During the final days leading up to the start of spring training, the Orioles have been on the move, taking their message of hope and possible postseason participation to a fan base that has had the luxury of neither for the past half-decade.
Finally, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has officially declared the rebuilding period over and the word of the day as he and manager Brandon Hyde shepherded a group of bright young players on a feel-good caravan around the region this past weekend was “playoffs.”
And why not? The O’s finally returned to respectability in 2022 after five years of wandering in the competitive wilderness, the past four while Elias worked his front office magic and created the “elite talent pipeline” that has the club’s minor league system now the envy of the sport. Last year’s surprising 83-win performance rightfully created the expectation that the emerging Orioles will be in contention for years to come.
“Part of that is based on stuff I’ve been saying because I’m excited about the future of the team, and the fact that I believe that our rebuild is behind us and we’ve got an incredible chance now to be a very, very competitive team for years.” Elias said. “I think we’re all excited about that.”
Whether all this optimism actually evolves into reality is yet to be seen, of course. The O’s still play in the big-money American League East and there was no offseason evidence that they even fantasize about competing on an economic level with the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, but the Tampa Bay Rays have proven it is possible to occasionally have steak on a hamburger budget, so fans have every right to be excited about this season.
Who knows, maybe they’ll even start showing up at the ballpark in significant numbers.
It’ll take more than one upbeat season to wipe away the cynicism that has infected the fan base since the club fell off a competitive cliff in 2017 with back-to-back horrid seasons that sent manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette packing, but there is a lot going on both inside and outside the organization that fuel the notion that the Orioles are truly ascendant.
Obviously, the nucleus of young position talent anchored by Ryan Mountcastle and Cedric Mullins and now augmented by the arrival of truly elite prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson is reason enough for excitement about this season. The Orioles also have enough promising young pitchers to believe that a couple of them will join incoming veterans Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin to create a steady and durable starting rotation.
True, Elias hasn’t made any eye-popping offseason acquisitions, but there are still players available and the Orioles still have another week before pitchers and catchers report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex as well as all of training camp to tweak the major league roster.
While he now can now speak unabashedly about the outlook for the franchise, he still has to regularly remind fans and the media of the economic limitations that will continue to have an impact on his efforts to build a true championship contender.
“The front office and the manager, when we talk to media, we feed those expectations, but we also live in the reality of our business,” Elias said. “We approach things very carefully. We have a lot of really smart and experienced people in our front office working on our plan, and that includes growing the team over the next few years, managing our payroll, trying to get into contracts that make sense for the long haul.”
Looking to the season ahead, it’s fair to factor in the altered competitive environment at the major league level this season. The return to a balanced schedule means that the Orioles will not have to play their well-heeled AL East rivals 19 times each, which represented nearly half of the regular season. MLB also has instituted a pitch clock to speed up games and outlawed the dramatic defensive shifts that depressed run totals the past few seasons.
All of that would seem to work to the advantage of a young team trying to play up to a bar that seems to get raised after every season — particularly the rules changes that have been tested in the minor leagues over the past few years.
“I’ve never seen it, so fortunately we’re so young, we’ve got a lot of guys who have seen it, “Hyde said. “Guys who were in Triple-A last year or in the [Arizona] Fall League. We’ve got a lot of guys who have experienced the clock and the bigger bases last year in Triple-A. I just have never seen any of that, but we are preparing for what that’s going to look like.”
In the interest of not appearing too wide-eyed, we also have to recognize that it’s not fair to assume that all of the good things that happened last season will automatically continue to happen in 2023. The bullpen, in particular, performed well above any reasonable expectation with a cast of no-name characters who will be back to – hopefully – build on that impressive combined effort.
That may happen, but relief pitching can be a fickle enterprise, so Elias brought back former Orioles middleman Mychal Givens to add some stability and veteran leadership to the group.
It’s also important to recognize that – for all the excitement about the youngest members of this team’s young roster – Rutschman, Henderson and the other fresh faces who will play important roles this year are still learning on the job. They will be fun to watch, but there will be some wrinkles in all those learning curves.
There’s also the fact that the rest of the league knows they’re coming.
“I think everybody’s very aware of what we did last year, the league, also,” Hyde said. “Our record from June on was really competitive, and we’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. People understand how talented we are. People know what our bullpen was last year, etc. Expectations will be raised internally, too. I think guys are going to want to really compete and build off last year.”
No matter what happens, it’s going to be an interesting ride.