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The Orioles don’t need to be a finished product by Opening Day

Although these O’s are already quite good, there remains room for improvement. When and how they add to their roster shouldn’t matter all that much.

New York Mets v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It’s been clear for months that this Orioles team is one pitcher short in their starting rotation. GM Mike Elias has been transparent all winter that he wants to add an arm, but he has been equally clear that he isn’t going to overpay for one either. That leads us to today, where Dylan Cease still plays for the White Sox, Jesús Luzardo remains a Miami Marlin, and Elias continues to hold onto his entire stable of young studs.

That has made the last few months somewhat frustrating from a fan perspective. This team won 101 games last year, has even more young talent bubbling to the surface, and it feels like ownership and the front office are unwilling—or unable—to take them over the top. What’s made it worse is that they have also seemingly written off the free agency market as a viable option for anything other than temporarily plugging holes.

But before anyone goes overboard, it’s helpful to look at a calendar. Spring training will kick into high gear one month from now. Opening Day is another five weeks after that. If the Orioles did hope to have their desired pitcher in tow before late March there remains plenty of time to get the job done.

However, the more time that goes by the more likely it seems that the Orioles head into the regular season without a true “difference maker” added to the front half of their rotation.

Jon Heyman reported last week that there was “growing belief” that Cease would remain with the White Sox until the trade deadline. He also added that Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes and Cleveland’s Shane Bieber were looking “even less likely to be traded.” That leaves the Marlins and their group of young arms as one of the few looking to make a move. While the Marlins’ pitchers are intriguing, that feels like a recipe for an impatient team to get rinsed in a deal with few alternatives available. Elias is not one to fall into these sorts of traps.

It’s also important to note that the Orioles’ current rotation is not in the sort of dire straits we have grown accustomed to in previous seasons. Kyle Bradish emerged as a Cy Young candidate in 2023, Grayson Rodriguez was tremendous in the second half of his rookie season, and Dean Kremer is as dependable a back-end arm as you will find. If John Means is fully healthy, he should be capable of filling the veteran void left by Kyle Gibson’s departure. That does leave the fifth spot in flux, but the likes of Tyler Wells, Cole Irvin, DL Hall, and even Bruce Zimmermann could probably do a job for at least a limited time.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the possibility that the Orioles might still add a depth signing in free agency. Bringing on a veteran innings-eater has become a trademark of Elias-led off-seasons. Previous success stories in that category include Gibson and Jordan Lyles. The team has already been connected to 35-year-old James Paxton this winter. The lefty threw 96 innings and accumulated a 4.50 ERA for the Red Sox in 2023, which could fit the bill here as a three-month stopgap.

Opinions of Cease, Luzardo, or any of the other names connected to the Orioles this winter may vary. But most of us can agree that the big league team would be stronger with one of those targets taking the ball every fifth day than they would be with Paxton or some other over-the-hill bandage solution doing so. But the difference in those two options over half a season is likely less valuable than whatever sort of prospect package that is being requested in this moment. That could be the oversimplified “math” that Elias has done this offseason.

So, instead, Elias may be inclined to take a calculated risk to start the season. If he does not make a major move, then you have to conclude that, in his view, the Orioles as assembled are good enough to stay competitive (or better!) for the first few months of the season.

It’s a logical bet. The vast majority of the 2023 Orioles will be back in 2024, and while the teams around them in the AL East might be better, there is also reason to believe the O’s have improved internally. Jackson Holliday seems poised to take on a big role early in the season, Gunnar Henderson should be firing on all cylinders out of the gate, Bradish and Rodriguez showed no signs of slowing down late last season, and so on. While a repeat of their 101-win pace might be a tad too much to ask, there is plenty of evidence to suggest these Orioles are dangerous right away.

Waiting on a move will allow the front office to collect even more data on its own prospects, on Cease, on Luzardo, or others, and it could potentially bring the asking price for those arms down into a more palatable range for the Orioles.

It also creates the possibility that other options become available. The St. Louis Cardinals entered 2023 with the expectation that they would compete for the NL Central title. Instead, they fell apart and made just about everyone available. That included Jordan Montgomery, who was dealt to the Texas Rangers and became an integral part of the eventual World Series champions.

Even in that scenario, however, it will eventually require Elias to part with some of his prized prospects. This is a reality the he is said to be aware of.

“You’ve got to give something to get something,” Elias said at the Winter Meetings.

But it’s not something he has actually done yet. The closest he came was last offseason when he dealt infield prospect Darell Hernaiz to the Athletics in exchange for Cole Irvin and Kyle Virbitsky. That’s an entirely different realm than the talks this winter, which have almost exclusively involved mentions of “Top 100” youngsters and some players that have already debuted in the bigs, like Jordan Westburg or Heston Kjerstad. Until Elias proves he has the stomach for such a trade, we won’t know he can pull it off.

Of course, the front office deserves plenty leeway given how well his rebuild of the Orioles organization has gone. It has gone beyond superficial “rankings” and become tangible on-field success, including a division title and one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. That earns him the benefit of the doubt and the expectation that he will, eventually, make the right move to advance this team even further. It might just happen at a different pace than we might like.