It’s been 84 days since we last saw the Orioles take the field and so far the 2024 Orioles remain almost identical to the 2023 Orioles. As we enter the third month of the offseason, the only major addition made by Mike Elias & Co. is veteran closer Craig Kimbrel, who will attempt to make up for the absence of All-MLB reliever Félix Bautista.
Much to the frustration of Birdland, the Orioles are yet to make an investment in their starting rotation. While worrying about the strength of the starting rotation is about as well established a tradition as “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” the Orioles' emergence as true contenders shines a new light on that concern. Yet, Baltimore’s unwillingness to further address this need with outside additions continues a puzzling—but consistent—organizational philosophy.
Even with veteran glue guy Kyle Gibson and failed trade deadline addition Jack Flaherty gone to free agency, the Orioles still have a number of established starters to turn to. Fresh off Kyle Bradish’s 2023 season that saw him finish fourth in AL Cy Young voting, the Orioles head into the season with a bonafide ace for the first time since 2000 with Mike Mussina. And while Grayson Rodriguez’s last time on the mound was an unmitigated disaster, he still possesses greater upside than any No. 2 starter in the American League.
After an impressive cameo at the end of last season, veteran John Means enters 2024 looking to put together his first full season since 2021. WIth two flame-throwing righties atop the rotation, the veteran lefty not only gives the O’s young rotation a measure of experience but a radically different profile for hitters to deal with.
Right-hander Dean Kremer heads into his fifth season currently locked in as the team’s fourth starter. Kremer comes off an age-27 season where he set a new career high in starts (32) innings pitched (172.1) and strikeouts (157). However, his 4.51 FIP, .254 BAA and terrible showing in Game 3 of the ALDS all contribute to the perception that Kremer has a lower ceiling than the top three members of the rotation.
And if the drop off from Means to Kremer has Birdland worried, the uncertainty after Kremer will do nothing but further that anxiety. The current in-house favorites to fill the fifth starter spot—Tyler Wells and DL Hall—both finished last season as members of the bullpen. Wells has the starting experience as he was the Orioles’ best starter of the first half last season and led the MLB with a 0.93 WHIP. However, Wells clearly ran out of gas in the second half before heading down to the minors and then returning in the pen at the end of September. Hall has the pure stuff to rival Bradish and Rodriguez and is surely the option with the highest ceiling. However, with only one career big league start and 33 career major league innings, putting Hall in the rotation represents the kind of risk you don’t normally see teams take after 100-win seasons.
Which brings us back to the place where all of Birdland has been since right before last season’s trade deadline: desperately clamoring for the difference maker that the rotation could clearly use. Despite some names already coming off the board, the O’s could still find that difference maker in free agency.
The pipe dream of all Orioles fans—Yoshinobu Yamamoto—already signed the richest starting pitcher contract in history with the Dodgers. Former Oriole farmhand Eduardo Rodriguez signed with the reigning NL Champion Diamondbacks, while Aaron Nola signed a long-term extension in Philadelphia. Still, reigning NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Texas postseason ace Jordan Montgomery remain the two available pitchers that could give the Orioles’ rotation that greatly-desired boost.
And yet, if the Elias-led front office continues to forgo the free agent market, it would send a clear message that they believe they can win a World Series by developing a pitching staff from within. It will be the continuation of a philosophy that saw Bradish go from a prospect in the Dylan Bundy trade to a top five pitcher in the entire American League. The same philosophy that saw Rodriguez go from a first half roller-coaster ride with more downs than ups to the unquestioned No. 2 starter on the AL’s best team—all as a rookie. The philosophy that sees the O’s refuse to invest premium draft picks on pitchers, yet still leaves them with 10 pitchers in their top 30 prospects and the top two on the verge of contributing at the big league level.
It’s inarguable that adding Snell or Montgomery would make the O’s that much more likely to repeat as AL East Champions and put them in great position to chase the AL pennant. It’d be equally impactful for the Orioles to consummate a trade for someone like Framber Valdez or Corbin Burnes—the type of trade that fans constantly beg for on Orioles Twitter. However, if those types of moves fail to materialize, it doesn’t mean the Orioles failed in their offseason plan. Instead, it could simply mean that the same organization that brought Bradish, Bautista, Rodriguez and Yennier Cano to the brink of superstardom is backing their ability to once again develop the pitching they need to bring the World Series trophy to Baltimore.