The delayed gratification of building up an elite farm system has started to pay dividends for the Orioles over the last year and some change. Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson debuted in 2022, and now both are crucial contributors to one of the AL’s top teams. Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser earned big league call-ups just recently and have already looked like everyday options. This is what the “pipeline” that Mike Elias so often referenced during the organization’s rebuild looks like in action.
The average age of an Orioles hitter this season is 27.4, the fourth-youngest in the AL and eighth-youngest overall, per Baseball Reference. That number is likely to fall even more if the 24-year-old Westburg takes most of his playing time from 31-year-old Adam Frazier, and the same could be true for 23-year-old Cowser in place of 33-year-old Aaron Hicks.
Orioles pitchers are slightly less youthful, clocking it at an average age of 28.6 (eighth-youngest in AL, 13th-youngest in MLB). The team’s top innings eaters, Kyle Gibson (35 years old) and Tyler Wells (29 in August), are inching that up, as is Yennier Cano, who at 29 years old leads the bullpen in innings thrown.
Elias and the Orioles’ front office have made it clear that they value balance on their big league rosters. Offsetting high-ceiling youngsters with experienced veterans seems to be a textbook attempt at getting something where the sum is greater than the parts. And, so far at least, it’s hard to argue with the results.
For as many flaws as the likes of Gibson, Frazier, Hicks, and others may have, it’s also easy to see the important impact they have each had. Gibson leads the team in innings pitched. Frazier represented a huge step forward at second base for this club. Hicks was on fire as a replacement for the injured Cedric Mullins. And in the team’s current state they all still have a role that may be slightly diminished from when they first arrived, but remains crucial to the team’s success.
Meanwhile, the younger guys have flourished after some rough starts. Henderson went from a three-true outcomes player with a low average to a .994 OPS in June. Kyle Bradish had a 6.14 ERA in April and a 2.73 ERA ever since. Now we are watching Westburg and Cowser learn on the fly, and with room to do so because of those that came before them.
This process, it appears, is not done yet for the 2023 Orioles. Even more young guns seem to be on the horizon for this club.
Grayson Rodriguez is the obvious one. The 23-year-old’s MLB debut has not gone well. Over 10 starts he threw just 45.1 innings and had an ERA of 7.35. Walks and home runs were killing him, and so he was deservedly sent back to Triple-A Norfolk in late May.
Since the demotion, Rodriguez has pitched in seven games, is yet to allow more than three earned runs in an outing and has struck out 54, walked 15, and allowed three home runs in 37.1 innings. Once again, he looks ready for the big time.
There isn’t necessarily an opening in the Orioles rotation right now. Gibson had a poor June (6.84 ERA), but there was some bad luck (.377 BABIP, 3.36 FIP), and he looked good in his final start before the break (seven innings, two runs, 11 strikeouts). Cole Irvin may still be the low man, but he’s allowed two total runs across his last two starts. So, for now, Rodriguez may have to stay on ice, conserve his innings, and be ready for the call sometime in August or September. Whether it is as a starter or reliever, the team will need him at some point.
Another big name to watch is DL Hall. His case is an interesting one. The 24-year-old is currently at the team’s facility in Sarasota doing strength training, a move made to help him build up the velocity he lost during an injury-plagued offseason. Should that prove successful, Hall looks like an ideal candidate to help the big league bullpen down the stretch.
The lefty has not pitched in a game since June 14, and made just one big league appearance this season on April 29. But his stuff may be the best in the organization, and scouts have long salivated at his potential in a late-inning role. Injuries have depleted the O’s solid relief corps. It could use this sort of talent injection.
On the offensive side of things, two names standout: Heston Kjerstad and Coby Mayo.
Let’s talk Kjerstad first. The 24-year-old has taken a circuitous route to where he is now. He was the team’s top pick in 2020, the COVID year that wiped out any hope of a professional debut that same summer. But then a viral infection kept him completely out of commission until 2022, putting him behind the rest of his draft class. That was before he dominated in Delmarva and got a taste of Aberdeen in 2022, was named Fall League MVP, rocketed through Bowie this year, and currently has a 1.017 OPS in Norfolk.
Kjerstad is Rule 5-eligible this December. He will be a no-brainer add to the 40-man this winter so there is little risk in putting him on during the season if they think he is ready to contribute. And while the Orioles outfield is rather full with the recent promotion of Cowser, Kjersatd could find playing time at first base, a position he has played 20 times this season.
Whether or not Kjerstad makes it to Baltimore this season could depend on how those in front of him perform. There aren’t many at-bats to go around in the corner outfield, often occupied by all-star Austin Hays, slugger Anthony Santander, and now Cowser. Ryan O’Hearn has been a revelation as the team’s first base option against right-handed pitchers. If he maintains, it’s hard to see anyone unseating him in 2023. But injuries happen, production slows. There is still plenty of time and opportunity for Kjerstad to appear.
Mayo is a slightly harder to justify given that he is so young, only 21 years old and not Rule 5-eligible until next December. Like Cowser, there would be no reason to put him on the 40-man roster unless he is taking on a full-time role in the bigs.
But Mayo’s ascendence is not entirely dissimilar to Henderson’s last year. Henderson was promoted to Triple-A on June 6 and then made it to Baltimore August 31 after a torrid few months in Norfolk. Mayo is only about five months younger than Henderson, and his time with Double-A Bowie was just as dominant (176 wRC+ in 78 games this season). It’s not ridiculous to think he could play his way to Baltimore sometime in the next six weeks.
Third base is Mayo’s natural position, and he has played there 63 times this season. The only other position he has played this season is first base, where his strong throwing arm is largely wasted. The hot corner is a position in flux for the O’s, bouncing between Henderson, Westburg, and Ramón Urías most recently. Bit this feels like a nice mix that allows manager Brandon Hyde to regularly change up the lineup depending on match-ups. Mayo may bring more offense to the position than Urías, but there could be a dip in fielding ability. That’s a variable that seems risky to fold in so late in the season.
What will be interesting to watch is if the Orioles start to tweak where on the field Mayo plays in Norfolk. If he plays more first base they could be viewing him as an option there against left-handed pitching. If he gets moved to a corner outfield spot they might be looking to fast track him as well. All of that feels like a lot of moving parts, and not necessarily in the best interest of the player. For now, the smart move would be to allow him to develop his defense at third base and prime him for a call-up sometime in 2024. But don’t write off a late 2023 promotion just yet.
These Orioles are not a finished product. There should be a move or two at the deadline, and high profile promotions are coming. Ultimately, this team will go as far as their homegrown talent can take them.