The Orioles bolstered their case as AL East favorites with the surprise acquisition of Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes this week. In 2023, the Orioles’ methodical rebuild officially came to a successful close — they won 101 games to edge out the Rays for the division crown before their pitching faltered in the playoffs.
With the most loaded farm system in baseball, it seemed as though Baltimore would run it back with what they had and let the talent infusion continue. Instead, they went out and got a Cy Young winner, signaling clearly to the league that this is their time and that their championship window is open. Burnes’ resume is outstanding, and includes the 2021 NL Cy for Milwaukee. He’s made three consecutive All-Star games and led the league with 243 strikeouts in 2022.
Burnes will headline the rotation as the anchor. He’s followed by John Means, Kyle Bradish, and Dean Kremer, who have varying degrees of big-league success under their belts. Means is coming off Tommy John surgery but was effective in the past, while Bradish had a breakout 2023 campaign. The fifth spot falls on talented second-year player Grayson Rodriguez, who could be the X-factor. I’d like to focus here on the unknowns, particularly on the bookends of that rotation, neither of which the Yankees have seen much of.
How might the Yankees attack Burnes this upcoming season? Simple platoon splits don’t tell the story — Burnes is equally effective to both sides. The hard cutter is the glue of his arsenal and his primary pitch, and it’ll be a challenge for the Yankees older, slower bats. Burnes gets a ton of swings and misses on his breaking ball diving away from righties, which happens to be a weakness for Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres. Chase rate, especially down out of the zone, will be a key factor.
Juan Soto’s prognosis looks optimistic against Burnes, as it does with most pitchers. His elite command of the zone and his lineup protection will neutralize the chase advantage and force Burnes’ hand giving him something to hit. Fortunately, Soto hit .326 against cutters last season and slugged .609. Because Burnes is only a six-year veteran, all in the National League, not many Yankees have a significant history with him. Anthony Rizzo is 0-for-9 with four strikeouts against Burnes in his career, largely due to the zip on that primary offering. New acquisition Trent Grisham has one hit in seven at-bats.
Rodriguez is the scariest kind of second-year player to face — one who made steady improvements and adjustments during his rookie year, learning and growing along the way. In the second half, he pitched 76.2 innings with a 2.58 ERA, a marked improvement from a first half that saw him demoted to Triple-A for a time. He’s working with 96th-percentile fastball velocity and 94th-percentile extension, which means the heater is remarkably overpowering when he’s throwing enough strikes. The Yankees saw this up close and personal, and looked overmatched:
Early in the season, despite the velocity, he had a penchant for leaving it middle-up in a still-hittable spot. As you can see from this outing, once he learned to elevate it higher, things went well. Overall, though, hitters still finished at .342 against his four-seamer. His arsenal really pops with his excellent changeup, so fastball-hunting early in counts seems the way to go. Getting into deep two-strike counts against a guy with a lethal changeup is not advisable.
The Yankees’ left-handed hitters will be incredibly important to competing with these guys, especially because Rodriguez has trouble putting away lefties. Burnes can occasionally put a clunker, which the Yankees will hope comes the next time the two sides meet. With that being said, in September 2023, he absolutely decimated the Yankees for eight hitless innings, showing what I outlined about his repertoire in spades:
No two ways about it, Burnes’ addition changes the complexion of this Baltimore rotation, giving it both a much higher upside and floor. Not only that, but even with Félix Bautista recovering from Tommy John surgery, All-Star Yennier Cano is out there in the bullpen along with others who could shorten games, like Danny Coulombe. Burnes’ fellow 2024 addition, Craig Kimbrel, is a wild card any time he takes the mound at this stage in his career, but he can’t be outright dismissed either.
The O’s have at last fired their shot, and look strong heading into 2024 as they try to repeat as division champs. The fact also remains that the Yankees have made leaps and bounds this offseason too, and Soto might be their best shot to beat Burnes consistently. How Soto and the Yankees match up with the new ace in town could move the needle as the two rivals fight for AL East supremacy.