There’s no doubt the Orioles have opened spring training with enough talent and potential to be a playoff team in 2023, which should bring some disillusioned fans back to Camden Yards and give the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network a ratings boost.
If only that were enough to assure that this will be the year they rise above their small-market limitations and take that giant leap from new-found respectability to a place among the elite teams in the American League.
It’s fun to imagine Ryan Mountcastle developing into an MVP-caliber first baseman. It’s great to project top prospect Grayson Rodriguez as a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher. It’s even better to visualize Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson evolving from exciting first-year arrivals into sophomore superstars.
All that could happen over the next seven months, but the road to the postseason is not paved with unbridled optimism. The Orioles can only get there if they are able to assemble and maintain a healthy starting rotation and prove that last year’s surprising bullpen is not just a one-shot wonder.
Getting some breakout seasons from the club’s “elite talent pipeline” will fill more seats at Oriole Park, but it will be the more mundane developments that determine whether the club can again hang with their well-heeled rivals in the AL East and improve on last year’s 83-win bounceback performance.
Much the same way NFL teams often live and die with their mid-round draft choices, this Orioles season may come down again to whether executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and his staff made the right mid-level additions over an offseason that didn’t exactly light the fanbase on fire.
We all saw last year the worth of durable veteran starter Jordan Lyles, who has been replaced with two similar acquisitions. Lyles went 12-11 with a 4.42 ERA at the top of the rotation after John Means was lost for the season, but it was the 32 starts, 179 innings and his influence on the team’s young pitchers that made him more valuable than his so-so statistics.
Elias hopes veteran starters Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin will have the same effect times two on a rotation that will likely add Rodriguez to a group of young starters led last year by Dean Kremer and – before a late-season injury – Tyler Wells.
Gibson was almost a statistical carbon copy of Lyles last season, going 10-8 while making 31 starts, pitching 167.2 innings and putting up very similar WHIP and strikeout/walk ratios. Irvin also put up comparable innings and strikeout numbers but is coming off a much better statistical season, even if that wasn’t reflected in his 9-13 record with the 60-win Oakland A’s.
Obviously, fans were hoping for some flashier names, but the Orioles are who they are. They aren’t likely to open up the vault for a big-money pitching acquisition until they’ve truly established themselves as a perennial playoff contender and that reality is reflected in much higher attendance figures.
Where Elias succeeded during the offseason was in improving the club’s overall pitching depth and insulating the team against the kind of early season injuries that threatened to upend it last season. The two new veterans will – like Lyles – take pressure off the young starters and the return of middle reliever Mychal Givens should help the bullpen replicate its 2023 success.
The impact of the position players he acquired is not as easy to define. Adam Frazier is the only new player on the 40-man roster likely to be an everyday player, replacing Rougned Odor at second base. He’s coming off a disappointing offensive performance for the Mariners last season but had a .305/268.405 slash line with the Pirates and Padres and made the National League All-Star team two years ago.
Frazier also has significant experience in the outfield, which creates additional depth and flexibility for manager Brandon Hyde.
The addition of veteran catcher James McCann, another recent All-Star, might be even more significant, even though Rutschman will get as much playing time as he can stand. McCann is a solid defender and should bring more punch at the plate than Robinson Chirinos could provide last year.
There certainly are good reasons for fans to get excited about the coming season, including the new balanced schedule that will lessen the impact of the Orioles’ outsized divisional competition. But let’s be real. A lot will have to go right for them to be more than a fringe wild-card contender.