Things are going really well for the Orioles. They just had the best April (18 wins) in franchise history, have won six straight series for the first time since 2014, and have bought themselves four games of breathing room in the American League playoff picture.
Despite all of this goodness, it is my natural state as an Orioles fan to be somewhat pessimistic about anything good they do, especially if it feels too good to be true. Perhaps those are the scars of the 2005 Orioles making themselves known in my psyche. I’ll bring it up at my next therapy appointment.
Anyway, the hot start led to some digging to determine whether these Orioles are real or not, and the absolute rock solid conclusion I have come to is this: This team could actually be even better than this.
Stick with me.
Some would point to the Orioles relatively easy schedule to open the season and a Pythagorean record of 16-12 to say that this team is rather fortunate to be in their current position. That’s fair enough. But what if what we have seen so far is an unfinished version of the 2023 Orioles?
Take the starting rotation, for example. It’s still somewhat of a disaster. Their 5.28 ERA ranks 24th in MLB. Cole Irvin, one of the club’s more important offseason additions, began the year so poorly that he’s currently in Triple-A. Neither Dean Kremer nor Kyle Bradish has been able to replicate their late-season success from 2022 in the early goings this year. And it still doesn’t look like D.L. Hall is ready to step into a big league role every fifth day.
Expecting all four of those pitchers to sort themselves out is probably asking too much. But at least one of them should turn back into a dependable option. Add in the return of John Means and the prospect of a deadline deal to add an arm, and maybe this group finally looks postseason-worthy. Even more so if Grayson Rodriguez can continue his upward trajectory while keeping his innings in check.
While it has not been a surprise to see the rotation struggle a tad, the same cannot be said for the Orioles defense. They rank near the bottom of the league in almost every metric: outs above average (29th, -14), runs above average (29th, -11), defensive runs saved (28th, -13). It’s largely the same defensive makeup from a season ago, which featured a Gold Glover in Ramón Urías, a Fielding Bible winner in Jorge Mateo, and a Gold Glove finalist in Cedric Mullins. But the results have been lacking.
Ryan Mountcastle’s work at first base has been one of the problem areas. He’s gone from a positive influence in ‘22 to a liability in ‘23. Urías has seen his numbers dip at the hot corner, although he rates out well at second base now. And Gunnar Henderson does not get good marks at short or third base, even though he came to the big leagues with a sterling reputation for his glovework.
Part of the problem early on seemed to be that Orioles didn’t really know what their preferred infield layout was. Mateo, Henderson, and Urías were cycling in and out of the lineup. Henderson was regularly bouncing between shortstop and third base. It was a bit of a mess. The season’s first month has cleared that up some. Mateo is the everyday shortstop. Henderson will either DH or play third, apart from the rare off day for Mateo. Urías will serve in more of a utility role, plugging in on the infield where he’s needed but still playing most days. The predictability there should help everyone to find their groove.
Mountcastle’s struggles are harder to explain. It may be a result of the shift going away. Most of his struggles are coming when moving to his right against left-handed hitters, so that would make sense. He has more responsibilities now, and it is’t going well. That doesn’t feel like a problem with easy solutions midseason, but as teams gather data and learn to live in the post-shift world, the Orioles could tweak his positioning to combat those issues.
Something else the Orioles could (and should!) do as the season goes to make this the best possible version of the club is find spots for their talented prospects on the big league roster.
Adam Frazier’s 87 wRC+ could probably be replaced by Jordan Westburg, who is slashing .325/.385/.542 with Norfolk as of this writing. Colton Cowser has sorted out his early-season struggles and now has a 146 wRC+ in Triple-A. That bat could be valuable in right field if Anthony Santander continues to strikeout like he has been. And while he may not be a “Top 100” type, Hudson Haskin is having himself quite a season with a 1.152 OPS with the Tides.
It’s not an accident that the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate is 19-7, the best record in the International League. Half of the roster is guys that could hold onto a major league roster spot right now. Eventually, that talent will force its way to Baltimore, and that’s when things could really get rolling.
The Orioles probably aren’t going to win 109 games like their current pace indicates. But their start to this season isn’t fluky. It’s been a fair reflection of this roster and where the team is headed. It just so happens that there is even more juice left to squeeze out of the organization.