Welcome to Over The Monster’s 2023 Season Preview. Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Things We’re Afraid Of series. It’s a lot like our Things We’re Excited For series just, you know, the opposite. Today we’re talking about the rising Baltimore Orioles.
* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.
The American League East looks like it will be an incredibly competitive division in 2023. What else is new? Based on ZiPS projections prior to spring training, there is only a 10-game difference between the team expected to win the division and the team expected to come in last place. The division is also one of three in Major League Baseball that has three teams with at least a 50 percent shot of making the postseason.
The expected parity in the division makes sense following last year’s showing, as the AL East sent three teams to the postseason, with another just missing the cut with 83 wins. That team was the Baltimore Orioles, an organization responsible for some of the most pitiful baseball of the last five years but one seemingly on the verge of really turning the corner.
Breakout seasons don’t always mean the tide will turn immediately, especially for a team that’s been relegated to glorified doormat status for a long stretch. For example, the 2018 Seattle Mariners went 89-73 and although that wasn’t really enough to be in punching distance of a playoff spot due to fewer spots and absolute dominance by the best teams that year (the 100-win Yankees played the 97-win A’s in the wild card game), it seemed like maybe Seattle was cooking something up. But then they went 68-94 the very next season, marking their 11th campaign since 2001 with a losing record. The Mariners also provide us with an example of when a breakout is real, however, as the 2022 Mariners ended a historical playoff drought, matching their somewhat surprising 90-72 mark of 2021 to earn a wild card spot, and with the heir apparent to Ken Griffey Jr. in Julio Rodríguez on the roster, there isn’t any flash in the pan going on here.
So which bucket will the Orioles fall into this season? Will they be a team that arrived a little before it was ready last year or a rising behemoth just getting started? If you’re a Red Sox fan, you have to be praying that it’s the former.
Earlier, I didn’t get into many specifics when discussing those AL East standing projections. Well, let me spoil it for you now: The Red Sox are expected to come in last place in 2023 (just like they did last year) and while their 79 projected wins implies that if things break correctly, they could end up being competitive, a rising Orioles squad will make such a task much more daunting. It will already be difficult enough for the Red Sox to try to improve in the standings with the Yankees still being the Yankees, the Blue Jays somehow adding even more talent and the Rays always finding ways to win. If the Orioles are legitimately good, then it might be a very long season and a hilariously brutal reversal of fortunes for the Red Sox. Even during some of their worst struggles of the last decade, at least they could count on the Orioles to be worse. That’s not looking like the case anymore.
The primary reason the Orioles appear poised to build on their surprising 2022 campaign is the amount of exceptional young talent on their roster, particularly among position players. First there’s Adley Rutschman, a former No. 1 overall prospect who produced an exceptional rookie year in 2022. Across 470 plate appearances, the now 25-year-old catcher produced a slash line of .254/.362/.445 and a wRC+ of 133 while having significantly better than league average walk and strikeout rates. If it wasn’t for Rodríguez, Rutschman would have captured the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
As if one No. 1 overall prospect wasn’t enough, the Orioles have yet another entering 2023, and he has already started to produce at the MLB level. Gunnar Henderson logged 132 plate appearances in 34 games near the end of 2022 after sprinting through the minor leagues and, rather than being overmatched, he looked dominant, accruing a 125 wRC+. Already a budding star with plus power, speed and fielding, Henderson is described as a “powerful lefty-hitting third baseman with a shortstop pedigree” by FanGraphs, which speaks to both his hitting skills and versatility in the field.
That has to be it for top prospects, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case, as Grayson Rodriguez, MLB.com’s No. 7 overall prospect, is currently projected to earn a rotation spot. A right-handed strikeout machine with an incredible changeup, Rodriguez has embarrassed opposing batters at every level he’s reached so far, including Triple-A last season (2.20 ERA, 2.04 FIP and 35.8 percent strikeout rate in 69 ⅔ innings). If he brings even a shade of that type of success in his first MLB campaign, the Orioles will have a budding frontline starter for a rotation that is far from exceptional but has some solid options, particularly after adding Cole Irvin and with John Means potentially returning at some point later in the year.
Speaking of Means, the Orioles also have a former All-Star in line for a bounce back. Means likely won’t be back until late summer or early fall, if he makes it all in 2023, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be effective after Tommy John surgery, but Cedric Mullins could very well get back to All-Star caliber play. Entering just his age-28 season, Mullins was not the 30-30 superstar he was in 2021 last year, but he was still excellent in the field and salvaged the season by posting a 113 wRC+ in the second half, ultimately producing 3.4 fWAR in what was considered a “down year.” Even if he can’t smack another 30 home runs this season, he can certainly still be a more than effective starter for the Orioles.
Another reason to think the Orioles might be legit is their bullpen. As a group, Baltimore relievers ranked 10th in MLB in fWAR last season, led by 27-year-old flame-throwing closer Félix Bautista, who averaged 99.3 miles per hour on his heater and was in the 97th percentile in strikeout rate. In fairness, Jorge López contributed quite a bit to Baltimore’s solid relief efforts before being traded, but Bautista will still be joined by a crop of guys in their mid to late 20s who were key contributors a year ago, including Cionel Pérez and Bryan Baker. It might not be the 2014 Kansas City Royals, but it’s a pretty nice group and could potentially be so much more.
Aside from its glut of top tier prospect talent, a potential return to form for Mullins and a relatively reliable bullpen, the Orioles simply have a lot of solid everyday players, giving their roster more depth than usual. Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle can both hit for power, while Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías are plug-and-play guys who can give a team solid innings all over the infield, with Mateo making up for a weak bat with stellar glovework while Urías is a bit of an all-around contributor. Then there’s 25-year-old outfielder Kyle Stowers, who showed flashes of promise last year, and veteran additions like Adam Frazier and James McCann. Sure, other teams have a solid collection of support players as well, but until last year, the Orioles usually had to count on those types of players to carry the team rather than giving the roster more versatility.
There are still holes and lots of questions for the Orioles. Henderson and Rodriguez still have to prove they belong, Mullins returning to form isn’t a sure thing and even though the rotation may be better, it is still filled with a lot of lower ceiling, high floor types. But the spark the Orioles lit last year was no fluke and even if it takes more than one season for them to turn into a powerhouse, their come-up feels more like an inevitability than a possibility right now, especially given just how loaded their farm system is beyond Henderson and Rodriguez. For a Red Sox team with a much less certain short and long-term future, that is a frightening thought, as an ascendant Baltimore franchise could make a difficult division impossible.