If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition. (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.) Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper! This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams. Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper! If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!
For years, I did this series alphabetically, which mean Baltimore was always within the first few. Then I did it by last year’s record….and Baltimore still always was within the first few. A startling surge last year, though, has the Orioles sitting here on the last day of the first week. How likely is this to continue? Let’s talk about some birds with some Orioles fans!
C70: Last season was quite the improvement for the Orioles. What are your thoughts about how the team is set up for 2023 and what the club did this winter?
Domenic: The club didn’t do too much this winter in the way of trades or free agency. However in the past the Orioles have also been fairly active in the latter part of the hot stove season in terms of signing players. So they may still have some things to do in that realm. However the fact is that this team is set up nicely. They have young stars such as Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Adley Rutschman, and others. Their issue will be pitching, as has been the case for many years. The success or failure of their season banks on how well their starting rotation and bullpen irons out. However in terms of the field, they’re in excellent shape.
Tony: After surprising last year, with continual improvements from their young talent, they are ripe to be a playoff contender in 2023. The 2023 Orioles will be led by some of the best young players in baseball in Adley Rutschman (C), Gunnar Henderson (3B) and Grayson Rodriguez (starter) but also boast a farm system with good prospects in the upper levels like Jordan Westburg (INF), Joey Ortiz (SS), Connor Norby (2B), Colton Cowser (CF) and Heston Kjerstad (RF) who could be of assistance this year. Kyle Stowers (RF) will join Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins in the outfield with Anthony Santander also seeing time out in RF when not DHing. After having some of the worst luck in baseball last year, 1B Ryan Mouncastle is ready for a big bounceback with high EVs and hard hit %.
Matt: The O’s are set up well in 2023 because of their young core, but I wanted them to do more this offseason than make marginal upgrades. Mainly, I was hoping they’d add a top starting pitcher, either via free agency or trade. The only risk they took was dealing away a prospect they really didn’t need in Darell Hernaiz to the A’s for Cole Irvin, but it was arguably their best move as well.
C70: This is a team that doesn’t have an overabundance of veteran presence. Is that a problem or is it more fun watching the young guys figure it out?
Domenic: In many cases it can be a problem. However the young players they have are incredibly mature. And many of them played together in the minor leagues at various stages. So I think things are lined up nicely for them as it stands now. Would a veteran presence help them? Sure. But I also think that given the maturity level of so many youngsters, they’ll be fine.
Tony: While just a second year player, Adley Rutschman is a team leader and the young guys coming up are all high character guys so the need for “veteran” players is not really that great. Anthony Santander, Auston Hays and Ryan Mountcastle have been in the league for more than three years now and Kyle Gibson and Mychal Givens were brought in to be veteran presence in the rotation and bullpen. Manager Brandon Hyde is very good at leading his team and by all accounts, is respected by all in the dugout.
Matt: With Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez, and several other talented young players, the Orioles are incredibly fun to watch. My concern is that they’ll need more help to make a playoff push than who they brought in and who’s currently on the roster. I hope they’ll bolster the roster at the trade deadline and/or make a significant investment next offseason. Even signing Rutschman or Henderson to a contract extension would qualify.
C70: What is this bullpen going to be like? Will it be a strength or a weakness?
Domenic: Let’s put it this way, the bullpen MUST be a strength. I’ll never NOT believe that a starting rotation is paramount in baseball. However as relievers have become more specialized and the bullpen itself become more utilized earlier in games, you have to have a strong bullpen. The strength of the Oriole ‘pen was a surprise last year. And there’s no reason to think it won’t be solid once again.
Tony: Relievers can be volatile so that’s always a concern, but the arms out there are really good. Felix Bautista is a solid closer who can miss bats and can be unhittable with a fastball that can touch 101 MPH, solid split-change and occasional slider. Cionel Perez (L) and Bryan Baker (R) each hit the upper 90s at times, and the Orioles added Mychal Givens to the fold. Dylan Tate will start the year on the IL, but should be available by May to add another good bullpen arm. With left-handed length reliever Keegan Akin being joined by Austin Voth and potentially Tyler Wells (if he doesn’t win a rotation spot), the bullpen is a good place going into this season.
Matt: I thought the bullpen could be a weakness last year and was way off. Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, Dillon Tate, and others all played major roles and easily exceeded expectations. Tate is recovering from a forearm strain and will start the season on the injured list, which is worrisome, but the O’s should be able to cobble together enough quality arms for the bullpen to avoid being a weakness.
C70: As we said, there are a lot of young guys on this team. Is there a rookie (or someone that hasn’t played a lot in the big leagues) that will make an impact this season?
Domenic: I would say no, but only because the guys who will be on the final roster are guys that have already played. The Rutschmans of the world made their splashes last year. The top prospect right now is Gunnar Henderson, but I wouldn’t expect to see him this year.
Tony: Joey Ortiz is the best defensive SS in the system and once his shoulder fully regained his strength mid-season last year, really hit the ball with authority at AA and AAA. He suffered a concussion this spring, but the hope is he will be ready by Norfolk’s (AAA) opening day. If he gets off to a good start and Jorge Mateo continues to struggle to hit, he could see a decent amount of major league time. Additionally, Westburg (2B/SS/3B) looked ready after last season, but Mike Elias blocked him by signing mediocre veteran second baseman Adam Frazier to an $8 million contract. He also could make a difference this year if given a chance. Others that could see time are former 1st round pick Colton Cowser (OF), Connor Norby (2B) and potentially Heston Kjerstad who had a great AFL and an amazing spring in the big league camp. Kjerstad will start at AA but if he hits well he could be in AAA by May-June and if hitting well there, could be a 2nd half addition if there is a need.
Matt: Take your pick between Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez. Henderson is the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez, meanwhile, seems like the O’s best shot at a top-of-the-rotation starter. More talented young players are on the way, but Henderson and Rodriguez could be very exciting in 2023.
C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?
Domenic: Best case: Playoff birth. You have to remember that this team started slow last year. They didn’t have the greatest April in the world. But they really caught on in mid-May or so. Had they gelled earlier, they may have been in the postseason last season.
Worst Case: Long September. Meaning that they fall flat and are eliminated from playoff contention early. However this team has young players that enjoy being together on the field. And a good coaching staff that enjoys coaching them. I suspect that if this scenario were to unfold it would be due in large part to injuries. And that can happen at a moment’s notice to any team.
Most Likely: Really tough to say. I would err on the side of saying that they have a similar season to last year – just missing the postseason. They overachieved in 2022. That isn’t to say that they can’t be just as good this year, but I think the odds of them muscling into the post season might be slightly heavy.
I’ll also mention this, although in theory it shouldn’t affect the players on the field. However the ownership AND ballpark situation remains in flux. The Angelos family owns the team, however there are rumors it’s for sale. The Orioles also don’t have a lease past 2023 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The team opted not to pick up an option of an additional five years on their current lease. Now that in and of itself has fueled rumors that franchise CEO John Angelos (son of owner Peter Angelos) has in mind to move the franchise – with Nashville, TN being a likely destination. Now the team says they opted to not pick up the option because they want a long-term lease completed at Camden Yards by mid-summer. And John Angelos has said on numerous occasions that the team will never move under his stewardship. But that’s something that could become a massive distraction. Especially given that many fans remember Baltimore losing the Colts of the NFL to Indianapolis. Hopefully that doesn’t affect the players and coaches on the field. But it’s something to watch.
Tony: The Orioles did not add an impact talent this offseason so their 2023 will be defined by their young players taking steps forward this season. If they can stay healthy, and the young players take those steps forward, this team should be in the hunt for a wildcard. The balanced schedule helps them from having to play the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays 18-19 times a year so that should improve their record as well. The worse case is the sophomore jinx hits some of the Orioles young players, the bullpen doesn’t have the same success as last year, and/or major injuries occur in the rotation. If that occurs the Orioles could be back in the 75 win area once again.
Matt: Best case: The O’s surprise everyone in the AL East and win the division. The sky’s the limit after that.
Worst case: Other than (ugh) a major injury? The O’s take a step back from last season’s 83-79 record and finish under .500 and in last place in the AL East.
Most likely: Something similar to last year’s record. The O’s have flaws, but the potential of having Rutschman, Henderson, and Rodriguez in the majors for an entire year could be a real boost.