A couple of years ago, coming up with five Orioles players who were capable of being key contributors to a winning ball club was a challenge.
Now, the challenge is limiting the list to only five.
From new veterans like Kyle Gibson to the team’s core anchored by Cedric Mullins to the youngsters headlined by Adley Rutschman, the Orioles have a bevy of interesting players entering the 2023 season.
Coming off a surprise 2022 campaign, the excitement from the fan base and the team’s own expectations are higher than at any point since executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took over after the 2018 season. Projected to be the worst team in the majors last year, the Orioles defied expectations by competing for a wild-card spot and ending the campaign with an 83-79 record — the best mark for an American League club that did not make the playoffs.
While the organization expects to compete for a playoff spot, the projection systems and sportsbooks don’t. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, which is a system that takes a player’s past performance and tries to project the most likely outcome for the following season, have the Orioles finishing last in the AL East with a 74-88 record — a win total that is in line with the betting market, as most sportsbooks list the Orioles’ over/under at 76.5 wins.
If the Orioles are going to outplay their projections again, these five players could be the reason.
Sure, it’s probably cliche to include Rutschman on this list. But it would be malpractice not to.
After his call-up in late May last season, the Orioles transformed. They were 16-24 before his debut May 21 and 67-55 after. From the start of the Elias era to the game before Rutschman joined the Orioles, Baltimore had a major league-worst .347 winning percentage — approximately 200 points worse than in the four months Rutschman was with the team (.549).
The splits were even more pronounced when Rutschman, graded as an above-average pitch-framer by Statcast, started at catcher. With him behind the plate, the Orioles were 50-34 — a 96-win pace — and just 33-45 without him — a 69-win pace. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick and former consensus top prospect slashed .254/.362/.445 as one of the sport’s top catchers, finishing 12th in AL Most Valuable Player voting and second in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
One aspect that should help the Orioles and Rutschman in 2023 is simply having him for a full season. His 5.3 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs came in just 113 games. Extrapolate that over a full season, and Rutschman has the potential to be a seven- or eight-win player — a figure that would put the 25-year-old squarely in the MVP discussion.
The question for Rutschman is: What can the star backstop do for an encore? Did his excellent rookie campaign demonstrate his ceiling? Or are there other parts of his game — notably his success as a right-handed hitter against lefties — that he can improve?
One noticeable weakness of the Orioles’ roster is the lack of a top-line starting pitcher.
Compared to the best teams in the AL East and the other wild-card contenders, the Orioles appear to lack that Game 1-type starter. However, if there’s someone who is going to become that dominant force at the top of the rotation in 2023, Rodriguez might be the best bet.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander has perhaps the best arsenal of any arm in the organization, and he’s been dominant throughout every step of the minor leagues. In 292 career innings in the minors, Rodriguez, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect and Baseball America’s No. 6 overall prospect, posted a sparkling 2.47 ERA with 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
But the 23-year-old has yet to debut in the majors, and even though Elias has said the goal is for him to break camp with the big league club, there’s no certainty he will flourish right away. There’s also the complication of Rodriguez’s workload. Coming off a right lat muscle strain last year that likely delayed his MLB debut, the Orioles will have to manage Rodriguez’s innings, although Elias said this offseason that the limit won’t be “hard and fast.” Rodriguez has never pitched more than 103 innings in a single professional season.
Despite having no major league experience, Rodriguez is projected by FanGraphs to be the Orioles’ best starting pitcher and is tied for the fifth-best odds on DraftKings Sportsbook to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
If Rodriguez has a standout campaign and doesn’t win the AL Rookie of the Year award, Henderson might be the reason why.
The consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball is the favorite to win the honor, and unlike Rodriguez, he has experience playing in the big leagues, as the infielder debuted Aug. 31 last season and played in 34 games as the Orioles competed for a playoff spot.
The 21-year-old posted a .349 on-base percentage with 18 RBIs in 116 at-bats — not enough for him to lose his rookie status for the 2023 campaign. A plus defender, Henderson is expected to play both third base and shortstop.
After logging a .946 on-base plus slugging percentage between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Henderson has the potential to bolster an infield group that was much better defensively last season than it was offensively, with shortstop Jorge Mateo (Fielding Bible Award winner) and third baseman Ramón Urías (Gold Glove Award winner) manning the left side.
Despite Elias’ “lift off” declaration in August, the Orioles didn’t go out this offseason and acquire a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. Instead, Baltimore inked Gibson, a reliable innings-eater coming off a down season with a 5.05 ERA, to a $10 million contract — the largest deal handed out to a free agent during the Elias era.
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But there is a starter, perhaps the Orioles’ best, who has a chance to serve as the team’s ace by the end of the year. Means, who is recovering from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, is still months away from stepping on a major league mound, but the left-hander’s return is expected this summer, potentially in July.
The 29-year-old tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his second start last season after posting a 3.62 ERA in 2021 — before the Orioles altered the left field wall and sported one of the best defenses in the AL.
Means is working through his rehabilitation with the team in Sarasota, Florida, during spring training. But when he returns, he could serve as a midseason boost without the Orioles needing to give up a top prospect in a trade.
Player to be named later
Of course, it’s hard to predict who could be the breakout star of the 2023 Orioles.
In 2022, there were several players who performed better than expected — starting pitchers Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer and relievers Félix Bautista and Cionel Pérez chiefly among them.
Could one of the Orioles’ prospects come up midseason and make a surprising impact? If so, there are plenty of potential options: infielders Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, Connor Norby and Coby Mayo, as well as outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad. Or, could Elias use his deep farm system, ranked as the sport’s best by Baseball America, to acquire a star — either a middle-of-the-order bat or an elite starting pitcher — at the trade deadline?
Either way, it’s possible that a player who isn’t on the major league team to open the season ends up playing a crucial role.