DURING THE SECOND game of the 2023 MLB season, on a cloudy 56-degree day at Fenway Park, the Baltimore Orioles were looking to start the campaign with their second straight win, after barely holding on for a teeth-clenching victory on Opening Day in which they nearly blew a 10-4 lead. The Orioles led 8-7 with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth. Masataka Yoshida lofted a routine fly ball to left fielder Ryan McKenna, a can of corn in Little League, in high school and certainly in the major leagues.
McKenna dropped the ball.
When the Boston Red Sox won the next day, the early verdict was in: The Orioles were 1-2, had allowed 27 runs and, just as everyone had predicted, didn’t have nearly enough pitching and were destined to finish near the bottom of the tough American League East.
The Orioles have been so methodically consistent all season and now that they’ve clinched a playoff spot while on their way to 100 wins — a mark the franchise last achieved in 1980, by the way — it’s easy to forget that not much was expected from them in March. Though they were surprise winners of 83 games in 2022, the consensus was clear: That wasn’t going to happen again. ESPN forecasted 74 wins. FanGraphs projected 76. None of ESPN’s 28 voters picked the Orioles to win the division — or even to get in as a wild card.
The Orioles are leading the best division in baseball, though the Tampa Bay Rays are close on their heels. They’re not that far behind the Atlanta Braves for the best overall record. They are, most definitely, World Series contenders — and they’re going to be in this position for the foreseeable future thanks to general manager Mike Elias’ rebuild that has a chance to rival what Theo Epstein did with the Chicago Cubs and Jeff Luhnow — Elias’ mentor — did with the Houston Astros.
That muffed fly ball has long since been forgotten.
YOU CAN TRACE the Orioles’ turnaround to the first pick of the 2019 MLB draft. Under GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles had made the playoffs three times from 2012 to 2016, but the fall from those years was rapid and painful: In 2018, the Orioles finished 47-115, becoming just the fifth team since 1900 to lose 115 games. Duquette and Showalter were let go and Elias came to Baltimore from Houston, where he had been the Astros’ scouting director and then assistant GM.
There is always some luck involved when trying to rebuild an organization and the Orioles had the good fortune of having their terrible season at the right time. Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman was the clear No. 1 talent in the 2019 draft class, one of the most accomplished hitters in NCAA history and a top defensive catcher to boot. The first pick in baseball isn’t always a sure superstar, but everything on Rutschman’s resume pointed to a sure thing.
The pandemic’s impact on minor league baseball delayed Rutschman’s arrival to the Orioles, but things immediately turned around after he was called up in May 2022. The Orioles were 16-24 when Rutschman debuted, then went 60-47 in games he started the rest of the way and 87-51 so far in 2023. They’re an incredible 114-69 when he starts at catcher. The oft-made comparison to Buster Posey is apt. Rutschman may not be a 30-homer slugger, just as Posey never was, but like Posey he gets on base, plays great defense and is that all-important stabilizing personality on the field and in the clubhouse. He may not have the highest WAR on the 2023 Orioles, but there’s no doubt he’s the heart of the team.
While Rutschman was the obvious No. 1 overall pick, the Orioles also hit a home run with the first pick of the second round: high school shortstop Gunnar Henderson. A late riser from Alabama, draft analysts had Henderson potentially going in the first round because of a broad base of skills, but he had faced weak high school competition and most scouts saw him ending up at third base.
Despite COVID wiping out his 2020 season, Henderson soared through the minors and reached Baltimore late last season at just 21 years old. He got off to a slow start, hitting .189 in April and .213 in May, but he has been one of the best hitters in the majors the past four months, slashing .286/.331/.551 with 20 home runs since the beginning of June. Henderson, who turned 22 in June, leads the team in WAR and his raw power is probably his best tool but like so many of the Orioles, he’s a baseball player, in the sense that he does everything well. Via Statcast’s baserunning value metric, Henderson is at plus-4 runs, tied for the major league lead with, among others, speedsters Corbin Carroll and Bobby Witt Jr.
Henderson’s baserunning is par for the course for the Orioles. Maybe it’s a cliché to say they don’t beat themselves or they do the little things well, but they don’t beat themselves and they do the little things well. They’re second behind only the Braves in baserunner advancement, taking the extra base — such as first to third on a single or second to home on double — 49% of the time (the Braves are at 50%). Only three teams have committed fewer errors, they’re top 10 in defensive runs saved and second in fewest stolen bases allowed. They’ve been terrific in one-run games, going 26-12 (and 10-6 in extra-inning games). They’re 10-3 against the Toronto Blue Jays and 8-5 against the Rays.
When you’ve hit rock bottom the way the Orioles did in 2018, you have to hit on draft picks like Rutschman and Henderson, otherwise you’ll need a rebuild to your rebuild — see Tigers, Detroit; or Royals, Kansas City. As Travis Sawchik detailed in theScore in March, the Orioles like to preach something called “growth mindset,” a term first coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck that suggests skills can be learned and improved. During the COVID shutdown, Orioles staffers even met with minor leaguers on Zoom to discuss Dweck’s book. Rutschman and Henderson both bought into the concept.
Of course, the power of a positive mindset isn’t necessarily unique to the age of analytics, but there’s no doubting the Orioles’ player development success under Elias. Indeed, players such as Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle were all already in the organization when Elias took over; the first three had all reached the majors but had yet to do much. Those four have flourished in recent seasons and produced over 10.5 combined WAR so far in 2023, providing the lineup depth alongside the two young stars (Ryan O’Hearn, purchased from the Royals in January, has been a pleasant surprise and is now the team’s cleanup hitter against right-handed pitchers).
On the pitching side, rookie Grayson Rodriguez was the team’s first-round pick in 2018, the final draft of the Duquette regime. The top-rated pitching prospect in the majors heading into 2023, Rodriguez had a rough start and was eventually sent back to the minors, but he returned after the All-Star break and has a 2.55 ERA over his past nine starts. Bautista was also in the organization since the Orioles signed him in 2016 after the Miami Marlins released him. It took the All-Star closer a long time before he emerged last season, and he was having an even more dominant season in 2023 before recently landing on the injured list with a sore elbow (that could sideline him the rest of the season, putting a damper on Baltimore’s World Series aspirations).
Rebuilding teams also need to make good on minor transactions that usually lead nowhere. Kyle Bradish, the team’s best starter, came over from the Los Angeles Angels as a minor leaguer in 2019 in the Dylan Bundy trade. Rookie setup man (and now closer) Yennier Cano was essentially a throw-in as part of last year’s Jorge Lopez trade with the Minnesota Twins. Starter Tyler Wells, who pitched well early in the season, was a Rule 5 pick in 2020 (also from the Twins). The Orioles signed Aaron Hicks in May after the New York Yankees released him; he was hitting .188 but has flourished in Baltimore with a .296/.385/.475 slash line. Smart and lucky is a good combination.
AFTER THE ORIOLES improved from 52-110 in 2021 to 83-79 last season — the ninth-biggest year-to-year improvement in MLB history — Baltimore fans expected, or at least hoped, that Elias would address the rotation. The Orioles had ranked 23rd in the majors in ERA, 26th in strikeout rate and 25th in FanGraphs WAR — not exactly a playoff-caliber rotation. The big moves were anticlimactic: The team signed veteran innings eater Kyle Gibson to a one-year, $10 million contract and acquired Cole Irvin from the A’s. Thus, the less-than-stellar projections.
There are three ways to view the offseason:
(1) Elias saw the 2022 season as a bit of a fluke, viewed regression as likely and didn’t want to commit big money in free agency just yet, not until it was a sure thing the Orioles were serious contenders. Even though he had said in August 2022 that “our plan for the offseason has always been to significantly escalate the payroll,” this more conservative approach made some sense — even if Orioles fans wanted the club to go after Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodon.
(2) Ownership didn’t provide the checkbook. Definitely possible, especially in light of John Angelos’ comments to the New York Times in August: “The hardest thing to do in sports is to be a small-market team in baseball and be competitive, because everything is stacked against you — everything,” he said. Angelos went on to elaborate: “Let’s say we sat down and showed you the financials for the Orioles. You will quickly see that when people talk about giving this player $200 million, that player $150 million, we would be so financially underwater that you’d have to raise the [ticket] prices massively.” That doesn’t sound like an owner desiring big increases to the payroll — and blaming it on ticket prices.
(3) Elias was simply following the Astros’ blueprint he was once part of: Be cautious, trust your player development — and don’t overspend on big free agents. As the Astros rebuilt, they also had a surprise season, making the playoffs as a wild card in 2015. But that didn’t lead to an emptying of the coffers. When the Astros did need to make a big move, they did it via trades that brought in players with shorter long-term commitments than would have been required to sign a comparable free agent: Verlander in 2017, Gerrit Cole in 2018 and Zack Greinke in 2019. It helped that the Astros made three great trades in which the only significant major leaguer they traded away was Joe Musgrove.
So the Orioles played it safe — but it has worked out. The rotation is still the weakest part of the team, but it has improved to 16th in ERA, 14th in strikeout rate and 17th in FanGraphs WAR. Bradish has made a big leap and has allowed more than three runs just once in his past 16 starts. Rodriguez has lived up to the hype in the second half. Gibson and Dean Kremer have been reliable and not missed a start. The O’s also just got John Means back for his first start since April 2022. The one disappointment has been deadline acquisition Jack Flaherty, who has a 7.16 ERA in six starts with Baltimore.
THE BEST PART of all this, if you’re an Orioles fan: It’s just the beginning. The Orioles have more waves of talent coming. That 110-loss season in 2021 led to another first overall pick in the 2022 draft. Jackson Holliday and Dru Jones, both sons of major leaguers, were the consensus top two talents. The Orioles went with Holliday, not necessarily the slam-dunk choice, and the 19-year-old shortstop has emerged as the top prospect in the minors, rising from Low-A all the way to Triple-A in his first full professional season.
Colton Cowser, the fifth overall pick in 2021, has reached the majors (although he hit .115 in 61 at-bats). Heston Kjerstad, the second overall pick in 2020, had some initial health problems, but he raked in Triple-A and just got called up. Coby Mayo, a fourth rounder in 2020, is just 21, already in Triple-A and, with a .970 OPS, is having one of the best seasons of any minor leaguer. Infielder Jordan Westburg, the 30th overall pick in 2020, is in the majors and has contributed 1.4 WAR in 58 games. All these guys will be competing for playing time in 2024, along with shortstop Joey Ortiz and second baseman Connor Norby, both also raking at Triple-A Norfolk — and the O’s won’t have room for all of them.
Note that these are all position players. The Orioles followed the model that Epstein deployed with the Cubs: Focus on hitters with your early draft picks. Under Elias and scouting director Brad Ciolek, all seven of the team’s first-round picks have been position players. Eight of their nine second-round picks have been position players. It’s one thing to have a strategy, but it’s another to make the right selections and the Orioles have done that.
With so much talent and payroll flexibility, the Orioles can basically do anything they want this offseason. They can make their version of the Verlander or Cole trade. They can sign a couple of free agent pitchers (if ownership is willing to spend money) and let all the young position players battle each other for playing time. Heck, if Shohei Ohtani wants to play for a winner, he should consider heading to Baltimore.
Because there is no doubt that the Orioles are going to do a lot of winning in upcoming seasons. They’re in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 thanks to a perfectly executed rebuilding plan. I’d bet on them succeeding in the next phases of that plan.