All of the talk surrounding the Orioles this offseason has pertained to their pitching pursuits. The only significant bit of business the team has gotten done to this point is the signing of Craig Kimbrel to fill the Félix Bautista-sized hole at the back of the bullpen. And while the rotation is yet to receive a needed upgrade, rumors have swirled for months that the O’s are “in” on trade talks for Dylan Cease and a few other notable names.
This is all part of the master plan. The gap in overall talent between the hitters and pitchers in the Orioles’ organization has been building for years. It seemed only natural that, at some point, GM Mike Elias would flip a few of his young position players for a big arm. Pulling the trigger on that type of move after a 101-win campaign feels like good timing. So while we should stop short of calling it an inevitability, it does feel like it will happen at some point before Opening Day.
Meanwhile, there has been virtually no discussion around the Orioles’ lineup. No free agent rumors. No exciting trade talks. Nothing. In general, the O’s seem ready to run things back again with—more or less—the same group from a season ago.
In general, this speaks to the roster continuity that comes with trotting out a relatively young (and also very good!) roster the season prior. Adam Frazier and Aaron Hicks are the only two key contributors from the 2023 squad that are no longer on their 40-man roster. The core of the everyday crew remains intact.
That includes an experienced outfield that many speculated could see some changes this winter. The trio of Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, and Austin Hays are the most prominent veteran leaders on this Orioles team. They are also due to be the highest paid as each of them receives a well-deserved raise this year thanks to arbitration.
There is no doubt that each of them provides value to this Orioles team, and you would feel plenty confident in bringing them back as starters in 2024. At the same time, there are also reasons to make a move now.
Santander led the team with 28 home runs and 95 RBI in 2023, but will be entering his final year of team control. Mullins provides tons of value with his legs and glove, but had two IL stints this past season that badly hurt his production at the plate. Hays made the AL All-Star team last season, but also saw his numbers fall off dramatically in the second half. If you wanted to, there is a case to be made for trading any one of them, provided the return is adequate.
Instead, there has been no indication that the team is trying to make a move of any sort involving that trio. That could change. But for now, Elias seems content to stick with his guys.
Perhaps that allows us a peek into the ongoing trade discussions involving Cease and others. If the White Sox insist on a package including Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad, or even Enrique Bradfield Jr., then suddenly there isn’t the long-term outfield depth that would allow the O’s to trade away a veteran bat.
But that’s assuming that all of the resources for the 2024 Orioles need to be internally rooted. That, of course, isn’t the case. The Orioles could get involved in free agency to supplement their lineup. There is a massive fish in Cody Bellinger still there for the taking, and then several viable options in the tiers below him.
That sort of signing doesn’t feel very Elias-y, but the point remains. The option is there for the Orioles to make a signing (someone in the Joc Pederson/Tommy Pham tier). Then, trade away someone like Hays to potentially add intriguing minor league talents. And finally swap some of their existing youngsters for the big arm they have been chasing. In that scenario the big league team has made the jump they want without sacrificing their floor, and the minor league depth has certainly been dinged but not by much.
The Orioles’ offense was good but not great in 2023. They were 7th in runs scored, 17th in home runs, 11th in wRC+, and 14th in wOBA. We can assume that Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson will continue to ascend, Ryan Mountcastle will be healthy, Santander will continue to mash, and the youngsters will make an impact. But does all of that vault them into the conversation for the best offense in baseball? Maybe, but there is a leap of faith to be made there, and it may not account for potential regression from others.
Rest assured that Elias and his team have already done this math, and seemingly come out preferring their current path that involves holding onto what they already have. To be fair, they have earned the benefit of any sort of doubt you may hold.
To this point in his tenure, it seems that Elias’ intention is to live and die with his homegrown talent on the offensive side. Cowser, Kjerstad, and Jordan Westburg all got a taste of big league action last year. They should be positioned to improve in 2024. And it sure sounds like Jackson Holliday and Coby Mayo will be making their way to Baltimore at some point next summer as well, maybe even as soon as Opening Day. If that works out, it will more than make up for any sort of suggested stagnancy.
This strategy paid dividends for Elias last year. Rutschman and Henderson, two members of Elias’ first draft class in Baltimore, established themselves as franchise cornerstones. Kyle Bradish, acquired from the Angels after just one minor league season, finished fourth in Cy Young voting. And Grayson Rodriguez, a prospect holdover from the Dan Duquette era, saw his stock make a meteoric rise under Elias’ watch before making a big impact in the second half of 2023.
If that quartet can maintain their current level, a frontline starter joins the fray, and the likes of Holliday, Kjerstad, and others rise, then these Orioles might be looking at back-to-back AL East titles.
Of course, that “if” could prove to be quite significant. The Orioles have done well with their big name prospects recently, but that success is tough to maintain. Cowser himself has already seen some struggles in Baltimore (40 wRC+ in 26 games). Will he follow the path of Rutschman and Henderson, both of whom rebounded well after some early struggles? It’s no guarantee.
This is the part where it’s important to remember that spring training is still more than a month away, and Opening Day won’t be here for two-and-a-half months. There is plenty of time to things to change, and given the pace at which moves have been made around the league this winter, the Orioles aren’t alone in that regard
Elias isn’t wrong to have faith in the infrastructure he’s built. It’s yet to prove him wrong. But that doesn’t entirely remove the inkling of worry that a complete lack of movement in the everyday lineup feels like a risk.