proven commodity to address the team’s biggest weakness.
Yesterday’s surprise demotion of top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez sealed the Orioles’ season-opening five-man rotation. How long this quintet will stay intact is anyone’s guess, but here’s a look at the starting staff as it stands now.
The newly acquired veterans: Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin
Orioles fans who dreamed big about a Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodón acquisition — or even dreamed medium about a Chris Bassitt or Nathan Eovaldi acquisition — will instead have to make do with Gibson and Irvin, the Orioles’ only outside additions to the rotation. On paper, they’re not particularly exciting hurlers, and neither fills the role of ace that the O’s desperately need. By ERA+, both were below average pitchers last year, with Irvin posting a 94 mark for the Athletics and Gibson struggling to 81 for the Phillies (100 is league average, and the higher the better).
What both veterans do well is provide innings. Gibson, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Birds on Dec. 5, has averaged 34 starts and 194 innings a season during his 10-year career. The 35-year-old holds a mediocre 4.52 career ERA but has enjoyed some successful seasons, most recently in 2021, when he was an AL All-Star for the Rangers.
Irvin, 29, has a shorter track record. He’d pitched just 19 MLB games until 2021, when the A’s acquired him and transformed him into a durable starter. He made 62 starts and threw 359.1 frames in two seasons in Oakland. Irvin’s 181 innings last year would have led the Orioles, just ahead of Jordan Lyles’ 179. Lyles is now in Kansas City, but both Irvin and Gibson should be more than capable of replacing his innings, and hopefully with a bit more upside.
We’ll likely see both newcomers make their O’s debuts in the opening series. Gibson has already been announced as the Opening Day starter in Boston, and Irvin figures to pitch the series finale on Sunday.
The returning youngsters: Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish, and Tyler Wells
If anyone on this Orioles staff is closest to an ace, it’s Kremer, who erupted for a breakout season in 2022. Little was expected from the right-hander after he muddled through a disastrous 7.55 ERA in 2021 and started last year on the injured list, but he was a brand new pitcher upon his return, posting a 3.23 ERA in 23 starts. That was the lowest ERA for an Orioles pitcher (min. 100 innings) since Miguel González in 2014. The 27-year-old Kremer and his high-spin arsenal has looked good again this spring, both for the Orioles and in his lone WBC start for Team Israel, and he’ll open the year as the #2 starter.
Bradish, 26, could be poised for a similar breakout to Kremer’s 2022. It may have already begun in the second half of last season, when Bradish, after returning from right shoulder inflammation, pitched to a 3.28 ERA in his final 13 starts. He held opposing hitters to a .607 OPS during that stretch. The righty has the best swing-and-miss stuff of any current member of the Orioles’ rotation, leading all O’s starters last year with 8.5 K/9. He too pitched well this spring aside from one disastrous, nine-run outing in which he was experimenting with a different set position with his hands. Maybe don’t do that again, Kyle.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Wells was the last pitcher to make the cut for the rotation, beating out Rodriguez for the fifth spot on the last day of camp. Exclusively a starter in the Twins’ minor league system, Wells worked solely in relief as a Rule 5 O’s rookie in 2021, but the Orioles converted him back to a starting role last year with mostly successful results. Wells didn’t pitch particularly deep into games but avoided major blowups, holding a 3.90 ERA through 20 starts before suffering lower left side discomfort that cost him six weeks. Does Wells have the ceiling of Rodriguez? Certainly not. Is he a more reliable starter at this point in their respective careers? You could make a case for that.
The Orioles, like almost every other team in recent history, are certainly going to need more than just five starting pitchers to get through a 162-game season. And that’s where it’s a good thing to have two superb pitching prospects in Rodriguez and DL Hall waiting just a phone call away at Triple-A. One or more of the above five will inevitably get injured or flame out, and the hotshot young arms will get their chance to shine.
Austin Voth, too, could get another crack at the rotation. The out-of-nowhere success story posted an incredible 3.07 ERA in 17 starts for the Orioles after being released by the Nationals, the worst team in MLB. Yet Voth found himself pushed out by more proven commodities and will begin 2023 as a long reliever. Other rotation options include Spenser Watkins and Bruce Zimmermann, but if the O’s have to rely on them for an extended period, their season will have gone quite wrong.
Is the Orioles’ starting pitching good enough? We’ll soon find out.