The arrival of a player Mike Elias had a hand in drafting first overall helped propel a team with one of the majors’ lowest payrolls to a winning season after a rebuild featuring an extensive string of losing ones. The following offseason, counting largely on further developments from its young core, the organization made modest moves to improve on its breakout year.
But this winter, the Orioles are trying to do what the Houston Astros couldn’t between the 2015 and 2016 seasons: do enough to get into the playoffs.
Houston has long been pointed to as the model for the Orioles’ rebuilding operation, largely because the men hired to lead Baltimore’s, Elias as executive vice president and general manager and Sig Mejdal as assistant general manager of analytics, came from the Astros. Before the 2012 season, then-general manager Jeff Luhnow inherited the worst team in baseball, oversaw three more seasons in which it had one of the majors’ five-worst records, then enjoyed an unexpected breakout year in 2015, with the Astros going 86-76 and snagging an American League wild-card spot. But they followed that season with a fairly quiet winter and failed to make the playoff field in 2016, winning two fewer games, before beginning a sustained run of success that includes two World Series titles..
Having served as one of Luhnow’s top deputies with duties largely devoted to amateur and international scouting, Elias came to Baltimore off a 2018 season in which the Orioles lost a franchise-record 115 games. Like Houston, they had one of the majors’ five-worst records over the next three seasons then greatly improved in Year 4, winning 31 more games to finish 83-79 as the best AL team to come short of the playoffs. During the season, Elias said the state of the organization was reminiscent of the 2015 Astros, in that the major league team was unexpectedly competitive while the front office prepared to make another early draft pick thanks to the team’s struggles the previous year. This offseason, then, is about making sure the 2023 Orioles to avoid being a repeat of the 2016 Astros.
Instead of making a big financial splash to improve on last season, the Orioles have made small steps forward, agreeing to major league deals with starting pitcher Kyle Gibson, second baseman Adam Frazier and reliever Mychal Givens. They could still echo the Astros’ 2015-16 offseason by having their most significant move be a trade.
Seeking bullpen help, Houston acquired Philadelphia Phillies closer Ken Giles for young five pitchers, including two who had appeared in the majors and former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel. The Astros’ only other major league addition came from a one-year deal with starting pitcher Doug Fister, while the organization’s other major league expenditures were re-signing left-handed reliever Tony Sipp and outfielder Colby Rasmus.
In 2015, the Astros ranked 29th in the majors in opening day payroll at $72.5 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, rising to 21st when the 2016 season began thanks to a 33.7% increase equaling more than $24 million. The Orioles began last year with the lowest payroll of all 30 teams, and with Gibson’s, Frazier’s and Givens’ deals — totaling at least $21 million in 2023 payroll — and projected arbitration raises, Baltimore’s opening day payroll of about $63.7 million is nearly $20 million above 2022′s. The organization still ranks 28th in projected payroll despite the 45.6% uptick.
With Baltimore still seeking a starting pitcher, a backup catcher and possibly another bat, the Orioles’ spending this winter figures to approach or surpass what the Astros did seven years ago, but what happens on the field next season will be a better determinant of whether Baltimore outperformed them. In 2016, Houston benefited from a full season of shortstop Carlos Correa, the first overall pick in 2012 and the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year, but many of the young pitchers key to its playoff berth took a step back in 2016, while Giles struggled to hold on to the closer’s role. The Orioles’ offense figures to improve by having Adley Rutschman, the top pick in 2019, and Gunnar Henderson, Rutschman’s successor as the sport’s top prospect, in the lineup all year, but Baltimore is also relying on continued progress from an inexperienced pitching staff, even after adding Gibson and Givens to it.
The Astros have made the playoffs every year since missing out in 2016, winning the World Series in 2017 — though that title has since been tainted by a sign-stealing scandal — and 2022. The Orioles would surely take that exact sequence over their next seven seasons, but achieving it without a step back in 2023 would better align with the “upward arc” Elias has said the organization is on.