The Orioles are arguably the envy of MLB, with a newly emerging nucleus of young talent poised to form the backbone of a sustained window of contention. The only serious question mark facing the team as the offseason dragged on was whether the starting rotation had enough talent to be that of a true championship challenger. The last week has gone a long way to answering that question.
Just days after the team shocked the baseball world with the announcement that the Angelos family would be approving a sale to a David Rubenstein-led group for over $1.7 billion, they again stole the headlines by acquiring Corbin Burnes from the Brewers for Joey Ortiz, DL Hall, and a 2024 Competitive Balance Round A draft pick (34th overall). In one fell swoop, they had found an ace for their rotation, all without parting with any of their untouchable prospects. With Burnes leading the staff and number one overall prospect Jackson Holliday joining recently graduated stars Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman, the Orioles might just have the best squad in the AL on paper.
A rotation that really needed Corbin Burnes
Before Burnes’ acquisition, the Orioles rotation projected for a trio of fourth-ish starters and a pair of question marks behind them. By adding the 2021 NL Cy Young winner, Baltimore vastly improved the floor and ceiling of their starting five. You have to go back to 2007 and Erik Bedard for the last time the Orioles had a starter produce what ZiPS has for Burnes’ median projection — 30 starts, 179 innings, 197 strikeouts and 4.4 fWAR.
Behind Burnes, Kyle Bradish produced an admirable breakout, pitching to a 2.83 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3.8 fWAR with 168 strikeouts across 30 starts totaling 168.2 innings, though ZiPS is skeptical, projecting his 80th-percentile ceiling — 3.16 ERA, 3.9 fWAR — as effectively a repeat of last season’s performance. It is far more optimistic on Dean Kremer, considering his performance last season (4.12 ERA, 1.5 fWAR) to be the floor of what to expect in 2024 (20th-percentile projection of 4.41 ERA and 1.5 fWAR). The same could be said of former top prospect Grayson Rodriguez, who bounced back from an ugly first half (7.35 ERA) to shine int he second (2.58 ERA), as ZiPS believes he will fall somewhere in the middle (28 starts, 141.2 innings, 4.06 ERA, 2.2 fWAR).
The real uncertainty comes from the fifth-starter role. In earlier times back in 2021, John Means spun a no-hitter for Baltimore, but he has since gone through Tommy John surgery and a long rehab. He did look strong in a four-game cameo at the end of the season with a 2.66 ERA in 23.2 innings, and this year, ZiPS projects him for 1.2 fWAR and a 4.24 ERA in 130 frames. The problem is that if he performs to his 20th-percentile outcomes—certainly still a threat since he needs to prove that he’s fully back from Tommy John—the O’s will need to dip into their pitching depth, which is not nearly as deep as their position-player pool with Hall now in Milwaukee.
Kids are growing up fast
When two of your kids who have debuted over the last two years are expected to rank among the top two at their position across MLB, you know you’re doing something right on the farm. Adley Rutschman finished second to Julio Rodríguez in the 2022 AL Rookie of the Year race and backed it up with an equally impressive campaign, slashing .277/.374/.435 while walking almost as much as he struck out with 20 home runs, 80 RBI, a 127 wRC+ and 5.1 fWAR in 154 games. ZiPS doesn’t expect him to slow down, pegging him for a .266/.362/.447 triple slash line with 18 home runs, a 126 wRC+, and 5.2 fWAR.
Gunnar Henderson followed right in his teammate’s footsteps, slashing .255/.325/.489 with 28 home runs, 82 RBI, a 123 wRC+ and 4.6 fWAR en route to winning 2023 AL Rookie of the Year. Like with Rutschman, ZiPS projects a repeat in Henderson’s sophomore year, with the third baseman expected to slash .260/.344/.472 with 26 home runs, a 126 wRC+ and 4.8fWAR. Most impressively, ZiPS sees little chance of regression for the pair of nascent stars, projecting a floor of over three wins for each — in other words, their 20th-percentile outcomes are those of an above-average every day MLBer.
Not to be outdone, Jordan Westburg delivered an impressive rookie campaign in his own right, slashing .260/.311/.404 with a 97 wRC+ and excellent defense, in total worth 1.1 fWAR in just 68 games. ZiPS not only expects him to have a stranglehold on the second base job in his sophomore year, they think he will take a significant step in his development, projecting a .249/.317/.420 triple slash line with 17 home runs, a 105 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR across 129 games. His ceiling is that of an All-Star while his floor should be no worse value-wise than his rookie year.
The next wave of prospects, headlined by Jackson Holliday
Jackson Holliday is the top overall prospect in baseball and ZiPS expects him to get a full runout in MLB in just his third season of pro ball. They project instant success — .255/.341/.381 with 11 home runs, a 104 wRC+ and 2.9 fWAR across 610 plate appearances — while their 80th-percentile projection places the young shortstop as an immediate All-Star (122 OPS+, 4.1 fWAR).
Baltimore managed to hang on to the three top prospects behind Holliday when dealing with Milwaukee. Coby Mayo’s powerful right-handed swing is expected to carry him to the majors, and with third base blocked by Henderson, he could get some reps at first, where the Orioles have one of their bigger question marks on offense. Colton Cowser was miserable in his 2023 cup of coffee but remains the team’s top outfield prospect while Heston Kjerstad returned from a scary health condition early in his career to log a better debut than his fellow prospect in 2023. All three could factor into the Orioles’ plans depending on how the major league incumbents perform to start the season — should the trio nail down starting roles and hit their 80th-percentile outcomes, ZiPS thinks they could add as much as nine wins in 2024.
Huge error bars in the outfield
Nowhere are the error bars wider for the Orioles than in the outfield. ZiPS projects Cedric Mullins (106 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR), Anthony Santander (118 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR), and Austin Hays (110 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR) as a perfectly serviceable trio to roam the outfield grass. While it’s unlikely Mullins ever replicates his nearly six-win campaign of 2021 that saw him finish ninth in AL MVP balloting, ZiPS thinks he can return to All-Star form (126 OPS+, 4.3 fWAR) at his best. ZiPS also thinks Santander can make his first All-Star team (143 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR) if everything breaks right while Hays surely wouldn’t complain with a 128 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR 80th-percentile outcome.
The flip side is that ZiPS’ 20th-percentile outcome projects the trio to combine for just 2.7 fWAR, or what Santander provided alone from right field in 2023. Should any of the trio begin tilting toward the wrong side of their median projections, don’t be surprised to see the front office be aggressive in their promotions of Mayo, Cowser, or Kjerstad.