Like many members of our community here at Camden Chat, I spent this past Sunday watching the Ravens fall short of reaching the Super Bowl as they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. Throughout that disappointing contest, I felt a familiar feeling of disappointment that harked back to the end of the 2023 Orioles’ season. This is a particular type of disappointment that comes from watching a team that you know is good enough to beat the team they’re squaring off with—and yet they simply can’t do enough to come out on top.
The prevailing narrative for much of this Orioles offseason is that the team needed to make a change to their roster in order to move farther in the postseason. And yet, inspired by the Ravens, I dare to wonder whether this Orioles team simply needs a better performance from the considerable collection of talent they already have. With that in mind, I look at three ways the O’s can improve their fortunes by getting more out of the players already on the roster.
Get an injury-free season from Cedric Mullins
The question Birdland often uses to frame most discussions about Mullins is whether or not he can approach the heights of his 30-30 season from 2021. With each passing season it seems more and more like that season was an anomaly. It also seems like the truth about who Mullins is as a player lies somewhere between the frequent lows of the last two seasons and the All-Star form we saw before Adley Rutschman joined the major league team. After all, the CF has had an identical .721 OPS the last two years—and that was barely good enough to be league-average last year.
However, Mullins’ 2023 season was on track to tell a much different story before injuries completely derailed a promising start. Through the first two months of the season, Mullins again looked like one of the game’s most dynamic leadoff hitters. His .356 OBP put him just four points off the career high he set in 2021. He was once again a demon on the base paths, swiping 13 bags across the O’s first 53 games and putting him on pace for the first 40-steal season of his career.
The power surge we saw in 2021 also started to make a return. In the first third of the season, Mullins collected 12 doubles, three triples and eight homers. While he again wasn’t quite at the previous highs of 2021, his .479 slugging percentage was still 76 points higher than what he managed in 2022. The former All-Star starter punctuated an inspired start of the season when he hit for the seventh cycle in Orioles history on May 12th.
Cedric Mullins is the seventh player in franchise history to hit for the cycle! pic.twitter.com/E0S5QZp4Sa— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) May 13, 2023
From there, though, injuries wreaked havoc on Mullins body and his immense start to the year. On May 30 the Orioles placed Mullins on the IL for the first time as he went down with groin strain. That initial injury kept the O’s normal leadoff hitter out of the lineup for the better part of a month.
When Mullins returned to action, he clearly wasn’t the same player. He struggled to a .687 OPS, was a complete non-threat on the base paths and saw a significant dropoff in his power output. The outfielder landed on the IL again July 19 with an aggravation of the initial injury. Once he came back again in August, Mullins hit under .200 for the remainder of the season and it became clear that the impact of the injury had come to define his season.
A healthy Mullins can completely change the dynamic of the O’s lineup in 2024. The Orioles as an organization may have come far enough that Mullins is no longer one of the three best hitters on the team—but he’s still far and away the best fit for the leadoff role. Plugging him in atop the lineup allows Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson to fill more natural roles as the second and third hitters while giving them more run producing opportunities. A healthy Mullins probably doesn’t completely recapture his early season form from 2023. Considering that his main replacements combined to hit .207 and slug .352, it seems a safe bet that a healthy Ced makes a sizable impact on the O’s lineup.
Gunnar Henderson becomes more of a run producer
By almost every measurement, Gunnar Henderson’s rookie season was a complete success. He set Orioles rookie records in runs scored, extra-base hits and slugging percentage. He also led all AL rookies in bWAR, runs scored, RBIs, home runs and RBIs. The fitting reward for that season game when he became the first Oriole to win AL Rookie of the Year in unanimous fashion.
Even with all those impressive numbers, it still felt like Gunnar left plenty of room for more. After all, over his first two months of the season the rookie’s batting average was barely breaking the Mendoza Line and his OPS struggled to stay above .700. Obviously, his June-September stretch was more becoming of Gunnar’s immense talent. By the end of the year there had been enough GUNNAR HENDERSON moments for all of us to forget that the struggles of April and May ever even happened.
And yet, getting a full season of GUNNAR HENDERSON instead of just four months could greatly change the potency of this lineup. Gunnar was one of 23 players last year that cleared both 28 doubles and 28 HRs. However, of those 23, only the Nationals’ Lane Thomas, Marlins’ Jake Burger and White Sox’ Luis Robert Jr. also failed to put up 90+ RBIs.
There’s little doubt that Gunnar is both a better player than those three and that the Orioles’ offense is more potent than Washington, Miami or the Southsiders. Gunnar’s “lower” RBI total speaks more so to the effects of his early season slump and his constantly-changing place in the Orioles lineup. The standout rookie collected 100+ ABs as the Orioles leadoff hitter, two hole hitter and five hole hitter. The aforementioned injury to Mullins forced the Orioles to play Gunnar and others as unorthodox leadoff hitters. During the stretch where Rutschman became Leadoff Adley, Gunnar often found himself in the two hole.
My expectation for the 2024 season is that we see many more lineups that read 1. Cedric Mullins, 2. Adley Rutschman and 3. Gunnar Henderson. Slotting the Orioles’ favorite Country Boy in the three hole should give him plenty more run-producing opportunities and help unlock the latest evolution of this Orioles’ lineup. If you apply Gunnar’s June-September pace to a full 162-game season, he was on pace to put up 110 RBIs. Don’t be surprised if he actually flirts with that number in 2024.
Getting more dynamic play from the bottom of the lineup
I want to preface everything about to say by acknowledging that Adam Frazier gave me one of the best moments of my baseball fan life. And that June 2023 Aaron Hicks will always hold a special place in the lore of last season. And that Ryan McKenna will always have a place among Orioles like Joey Rickard, Stevie Wilkerson and Caleb Joseph—i.e. O’s whose lovable nature far outpaced their on-field production.
All that being said, the bottom half of the Orioles roster is about to get a serious upgrade. With Hicks gone to the Angels, Frazier off to Kansas City and McKenna out of options, key spots on this roster are about to get infused with talent that offers far higher upside. Jordan Westburg should see a significant increase on the 208 ABs he got as a rookie and will provide significant power upside over what we saw out of Frazier last season.
If you like prodigious power, look no farther than rookie OF/DH Heston Kjerstad. After getting a brief cameo at the end of 2023, Kjerstad seems like a lock to replace Hicks as the fourth outfielder for the 2024 Orioles. It was a long road to the majors for Kjerstad after going No. 2 overall in the 2020 draft, but his immense talent was finally on display in the last 17 games of 2023. Look at red circles vs. blue circles on Baseball Savant can often be a misleading exercise, but there’s nothing misleading about Kjerstad’s slugging numbers. If you need further proof, just look back at his first big league home run. Aaron Hicks was never going to give the O’s THAT:
Heston Kjerstad's first hit in the Majors is a homer! pic.twitter.com/utJ5U01G4v— MLB (@MLB) September 16, 2023
The graduations of Westburg and Kjerstad into bigger roles could also end up seeming insignificant by comparison depending on what Jackson Holliday and Colton Cowser do in 2024. Should the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball make the opening day roster, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Holliday repeat Hendeson’s feat and take home Rookie of the Year. Given Holliday’s meteoric rise through the minors in 2023, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to better Gunnar’s rookie campaign.
Cowser is a bigger conundrum; he has the tools and a track record of minor league success to suggest he could be competing for a starting role by season’s end. However, it was clear during his first call-up in the big leagues that the big stage somewhat overwhelmed him. Should he spend the whole season on the Orioles roster, at bare minimum that would represent a big win for the overall depth of this team. If he manages to earn the 200+ ABs Westburg got last year, then we’re really cooking with gas.