There’s no point in sugar coating it. That season-opening series in Boston stunk. The Orioles saw their known flaws exploited and some of their supposed strengths exposed. Even worse, it came against the Red Sox, a loathed division rival that also isn’t expected to be particularly good this season. These are games a playoff-hopeful Orioles squad needs to win.
It’s also only the first weekend, and much of the sickness O’s fans are feeling today emanates from a single play. If Ryan McKenna catches that ninth inning fly ball on Saturday, the rest of what the Orioles did would have remained the same, and much of that was poor. But it would have meant two wins instead of one, and it would allow us to justify the struggles as “early-season jitters” rather than fatal flaws in the roster.
So, let’s take a step back today, examine some of the major concerns coming out of the weekend, and think about whether they are worth worrying about long-term.
You will be unsurprised to find out that the Orioles rated as the worst defense in baseball this weekend. They were dead last in MLB with five errors and -7 outs above average.
That lines up with the eye test. McKenna’s drop was the most absurd, but then there were Cedric Mullins’ struggles with the warning track and wall, awkward routes from Anthony Santander and Austin Hays, and that throw into the dirt from Jorge Mateo. It was bad.
Now, the weather was certainly not ideal for baseball this weekend. It was cold in Boston, and there were some windy conditions here and there. But more than a few of those miscues were unforced. They are plays that should be made and simply weren’t.
The reputation of these players earns them far more leeway before we hit the panic button. Santander is the only Orioles regular with a recent history of poor glovework. Everyone else is quite good. Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías won fielding awards last season. Mullins was a Gold Glove finalist. Give them a bit longer to figure things out.
The reality of the rotation
This is the area where the Orioles really needed to improve over the offseason. They knew John Means would begin the season on the shelf, and even with him they lacked a true staff ace. But instead of adding true difference makers the front office signed Kyle Gibson to “lead” the rotation and Cole Irvin to eat innings.
Both of the newbies pitched this weekend, and neither were particularly effective. Gibson did get into the sixth inning and he got the win, so his outing was at least passable. Irvin struggled, allowing 10 baserunners in just four innings of work. Dean Kremer started in-between the two and may have been the worst of the bunch. In just three innings he allowed five runs on six hits, a walk, and three strikeouts.
So, should we be worried about the rotation? Yes! But that was true before the weekend, and even if all three of them had thrown complete game shutouts you would still need to be worried. What Gibson gave this weekend is probably close to what you can expect most times out. It’s not great, but it keeps the game close. Kremer and Irvin are wild cards; one coming off a career-best season and the other on a new team.
The Orioles need more talent in their starting rotation. They need pitchers that can shut down opposing offenses with some amount of regularity. Perhaps they get that in an eventual promotion of Grayson Rodriguez. But they need even more.
The Orioles leaned heavily on their relievers in 2022, and most days they came through. Considering the state of the rotation coming into 2023, the team is going to need a repeat performance this season. But through the first weekend, they didn’t get it.
Over 13.2 innings, the Orioles bullpen has a 5.23 ERA, two home runs allowed, 16 hits, five walks, 14 strikeouts, three hit by pitches, and two wild pitches. Félix Bautista lacked control, Bryan Baker had a poor first outing, and most of the others just weren’t as sharp as they need to be. That’s the nature of relievers, and some of them may continue to struggle as the season goes on.
There is loads of talent here overall, though. And there is even more to come. Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens are both expected to be important late-inning options for Brandon Hyde this season, and neither one of them was healthy to start the season. Their return will greatly improve the depth.
And Triple-A Norfolk has a few legitimate options in Noah Denoyer, Joey Krehbiel, Nick Vespi, and others should someone falter in Baltimore. It’s never ideal to turn to the minors for bullpen help, but the Orioles do seem uniquely positioned to look there for experienced and/or exciting relief options.
Gunnar Henderson’s role
The favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year doesn’t have a hit through three games, but has walked six times and seems plenty comfortable at the plate. The hits will come in time.
What is more interesting is that Henderson has started in three different roles: DH on Thursday, third base on Saturday, and shortstop on Sunday. This is not entirely new. Henderson was moved back and forth in the spring, and did the same in his late-season call-up in 2022. But it is unique to ask a top prospect to move around rather than assigning them a position full-time.
Henderson is something of a special case in this regard. He is used to sharing shortstop and third base with other Orioles prospects, like Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz. So he may be well suited to continue on this way. But it does feel like eventually the Orioles need to pick a spot for one of their franchise cornerstones.
A poor first weekend for the Orioles feels like a good time to remember that the 2022 version of this team went 21-30 through the season’s first two months. Then they flipped a switch to finish with a winning record and in the postseason discussion. This year’s team is starting from a far better place talent-wise, and their trajectory remains facing up. Hopefully a trip to Texas is just what they need to turn things around.