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Can the Orioles continue to improve without splashy moves?

The Orioles hit triple digit wins last year without spending or trading big. That looks to be the plan again.

Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Orioles have yet to make a move that would significantly increase their odds of winning a World Series championship. Baltimore did add Craig Kimbrel to offset the loss of Félix Bautista, and Mike Elias deserves credit for bringing in a respected closer, but almost any replacement would still represent a regression in the back end of the bullpen.

The front office could swing a trade to bring a top arm to Baltimore, but that type of deal feels more “if” than “when” with the current state of operations. The O’s, fresh off a 101-win season, appear content to build from within.

It’s a strategy that small market fans are painfully familiar with. The club expects young players will take a step forward, struggling players will bounce back, and those that outperformed projections will continue to beat the odds.

The Orioles have played this game before, but things are different now. Baltimore actually has plenty of young players set to take a step forward. Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson should continue to blossom on a national stage. Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad have pedigrees that suggest future success. Grayson Rodriguez has top-of-the-rotation type stuff, and both Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz appear capable of rounding out an infield.

There should be plenty of competition this spring with Westburg and Ortiz battling veterans like Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo. The Orioles also have the top prospect in baseball chomping at the bit. Jackson Holliday might struggle out of the gate, and he could begin the season in Norfolk, but nobody can blame Baltimore for anticipating production from one of the best prospects in recent memory.

Ryan O’Hearn received votes for Comeback Player of the Year. He certainly will not find himself in the running next year after slashing .289/.322/.480 in 2023. O’Hearn benefited from the elimination of the shift, and the new rule will remain in place next season. O’Hearn and a healthy Ryan Mountcastle provided solid platoon production together.

Alright, fine— the Orioles have position players ready to contribute, many of them young enough to think they could still have another level of development to reach. Do they have pitchers, particularly in the starting rotation, to give them a fighting chance to win in the triple digits again?

John Means made only four appearances last season after returning from Tommy John. His absence in the postseason led to increased doubt with his durability moving forward. The Orioles thought they had an innings eater in Cole Irvin, but Baltimore banished the lefty to the minor leagues after only three starts. Irvin returned in June and posted a 2.66 ERA over his next five starts. He finished the season with a 4.42 ERA and a 1.280 WHIP, but both numbers ranked above his career average. Irvin might win a rotation spot with a strong spring, and a bounce-back year could leave the pitching staff without a weak spot.

Baltimore appears set to play the same song and dance with DL Hall and the starting rotation, but this could be the first year that Hall remains in the bullpen for the duration of the season. Hall should provide Brandon Hyde with an electric arm he can pair with Kimbrel and Yennier Cano. Who knows, maybe a healthy Dillon Tate finds a way to contribute.

Cano certainly falls into the category of players that outperformed the projections. The rookie came out of nowhere with an All-Star campaign, but relievers can run hot and cold in any season. The 29-year-old hit a rough patch at the end of July, but his ability to adjust showed he was more than a flash in the pan. Cano knocked hitters off balance with a nasty slider, and the three pitch mix yielded 13 appearances without an earned run in August.

Speaking of awards, Kyle Bradish finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting. The 27-year-old delivered one of the better seasons from a Baltimore starter in the 21st century. Bradish, and almost every starter in baseball for that matter, will struggle to match his 2.83 ERA from 2023. That being said, both Bradish and Rodriguez gained valuable experience leading a rotation in a division race last season.

The Orioles should still improve their roster via trade or free agency. The club falls painfully below the current average MLB payroll and appears to have prospects to spare. But the days of rolling one’s eyes at the current strategy have come and gone. Elias and Hyde have the talent to continue building from within, and a lack of sparks from the hot stove should not generate the panic from years past.