At the start of play on May 12, 2022, the Baltimore Orioles sat at 13-18. They hadn’t sniffed a winning season since 2016, with four last-place finishes in the years since. Every pundit under the sun had picked them to finish in last for a fifth time. And, most importantly, their All-Universe prospect, catcher Adley Rutschman, had yet to be called up to the big leagues.
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Those same Orioles now sit at 24-13, third-best in all of baseball. They may be second in their own division behind the white-hot Rays, but they also just took two of three from Tampa. They’ve come farther in a year than perhaps even the most optimistic people in their own clubhouse could have hoped.
However, the speed at which the O’s progressed no longer matters. They’ve officially arrived, so now the season will be judged only by the end result. Granted, a World Series trophy is likely not necessary to count the season as a success, but there are still no more moral victories for Baltimore, unlike last season, when an 83-79 record was the toast of the town. At a bare minimum, it’s playoffs or bust.
So what will make or break this Orioles squad? Though in this game, nothing can ever be known for sure, one can still make a pretty solid educated guess. Here, then, are the five primary factors that will most likely determine the difference between a deep playoff run and another year of being on the outside looking in.
It seems like the answer here is a resounding “yes.” Adley Rutschman is already garnering support in the “best catcher in baseball” debate, following up last season’s 5.3 fWAR performance with a .274/.401/.422 triple slash line, good for a 132 OPS+. For a franchise catcher, having just a league average bat is a boon to the offense. Being more than 30% above average is a game-changer.
Yet at the very start of the season, we got a glimpse that Rutschman could possibly be unlocking another gear. The 5-for-5 performance with a first at-bat home run on Opening Day against the Red Sox appeared to be a sign that the sophomore catcher was ready to become a truly elite hitter. His production has cooled slightly over the last couple weeks, but is that merely a slump?
In fairness, if Rutschman never improves beyond an .830ish OPS, he’s still a cornerstone talent this team can build around. There are rarely more than two or three catchers in MLB at a given time that can do that. He’s already achieving at a very high level for someone yet to play a full 162 games in the majors.
But whether it’s this season or in years to come, the Orioles are almost certainly banking on more. Rutschman is more than capable of a .500+ slugging percentage and top five MVP finishes. Whether he achieves that ceiling will go a long way towards dictating the overall success of this team.
Followers of the 2022 Orioles are already acquainted with closer Félix Bautista, the 6’8, 285-pounder who throws 100 and enters the game to one of the darkest, most electric environments in any stadium. He’s intimidating, he’s proving last season was no fluke (1.59 ERA and 15.9 K/9 this year) and he brings stability to the back end of the pen.
Yet, Bautista may not even be the most valuable asset at the back end of the pen! Per rWAR, the most valuable player on the 2023 Orioles thus far has been 29-year-old Dominican rookie reliever Yennier Cano, who has allowed four, yes, FOUR baserunners in his 18.2 innings of big-league work. And Wednesday night, Cano picked up his third save in as many tries.
Bryan Baker and Danny Coulombe also sport ERAs under three, while Austin Voth and Mike Baumann have also pitched in some solid outings in swingman roles. Given all that, it’s no surprise the O’s are currently third in bullpen fWAR in all of baseball at 2.4.
But there’s an unfortunate flipside: the team’s starting pitchers rank just 25th in fWAR at 0.8. Kyle Gibson, Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, Kyle Bradish, Cole Irvin and Grayson Rodriguez have combined for 13 wins (13th in MLB) and a 4.97 FIP (22nd). Maybe there’s a trade to be made and maybe some of these starters will step up, but regardless, the bullpen will need to continue to be excellent for the team to hang with the other contenders down the stretch.
For the last few seasons, the names Rutschman, Rodriguez and Henderson were something of a talisman for O’s fans. Yes, the team was floundering on the field, but help was on the way! There was light at the end of the excruciatingly long tunnel. And in 2023, that light is blinding, staring those fans directly in the face. All three of them are Baltimore Orioles.
We’ve touched on Rutschman already in depth, but the other two are still rookies and to different degrees, still finding their footing. Rodriguez just beat the Rays with a 5.2-inning, two-run performance, but gave up six early runs to the Royals the outing prior and sits at a 5.08 ERA and 86 ERA+. Meanwhile Henderson has outright struggled, batting .175 on the season with just one hit in his last five appearances.
There is little doubt around baseball that both of these promising rookies will be contributors to the Orioles long term. However, their team is currently in a position to win, and the roster is thin enough that both of them are slated as key contributors. No one is expecting All-Star performances from a 21-year-old infielder and a 23-year-old starting pitcher, but tapping into their immense talents and becoming productive starters in the short term would go a long way towards securing that elusive playoff berth in the Charm City.
The result of not spending money as a franchise for half a decade is that the majority of the roster is young and unproven when it comes to meaningful baseball games. That doesn’t mean those players can’t perform in those games, but we’ve yet to see them tested on the biggest stages.
Right now, the team’s longest-tenured hitters are all 28 years old or younger. Anthony Santander first came up in 2017, but never played 100 games before 2021. Cedric Mullins was an All-Star the same year, but his first three partial seasons with the O’s were spotty at best. And Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Jorge Mateo all first established themselves as full-time big leaguers during that same 2021 season.
So when the dog days of summer pass by and every game starts becoming crucial for playoff seeding, who are the hitters bringing a calming presence to the lineup and locker room? Who will become the at-bat in the lineup that makes opposing pitchers so uncomfortable that others around them are getting quality pitches to hit? Any of the above names could step up and assume the mantle, but both the beauty and the volatility of the 2023 Orioles is that we don’t really have the answers.
Over his nearly 30 years as owner of the Baltimore franchise, Peter Angelos has built himself a reputation based primarily on frugality. Though the team cracked the top ten in league payroll when they were competing for AL East crowns in the mid-2010s, they have been either dead last or second to last every season since 2019.
Fortunately for the O’s, the organization has done an excellent job stockpiling young assets, both in the draft and in trades, which means not only does the team have cost-controlled stars at the big league level, but more help is on the way. Even when Rodriguez graduates, the Orioles still will have Jackson Holliday in mlb.com’s Top 10 and six other prospects in the Top 100. These are all players that could keep the influx of young talent flowing into the club next year and beyond.
But we’ve seen that as exciting as this team is, there are deficiencies, ones which could certainly be addressed by making a splash at the Trade Deadline. The starting pitching market will have numerous names that could help lengthen and solidify this rotation and it might even be worthwhile to add another bat at one of the corner infield positions. Such upgrades, though, would come with a cost–and the more Angelos and Co. are willing to pay, the greater the dividends those upgrades are likely to pay.
That means it’s finally time to open up the wallet. Not only should the Orioles be buyers at the deadline, willing to take on significant salary for both this year and beyond, but extension talks should already be underway with Rutschman, Henderson and Rodriguez. The O’s may have a good thing going now, but it will take significant commitment and future resources to keep this core together down the road.
No one is questioning that the future of the Orioles is bright. They opened the season with the number one farm system, they’ve won more games than every team north of Georgia and there’s more untapped potential on the current roster. But this season, they’re still being doubted.
DraftKings currently has the O’s +7000 to win the World Series. Those are the 20th-best odds in the sport right now. Even the Giants and Cubs, both of whom possess losing records, sit at +6000. There’s not much faith among oddsmakers that this team is ready to win now.
But if the past week is any indication, the Orioles aren’t interested in waiting for their “window” to open. They split six games with the two best teams in the sport and won the overall scoring battle 24-18. They’re young, they’re optimistic and they believe now can be the time to blow that window off its hinges. So if the majority of these X-factors break their way, don’t be surprised to see Baltimore crashing the party come October.