Back in August, Orioles GM Mike Elias made a statement that filled Birdland with excitement: “I think that it’s liftoff from here with this team.”
Elias also mentioned that the Orioles would be aggressive in the free agent department and would significantly increase payroll, possibly as early as this offseason.
Fans waited with anticipation for the free agent market to open. Dreams of Carlos Correa, Carlos Rodón and Cody Bellinger began to gleam in the eyes of Birdland.
Of course, many fans have waited with patience for the rebuild to reach its pinnacle. After all, we have names like Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Stowers and Grayson Rodriguez.
If that doesn’t excite the fan base, there are names like Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad and Jackson Holliday coming soon as well. The farm system is stacked, a major league dream of top talent with six top-100 prospects to make even the Dodgers jealous.
So then why is it that Elias is catching so much flack for not pursuing mega-star contracts to complete the Orioles roster?
Of course, any fan from the 1990s forward would jump to blame the Angelos family for handcuffing Elias and preventing him from doing his job. But is that really the truth?
Let’s take a look at some things that just might be overlooked as Birdland starts molting feathers from the stress of no big-name contracts.
What’s the Rush?
Many fans imagined Carlos Correa or Dansby Swanson manning shortstop for the Orioles, but when you look at the position, why spend mega-millions when we have a top defensive shortstop?
Many people forget that Jorge Mateo finished in the top three in most defensive categories, hit 17 home runs, stole 33 bases and had a defensive runs saved of 11, the highest among shortstops.
Mateo is coming into his prime years at the age of 27, is signed for another year and was one of the sparks that propelled the Orioles in 2022. He even had fewer errors in over 100 chances than the reigning AL Gold Glove shortstop, Jeremy Peña.
If that doesn’t give you some hope, how about Gunnar Henderson playing third base for a full season, with reigning AL Gold Glove third baseman Ramón Urías moving to second base? That doesn’t include Terrin Vavra, Jordan Westburg or Joey Ortiz possibly being factors.
Want to move to the outfield? There’s Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins, a Gold Glove finalist himself. Oh, and let’s not forget about the Orioles’ top outfield prospect, Kyle Stowers.
To add to the foray of talent already roaming the confines of the Camden Yards outfield, Colton Cowser is right at the doorstep, with Jud Fabian, Heston Kjerstad and Dylan Beavers not too far behind.
What I am getting at, is the Orioles’ position groups are the deepest they have been in decades, if not ever. It’s not with just run-of-the-mill talent but with bonafide players with major league talent.
These are players that can be traded for front-line starters that turn contenders into a bonafide playoff team come the trade deadline or even before the season starts. We are in better shape than many fans believe.
What About Pitching?
The Orioles surprised everyone last season with a top five bullpen and a starting staff that was among the best the last third of the season.
The season started with John Means, Jordan Lyles, Kyle Bradish (a rookie), Tyler Wells (first year starting) and Bruce Zimmermann.
Through the first part of the season, it turned into a dumpster fire rather quickly. Veteran ace John Means would last a total of eight innings across two starts before his elbow gave out, and he was lost to Tommy John Surgery.
Bruce Zimmermann couldn’t locate the plate after April and was sent down to the minors by mid-June. He did return at the end of the season but was ineffective in his lone appearance.
Tyler Wells became a feel-good story, and from May to June, was the Orioles’ most effective pitcher before being shut down for two months with an oblique injury and to rest his arm from a heavy workload.
Jordan Lyles pitched decently for the Orioles, totaling just under 180 innings while pitching in 32 games. He became the veteran leader and the Orioles’ most dependable pitcher.
Kyle Bradish took his lumps, but by the end of the season went 3-3 with a 2.65 ERA over his last 13 starts. This included going 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA across 16.2 innings, allowing four combined hits and 16 strikeouts to the eventual World Series Champions, the Houston Astros.
Among all the shuffling, the Orioles found a waiver steal in Austin Voth, who went from reliever to starter, going 5-4 with a 3.04 ERA across 22 games.
Of course, the hype train was Grayson Rodriguez, the top pitching prospect in baseball, and when he would make his debut. Unfortunately, due to a lat strain, Rodriguez was shut down for three months, leading the way for the return of Dean Kremer.
The embattled right-handed was going to have one more chance to prove himself, and he took the reins and ran. Kremer would appear in 22 games, going 8-7 with a 3.23 ERA. It was the lowest ERA for an Orioles starting pitcher since Wei-Yin Chen had a 3.34 ERA in 2015.
What’s great about the 2023 season is that the Orioles will actually have some pitching depth.
The rotation will fill out, in some way, with Grayson Rodriguez, Kyle Bradish, Tyler Wells, Dean Kremer and Kyle Gibson. This is barring no free agent signings or trades happen before then.
At long reliever, there will be Austin Voth, D.L. Hall, Spenser Watkins or Mike Baumann, with all three capable of making spot starts.
The rest of the bullpen will be Cionel Pérez, Keegan Akin, Dillon Tate, Bryan Baker and Félix Bautista. Of course, there will be Nick Vespi, Logan Gillaspie, Joey Krehbiel and others vying for spots while Rule 5 Draft pick Andrew Politi tries to convince the Birds to keep him.
If none of that gets you a little more intrigued, Kyle Brnovich, Seth Johnson and John Means will all be returning from Tommy John Surgery this year, possibly by mid-season.
The Complete Picture
Elias has spent the last four seasons building the top farm system in baseball. Theblueprintt was to build from the ground up and fill the puzzle with pieces to complete the picture.
If the past is any lesson, then look no further than the Houston Astros. They followed the same blueprint and went on to produce a team of homegrown stars that has played in three world series and won two of them, finding gems like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker.
The one thing the Astros did was sign key players and trade for pitching using the top farm system in baseball. They traded for Justin Verlander, Zack Grienke and Gerrit Cole and know how to build and complete the picture.
Look at it this way. Why take a veteran, 28 years or older, and sign them to a fully guaranteed 10-year contract, with a full no trade clause, when the team that stormed the majors is filled with talent in all positions.
Let the plan unfold and see where we end up. We might not sign a Rodón to a six-year contract, but a Noah Syndergaard or Chris Bassitt to a three-year deal might be just the right move while leaving money to sign our young stars ahead of time.
And we’re not saying that it would be a terrible idea. We’re saying that it’s not the only way to achieve success, as Houston already proved to us.
They say don’t put the cart in front of the horse. Well, we are building for long-term competitiveness, not just a year or two.
Trust in the process. Elias knows what he is doing.
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