It’s difficult to be too upset about the anticlimactic postseason exit of a team that lost 110 games just two years ago. Any reasonable preseason mission for the 2023 Baltimore Orioles was accomplished long, long ago. Still, the disappointment is real for a 101-win squad that suffered its very first sweep of the season in the ALDS at the hands of a Texas Rangers team that has far more chips pushed to the center.
Powered by superlative second-year catcher Adley Rutschman, likely AL Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson and a dominant bullpen, the Orioles trampolined off a promising 2022, beyond modest expectations and all the way to an AL East title and the league’s No. 1 seed. The weekend’s two losses in front of eager Camden Yards crowds and Tuesday’s season-ending loss in Texas will sting, but 2023 is likely to be remembered as a triumph once the shock of a short October subsides.
The rebuild steered by GM Mike Elias and helmed by manager Brandon Hyde is now complete, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it means a moribund, outdated organization has been revitalized and arguably supercharged by a series of successful drafts and a sharp player development apparatus — reminiscent of Elias’ time with the rebuilding Houston Astros — that still boasts the consensus No. 1 overall prospect in baseball in Jackson Holliday. On the other, it also means that future seasons will be graded not on progress toward winning but on actually winning. It means the animating principles behind the team’s decisions will have to shift gears.
They will be starting with enviable building blocks:
Rutschman, 25, is a franchise catcher who tallied 5.1 WAR this season, a top-20 position player in MLB. He’s under team control through 2027.
Henderson, 22, is an all-around threat at shortstop (or third) who walloped 28 homers and stole 10 bases in a 4.6-WAR season. He’s under control through 2028.
The immense production of that group, plus some wildly successful wins on the margins of the roster (hello, Aaron Hicks and Ryan O’Hearn), explains how Baltimore got here with the 29th-ranked payroll in MLB — its fifth straight season in the bottom five. The Orioles’ highest-paid player in 2023 was technically backup catcher James McCann, but the New York Mets were paying the overwhelming majority of his $12.125 million salary. The top salary coming out of the Orioles’ books belonged to Kyle Gibson, the 35-year-old pitcher making $10 million.
Gibson — who performed about as expected, with a 4.73 ERA, but earned his keep by eating up 192 innings — is a helpful reference point for how the Orioles worked this year and how they might need to change in future seasons. It’s no fault of Gibson’s, but his stature as the Orioles’ headlining offseason addition indicated that the front office was not ready to bet on this team being ready for prime time. That same mentality prevailed at the 2022 trade deadline — drawing ire but undeniably working in Baltimore’s favor, as they acquired lights-out reliever Yennier Cano in the deal that sent away Jorge Lopez.
The Orioles also slow-played the 2023 trade deadline, comparatively. With starting pitching the most pressing question, Elias chose to buy low on impending free agent Jack Flaherty in the midst of a rocky season instead of swinging for a more impactful or more controllable talent. As it turned out, Bradish and Rodriguez made a mockery of those concerns with sub-3.00 ERAs in the second half … right up until they struggled against the Rangers in the ALDS sweep.
Three games don’t and shouldn’t besmirch the potential of the many, many talented young players on the Orioles’ roster, but they were thrown into a challenging assignment with no real safety net beyond one another.
Gibson wound up pitching three innings in the middle of Game 3, in mop-up duty slash preservation of last-ditch hopes, after No. 3 starter Dean Kremer saw the game get away from him early. Meanwhile, Nathan Eovaldi, one of a half-dozen pitchers the Rangers added in preparation for such a series, flambéed the desperate Orioles with a barrage of strikes.
Baltimore’s warp-speed ride from upstart to favorite — and the conveyor belt of fun hitting prospects that has been making regular deliveries to the O’s clubhouse — had mostly distracted from the total dearth of bankable veteran options. But the Rangers series threw that into sharp relief.
No matter how strong Bradish and Rodriguez perform in their follow-up acts or how high Rutschman and Henderson soar on the WAR leaderboards, the 2024 Orioles — who will view October as a proving ground, not an accomplishment — won’t be nearly as cheery a story if their best foot forward again demands that pitchers push into new personal workload frontiers or involves multiple hitters mired in prolonged slumps, with no better alternatives for Hyde to turn to.
Cedric Mullins, asked what the Orioles can learn from this sweep, answered with a focus on his 0-for-12 showing in the ALDS: “Me trying to get in that leadership role, get stuff going and personally not being able to do that, I feel terrible for not being able to find a way.”
— Nathan Ruiz (@NathanSRuiz) October 11, 2023
No one expects the Orioles to spend like the Rangers, who are carrying a top-10 payroll under GM Chris Young after ponying up for Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Jacob deGrom, Eovaldi and others. It does not seem out of bounds, however, to expect the future Orioles to pursue contending seasons with the verve the Rangers did, summoning top prospect Evan Carter and trading other prospects for much-needed reinforcements, such as Game 2 winner Jordan Montgomery and potential ALCS contributor Max Scherzer.
This is the part we haven’t yet seen from Elias. In Houston, when he was working under Jeff Luhnow, the budding Astros eschewed major long-term deals but did add veteran presence and stability in the forms of Josh Reddick, Brian McCann and others. They signed Charlie Morton on a Gibson-esque deal and helped him morph into a force.
In Baltimore, that might mean pressing team owner John Angelos for more money, though Angelos hasn’t even feigned interest in spending more for the betterment of the team. More likely, it will mean identifying breakout candidates or a smattering of mid-level veterans. At some point, though, the Orioles will have to consider the endgame for all the young talent they have collected. How many power-hitting infielders can they roster? How many corner outfielders is too many? And is there a big fish they could reel in via trade with some of the prospects who might not be able to break into the lineup?
This is all pretty standard stuff. Rebuild begets rejuvenated roster begets reinvigorated expectations. But rarely does the status change so precipitously and so obviously in such a short span.
The Orioles have been a young-talent fishing boat going full steam ahead for years. Now there’s an actual destination in sight.
They have gotten a glimpse. Their next moves will need to have direction.