The 2023 Baltimore Orioles clinched a playoff appearance for the first time since 2016 with their come-from-behind, extra-inning win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. Not one player from that 2016 team is still on the roster. In fact, only a few are still in the major leagues. It’s been a long rebuild that included four last place finishes in the American League East, including two years in which they were the worst team in all of baseball.
They’ve had a top five pick in each of the last four MLB drafts, and three of those were in the top-2. But in 2023, the Orioles are back. They currently stand atop the American League East by 2 games with a record of 95-57. Only the Braves have more wins.
Shortly after a 2018 season which saw the Orioles win just 47 games, majority owner Peter Angelos fired General Manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter. In November, he would hire the Astros’ Jeff Luhnow’s right-hand man Mike Elias to be the new GM. In the coming months, Elias would force out most of the front office and look toward a brighter future. Now, that brighter future has turned present. In his five years at the helm, Elias has turned the lowly, futureless Orioles into a powerhouse franchise with another flood of prospects expected to make an impact in the coming years.
The 2023 Baltimore Orioles: Built Through the Draft
The 2023 Baltimore Orioles have collected a plethora of young talent through the draft over the past few years. Starting in 2018, still under Duquette, they took Grayson Rodriguez 11th overall out of the Texas high school circuit. The next year, they used the number one overall pick on Adley Rutschman and their 2nd round pick on Gunnar Henderson.
They used their next four first round picks on Heston Kjerstad, Colton Cowser, Jackson Holliday, and Enrique Bradfield Jr., who are all either already on the major league roster or ranked within the top-10 of the Orioles farm system. Six of the Orioles’ nine regular everyday position players were selected by the team, while the others were picked up for virtually no cost.
The 2023 Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles entered this year with just a 10.4% chance to make the playoffs and 1.3% chance to win the AL East per FanGraphs’ playoff projection model. Led by young stars Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman, the Orioles were the first team to clinch an American League playoff spot this year. Rutschman, in just his 2nd MLB season, has slashed .269/.365/.423 (120 wRC+) while walking at a 13% clip and striking out just 14.6% of the time. Not only does his combination of plate discipline and power (.154 ISO) look good this year, he is also underperforming his expected wOBA by a significant 25 point margin. Henderson, the runaway AL Rookie of the Year favorite, is slashing .286/.328/.553 (138 wRC+) since heating up in early June.
The Orioles have subscribed to the new-age idea of hitting your stars atop your lineup, as Rutschman has become the primary leadoff hitter with Henderson behind him. Behind them, Anthony Santander (.474 SLG, 27 HR), Ryan O’Hearn (.311 BA, .519 SLG), Austin Hays (117 wRC+), and Cedric Mullins II (110 wRC+) have been consistently above average. Aaron Hicks always works a great at-bat and has a .386 OBP in his 207 PAs with Baltimore, while Jordan Westburg and Heston Kjerstad have been solid in their first major-league experience. All in all, the Orioles have one of the deepest lineups in baseball and when they send out their best lineup, they have nine above average hitters on the field.
Kyle Bradish has stepped up as an ace on the hill, running a 3.12 ERA and 3.41 FIP through 152.2 innings thus far. Bradish doesn’t have the high-profile strikeout stuff of many other aces, but he’s come into his own in his 2nd season with one of the best breaking balls in baseball. His slider, which he throws 30.5% of the time, has a run value of +10, while his curveball has a run value of +14. Limiting his four-seam usage has helped him become one of the American League’s best pitchers, as he ranks 3rd among qualified pitchers in ERA.
Behind Bradish, Dean Kremer (4.17 ERA, 164 IP) and Tyler Wells (3.80 ERA, 113.2 IP) have been reliable options while Kyle Gibson has thrown 180 innings despite his 5.00 ERA. Since being called back up in mid-July, Grayson Rodriguez has been nothing short of spectacular. Seven of his last ten starts have been quality starts, to the tune of a 2.21 ERA and 2.91 FIP in 61 IP. In his biggest start of the year against the Rays with the division lead on the line, Rodriguez had the best start of his career (8.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 7 K).
Unlike most young teams, the Orioles have an established, elite bullpen. Even without superstar closer Felix Bautista, Yennier Cano (1.94 ERA), Danny Coulombe (22.0% K-BB%), and Cionel Perez (3.16 ERA) have been lock-down late-inning relievers. And despite a partial tear in his UCL, Bautista is eyeing a playoff return. In his 56 appearances this year, Bautista has a 1.48 ERA and 1.88 FIP while striking out a ridiculous 46.4% of his opponents.
Even the Orioles’ middle relievers, Bryan Baker and Mike Baumann, are having great seasons. All six of manager Brandon Hyde’s most frequent bullpen calls have an ERA below 4.00. They also have the personnel to deal with the American League’s top left-handed bats, as Danny Coulombe hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit to a left-handed hitter all year and Cionel Perez has held left-handed hitters to a .205 BA and .584 OPS.
The emergence of Grayson Rodriguez in the 2nd half has moved the goalposts for this team. In the first half, the Orioles looked like a feel-good story without enough pitching to make a real playoff run. Now, they have a legitimate chance to win the World Series. They should enter the playoffs with a four-man rotation of Bradish, Rodriguez, Kremer, and Gibson, with arguably the best bullpen in baseball to back them up. While the Houston Astros are still the betting favorite to win the American League, the Orioles will likely enter the playoffs as the top seed.
Looking Forward: Building a Dynasty?
The 2023 Baltimore Orioles are finally seeing the fruits of their rebuild, as Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson have already established themselves as two of baseball’s most promising young stars. Austin Hays and Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins will be around for years. Jordan Westburg is in just his first year of service time, and Ryan Mountcastle won’t hit free agency until 2027. Between those seven guys, the Orioles have a core of hitters that will stabilize their franchise.
On the mound, Grayson Rodriguez isn’t quite on Rutschman or Henderson’s level yet, but he’ll almost surely be a staple atop the Baltimore rotation for years to come. Kyle Bradish is already 27, but he’s under team control through the 2028 season. There are more questions when it comes to this pitching staff in the future, but the Orioles are also in a place to target starting pitching in free agency over the offseason. Whether that means splashing on a big name like Aaron Nola or signing cheaper depth options is up to the front office, but it’s easy to assume that Elias and company will figure it out.
All of those guys are already in the major leagues. On top of their top-tier young MLB talent, the Orioles still have an incredibly deep farm system despite Henderson graduating this year. Jackson Holliday is the consensus top prospect in baseball, and he’s flying through the minor leagues. At just 19 years old, the young shortstop and son of former MLB All-Star Matt Holliday has a 60 FV per FanGraphs, 70 prosepct grade per MLB Pipeline, and is already in AAA. Holliday has an ETA of mid-2024, as do the system’s #2, #4, and #6 prospects OF Colton Cowser, 3B Coby Mayo, and infielder Joey Ortiz. While Cowser and Ortiz have both struggled in their limited major-league experience, they’re still among the game’s top prospects.
The Orioles are looking like a perennial playoff team for a decade, even in the ultra-competitive AL East. They already have two superstar talents with even more reinforcements on the way. Don’t be surprised to see a collection of banners hanging in Oriole Park at Camden Yards within the next decade, starting this year with their American League East division title.
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