After their 2022 season, it’s safe to say that the Orioles’ lengthy rebuild is nearing an end: the contributions of star backstop Adley Rutschman upon his call-up to the majors vaulted the O’s to a record north of .500 for the first time since 2016. With Rutschman in the minors, the club went just 16-24, but a strong 67-55 finish put them squarely in the playoff conversation up until the very last days of the regular season.
The O’s ultimately fell short of October. Whether due to the sheer magnitude of their leap — their year-over-year increase in winning percentage, at 19.1 percent, ranks ninth all-time — or their flagging run differential — the O’s finished 14 runs in the red despite their winning record — the front office just didn’t seem prepared to buy at the trade deadline. Instead, they dealt veteran leader Trey Mancini and closer Jorge López, their eyes set firmly on the future.
When the O’s didn’t buy at the deadline, some fans anticipated a free-agent frenzy. That didn’t come to fruition, either, as General Manager Mike Elias waffled on one negotiation after another. Ultimately, Elias heeded a stated desire to “continually get better” over a number of years rather than through one big offseason haul. This is in line with the philosophies of his chief lieutenant, assistant GM Sig Mejdal, who worked with Elias previously in the Astros’ front office. There, Mejdal demonstrated a hesitancy to spend and a preference for building from within.
This year could be a major test for those core beliefs. Due to their reluctance to spend, the O’s will instead be relying on full-season debuts from arguably their top three prospects in Rutschman, infielder Gunnar Henderson, and starter Grayson Rodriguez in order to stave off regression to the mean.
2022 record: 83-79 (4th, AL East)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 78-84 (5th, AL East)
Clearly, the projection systems doubt the Orioles’ ability to compete this year without more established talent. The problem lies mainly in their starting staff, a group that FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projects to be the third-worst in the majors by WAR, beating out only the Rockies and Nationals.
Simply put, the Orioles’ pitching didn’t get enough help in terms of offseason additions and won’t be saved by Rodriguez alone. While FanGraphs projects other high-end youngsters Henderson and Rutschman for 3.8 and 5.4 fWAR, respectively, Rodriguez is only expected to chip in 1.6 wins. Part of that is due to an anticipated innings limit, as those 1.6 wins would come in 121 innings, and it’s hard to believe that, given the young right-hander’s injury history, he’ll surpass that total. Yet, without him doing so, the Orioles will run the risk of not having a single pitcher top the replacement-level 2-WAR threshold.
2022 returnee Dean Kremer is in line for the next-best shot at 2 WAR. Projected for 1.5, last season he pitched to a 3.23 ERA in 125.1 innings. But it’s hard to believe he’ll maintain that mark without rediscovering the penchant for strikeouts that got him through the minors. At 27-years-old, there’s still some hope that he will, but he’s far from the sure thing that you’d want in your no. 2 slot.
Veteran Kyle Gibson came over on a one-year deal when the Orioles’ balked at the price points for higher-end free-agent starters, and he has a chance to net 2 WAR, projected for 1.3. I wrote about the signing over at FanGraphs when it happened; while the Orioles can certainly count on Gibson for innings, as he’s started at least 25 games in eight of his 10 MLB seasons, they probably can’t count on anything substantially better than his career 4.52 ERA.
At the time, the Gibson signing led me to believe that the Orioles’ brass was comfortable allowing another year of continued development for their young players over making a bigger splash. Sure enough, their most significant move since then has been the acquisition of Cole Irvin, another backend starter who Depth Charts pegs for 0.6 WAR in 2023. One thing that Irvin and Gibson do offer is veteran presence, which will indeed help to further the development of their youngsters. However, it likely means competing for a playoff spot will once again not be the Orioles’ priority in 2023.
FanGraphs has the Orioles’ preseason playoff odds at 9.1 percent. Last year, they were at 0.1 percent, and the club came within three games of a Wild Card nod. So, I’m not entirely ruling out a surprise from them. A lot of things would have to go right, though, especially when it comes to their rotation. Perhaps fellow top-100 prospect DL Hall can overcome his injuries and inconsistency to join Rodriguez at the top of a new O’s staff, and that duo could be flanked by Kyle Bradish, who showed strikeout potential in his debut last season. Maybe the O’s even know something about the likes of Irvin and Gibson that I don’t.
Or maybe it’s just not the Orioles’ time yet. With prospects like Jackson Holliday (9th overall according to FanGraphs) and Coby Mayo (36th overall) still a ways away from the majors, they might still be biding their time, in which case it would be too early to judge Mejdal’s build-from-within ways. But Rutschman looks to be the true prize of their development system, and his service time clock has already begun ticking. If the Orioles want to make the most of his talents, it would serve them well to truly enter win-now mode and trade from some of their prospect depth to land better starting pitchers. And unless that happens soon, the Orioles don’t have more than an outside shot at the playoffs in 2023.
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