Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Rival Preview: After claiming their first AL East crown since 2014, the future is now for the Orioles
By Evan Stack14 days ago
If you were a Baltimore sports fan in 2023, you thoroughly enjoyed how things went for your teams. The Ravens had a stellar season and looked like Super Bowl contenders and the Baltimore Orioles won the AL East for the first time in nine years. Even better, a majority of the young talent on the Orioles has officially arrived in the major leagues, and it is probably only up from here.
2023 Season Recap
The Orioles posted a 101-61 record last year, and not only was it good enough to win the AL East, it was the best record in the American League and the second-best record in all of the MLB. Furthermore, it was the franchise’s first 100-win season since 1980. They sat in second place in the AL East from April 19th through July 18th, and they stayed in first place from July 19th through the rest of the season after jumping Tampa Bay in the standings.
Offence: It’s a “pick your category” kind of description of who led the Orioles at the plate. Catcher Adley Rutschman quickly became one of the best catchers in all of baseball, and he showed it with his play leading the Orioles in hits, on-base percentage, and batting average. SS/3B Gunnar Henderson started to earn his MLB stripes as well; while the batting average is still “meh”, he led the Orioles in WAR, OPS, and tied for the team lead in homers. And then there’s RF/DH Anthony Santander, who continues to improve his game as the years go on, and he did it again this season by leading the team in RBIs and being the other team leader in homers with 28.
And yeah, 1B Ryan Mountcastle still had a .361/.444/.556 slash line against the Blue Jays, for those wondering.
One of Baltimore’s most surprising stories of last year was 1B/DH Ryan O’Hearn. The Orioles acquired O’Hearn from the Royals for cash on January 3rd, 2023, but would designate him for assignment two days later. He went unclaimed, and the Orioles sent him to AAA to start the season. O’Hearn was called up to the major league team in mid-April, and he would post the best season of his career. He slashed .289/.322/.480 with an .801 OPS, 14 home runs, and 60 RBIs over 112 games. The numbers were a complete night-and-day difference from his five previous seasons in Kansas City, as the above numbers were career-bests in seasons of at least 50 games.
Pitching: At least for me, this was the group that had the most questions entering the 2023 season. They answered them with flying colours, and much like the offence, there were several different players to highlight.
Let’s start with Kyle Bradish, who made drastic strides from his 2022 rookie campaign posting a 12-7 record and a 2.83 ERA across 30 starts last season. Bradish reaped the rewards of his work, finishing fourth in Cy Young voting and owning the fourth-best ERA amongst all qualified starting pitchers in the MLB. Bradish turned out to be Baltimore’s ace heading into the postseason, meaning that the Orioles ultimately won their 2019 trade with the Angels in which they acquired Bradish and three other players for Dylan Bundy.
2023 also featured the debut of another young, impactful piece in starter Grayson Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a top 10 prospect in all of baseball entering the 2023 season, and his elite fastball velocity certainly turned heads during his rookie season. Rodriguez struggled out of the gate and posted a 7.35 across his first 10 starts, and he was optioned to AAA Norfolk in late May. However, he returned in late July and posted a 2.58 ERA through his final 13 starts, and it earned him a spot in the postseason rotation. He ended the season with a 7-4 record, a 4.35 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP, and a 9.5 K/9 over 23 starts.
Kyle Gibson ate innings like he always does, and John Means returned from Tommy John surgery late in the season and put up some solid numbers in four starts.
Out of the ‘pen, the Orioles benefitted greatly from the emergence of reliever Yennier Cano. Cano was traded by the Twins to the Orioles prior to the 2022 trade deadline in a deal that featured Jorge Lopez going to Minnesota. Likely seen as a “throw-in”, Cano finished the 2022 season with an 11.50 ERA across 13 games with a 10.5 K/9 and an 8.0 BB/9.
Cano broke onto the scene in 2023, posting a 2.11 ERA and a 1.005 WHIP across 72 outings. The strikeouts were down some (8.1 K/9), but the walks were down considerably more (1.6 BB/9) which the Orioles will probably take every day of the week. Cano earned a nod to his first All-Star game with his scoreless streak to start the season being one of the biggest reasons why. He didn’t allow a run and only allowed four hits through his first 17 appearances in 2023, and if you think that’s impressive, his K-to-BB ratio during that stretch was 25-to-0. Elite.
Cano was accompanied by reliever mate Felix Bautista, who also earned a trip to the All-Star game and would “one-up” Cano by even receiving some Cy Young votes. Bautista pitched to the tune of an 8-2 record, a 1.48 ERA, 33 saves, and a silly 16.2 K/9 through 56 games this season. Unfortunately, his season would be cut short in late August due to an injury to his right UCL, and it would ultimately lead to Tommy John surgery that will likely keep him out of all of 2024.
Like many other MLB teams, Baltimore’s offseason was slow-going, but they made headlines on February 1st as they traded for former NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes. This deal was exactly what Baltimore needed going into the 2024 season; their rotation was as young as the rest of their team, and they were missing a solidified ace with postseason experience. Through his six years with Milwaukee, Burnes posted a 45-27 record with a 3.26 ERA, a 1.055 WHIP, an 11.0 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and he has finished in the Top 8 of the NL Cy Young in four consecutive seasons.
Rumours were aplenty on the Brewers, and their potential to trade some of their best players this offseason, and Burnes was at the top of that list, given his upcoming stint with the free agency after the 2024 season. There was also a feud during Burnes’ 2023 arbitration hearing in which the Brewers refused to give him an additional $740K that Burnes and his team were requesting – a tough look for Milwaukee given how good Burnes had been for them in the years prior. In the end, the Brewers were able to get some value for Burnes (RP DL Hall, INF Joey Ortiz, and a draft pick) instead of letting him walk for nothing at the end of 2024, but the Orioles just got miles better by implementing Burnes into their rotation.
Since Bautista will likely be recovering from Tommy John surgery through the entire 2024 season, the Orioles made sure to keep their bullpen strong by signing veteran Craig Kimbrel to a one-year, $13 million deal. Kimbrel will be entering his 15th big league season, and he’s coming off a 2023 in which he made 71 appearances for the Phillies and posted a 3.26 ERA and a 12.3 K/9.
The Orioles also claimed OF Sam Hilliard off of waivers from the Atlanta Braves. Hilliard only played 40 games with Atlanta last season to due to multiple injuries to his right heel, however he is a five-year veteran with experience in case the Orioles run into needing some outfield depth.
Lastly, the Orioles recently made a change in ownership as the Angelos family reached a $1.725 billion deal to sell the team. While the new ownership will consist of a group of people (that includes Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr.), it is led by Baltimore native and co-founder of The Carlyle Group David Rubenstein. The sale won’t be official until 23 other team owners approve, and it appears that it won’t be finalized until the middle of the upcoming season, barring any issues. The Angelos family will still reportedly be major investors to the club. Several Orioles fans are hoping that a new wave of ownership will include locking their young stars up long term, something they were not accustomed to under previous ownership.
My take on Baltimore’s 2024 Outlook
The Orioles attacked the areas they needed to this offseason, and they are easily a better team now than they were at the conclusion of last year. Bautista being out for the year is a tremendous loss, but having Kimbrel serve as his replacement is more than acceptable. I think they absolutely fleeced the Brewers in the Burnes trade, and now they have an ace to lead an already capable pitching staff. Baltimore’s starting pitching got exposed in last year’s ALDS against the Texas Rangers (13 ER allowed over 8 IP), so Burnes gives them a reliable option in postseason games.
If you think Baltimore is good as is, the top prospect in baseball will surely be making his debut in 2024. SS Jackson Holliday, fresh off celebrating his 13th birthday this offseason, excelled at almost every level of the minor leagues last season. Although his numbers declined some at AAA, they were still good enough to expect a call-up this upcoming season, and his presence will undoubtedly make Baltimore better.
The Orioles still boast tremendous farm depth, and it may come in handy midway through the season if they need to make any moves prior to the trade deadline. They’re the easy pick to win the AL East again, but when it comes to the playoffs, would you take them over Texas? Houston? New York (if they stay healthy)?
Regardless, Baltimore is in a really good spot. It’s a good time to be an Orioles fan.
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