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2023 Showed the Orioles are Built to Last

Gunnar Henderson prepares to high five Aaron Hicks during a road game for the Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles reached triple digits in wins last season, and their sparkling farm system means they can maintain success going forward.

Despite being swept in the ALDS, the Baltimore Orioles had a season to remember. They pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history, going from 110 losses in 2021 to 101 wins two years later. After being surprisingly competitive in 2022, the Orioles dramatically improved again to claim the best record in the American League. General Manager Mike Elias has built a winner behind a deep position player group and a high number of overachievers. By drafting well and developing internal talent, the Orioles have churned out many productive players.

Many people and models doubted the O’s throughout the season since they surpassed their Pythagorean record by seven games. The team outperformed even the most optimistic of expectations by going 30-16 in one-run games and racking up 48 comeback wins. By coming through in the clutch and pitching well in the late innings, the Orioles squeezed the most juice they could out of an unproven roster. CP Felix Bautista had a historically great season, but unfortunately, he suffered an arm injury late in the year. Baltimore badly missed him in the playoffs, and they will feel his absence in 2024. Signing CP Craig Kimbrel is nice to beef up the bullpen, but he is far from elite.

The Orioles are in an advantageous position this offseason as a great team with a small payroll. They could still use another starting pitcher, and they have plenty of prospects to deal in place of spending on free agent starters. There are also plenty of interesting relievers still available, though the O’s might be confident enough in their development to promote from within the organization.

Positively Fun and Balanced Offense

The Orioles got the party started early, literally and figuratively. They finished with a winning record in each full month, and you may have heard they did not get swept all season (postseason karma aside). Young stars C Adley Rutschman and SS Gunnar Henderson led the way at the plate and in the field. After Adley finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2022, Gunnar won in a landslide.

What is interesting about the offense is that there were no standout performances. Lots of players hit well, but no one put up the outstanding numbers that multiple stars on the Atlanta Braves showcase. Nine players put up an average or better slash line, and three others were less than 10% below average. But Rutschman led the team with a 128 OPS+, which is on the low side for the leader of a good team. For comparison, the Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers both had two players post better than a 160 OPS+.

Part of the success came from two out-of-nowhere performances. In parts of five seasons with the Kansas City Royals, 1B Ryan O’Hearn was worth -2.8 WAR. The Orioles purchased him a year ago, he changed his swing, and then broke out. O’Hearn played in 112 games with an .801 OPS after four straight years at .650 or less.

In a similar vein, the Orioles signed OF Aaron Hicks midseason after the New York Yankees cut him loose. The coaching staff fixed his swing, and, out of the spotlight, Hicks dramatically improved his production. He had a .524 OPS in 76 plate appearances with the Yanks, but that jumped to .806 in 236 PAs with the Birds. Clearly, he still had something left in the tank.

Competent Pitching

The Orioles did not exactly have a good rotation in 2023, but they certainly had a respectable one. Similar to the lineup, the O’s lacked superstar talent on the mound but made up for it with consistency and health. Only eight different players made a start for the Orioles, not counting an opener. With SP John Means recovering from Tommy John surgery, SP Kyle Bradish stepped up. He pitched better in his second season than anyone thought he would in his prime. Bradish finished fourth in Cy Young voting behind a 2.83 ERA and 25% strikeout rate.

As important as Bradish’s performance was, the exciting news was the debut of SP Grayson Rodriguez. After a rough first stint, GrayRod pitched like an ace down the stretch, with a 2.58 ERA in the second half while shelving his cutter. His opponent OPS in that same timeframe was a measly .590.

More disappointing were the results of recent trade acquisitions SPs Cole Irvin and Jack Flaherty. Both struggled in the rotation and were moved to the bullpen fairly quickly. Given the small trade returns, Elias would do well to aim higher. Given the fact the Orioles are connected to SP Dylan Cease, he seems to be targeting a potential playoff starter.

More to Come

Unlike the Miami Marlins, this run to the playoffs does not seem to be a fluke for the Orioles. The Birds are flush with talent in the minors, and most of their top prospects are in AAA and some already debuted in the Majors. Their possible Spring Breakout roster could outplay a few MLB teams. The O’s do not need to acquire any position players this winter since they already have enough good ones. They can even shop around OF Anthony Santander for pitching help since they have enough capable outfielders. If and when they deal with injuries during the season, the internal replacements should at least hold their own.

While the lack of spending is frustrating to a fanbase that witnessed higher spending during the last competitive window, the lack of payroll commitments is enviable. With lots of financial flexibility and a strong farm system, the Orioles are capable of making any move they want. Just as the beginning of the offseason and the offseason before that, the question remaining is whether they really want to make a splash.

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