SARASOTA, Fla. — Dominique Scott doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Scott, a Baltimore native, was just a baby when the Orioles won the World Series in 1983 — the club’s third championship in 18 years, and also its most recent.
“When you never had something, it’s hard to say what it feels like to miss it,” Scott, 40, said. “Every year, you hope you get your own, but I don’t know what it’s like to have one.”
The Orioles’ 2023 season, which begins Thursday, will be the 40th since that plucky 1983 team reached baseball’s pinnacle. In the years since, the Orioles have been one of Major League Baseball’s worst franchises — only 13 winning seasons, five trips to the postseason and zero World Series appearances. The 39-year championship lull is the seventh-longest active drought in the sport.
But now, with the painful rebuild and the 100-loss seasons in the rearview mirror, there’s optimism — among Baltimore fans, the organization’s brass and its players — that the 2023 campaign will mark the beginning of a new era of Orioles baseball, one that could someday lead back to the World Series.
“I feel very firmly that we’re on an excellent trajectory here,” said Mike Elias, the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager.
In 2022, the rebuild finally started to bear fruit. The Orioles shocked the sport by competing for a playoff spot and winning 31 more games than they did the previous season — one of the largest jumps in MLB history.
“This seems like the best rebuild they’ve ever done,” said John Nicholson, a Hereford native and an Orioles fan since the team moved to Baltimore in 1954. “In the past, they’ve done half rebuilds. This one, they started from scratch.”
Former top prospect Adley Rutschman made his long-awaited debut in May, quickly proving he was the team’s best player and one of the top catchers in the major leagues. Gunnar Henderson, the club’s top prospect and the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball, was called up down the stretch and impressed during his short stint. And a collection of other players — from starting pitcher Dean Kremer to closer Félix Bautista — had breakout seasons.
“Obviously they are,” said Rick Dempsey, the 1983 World Series Most Valuable Player, when asked whether the Orioles are heading in the right direction. “They’ve got a lot of good ballplayers knocking on the door who are capable of playing at the major league level.”
That feeling by many — that Elias and company have navigated the organization through a storm and come out better on the other side — is partly why expectations are high.
The Orioles have the top-ranked farm system according to Baseball America for the first time since the publication began ranking prospects in 1984. Ten Orioles youngsters — most of whom were high draft picks since Elias took over in November 2018 — were recognized as top 100 prospects by at least one major list this offseason.
“We started in about as low of a point as you could possibly start something like this,” said Elias, referencing the 115-loss team he inherited. “Now we’re sitting here with a team that I feel like has a good shot of the playoffs in the American League East, and we also have the top minor league system in the game.”
“We’re more talented than ever before since I’ve been here,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
The collection of exciting young players like Rutschman and Henderson mixed with established big leaguers like Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander is a combination not many in the sport have.
“Oh, we’re definitely making the playoffs this year,” said Scott, who flew down to Sarasota to attend his first Orioles spring training game Sunday. “We’ve got a lot of young talent; we’ve got a lot of energy. You’ve got to ride that high.”
Playoff expectations aren’t coming from just the fans, though. Elias repeatedly said this offseason that making the postseason is the club’s goal. In the clubhouse, the players have higher expectations, too, after falling three games short of the final AL wild-card spot last season.
“I think everyone’s just excited coming back off the momentum we had from last year,” Rutschman said. “It’s definitely nice to feel progress. We did a lot of good things last year, and we’re excited to build off that and see what we can do this year.”
Those aspirations, though, might be too high. Projection systems, betting odds and historical comparisons all indicate the Orioles are likely to regress in 2023.
“I think we want to build off last year,” Hyde said. “We still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. I think that we’re hungry like we were last year and want to surprise people again.”
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, a system that takes a player’s past performance and forecasts the most likely outcome for the following season, have the Orioles finishing last in the AL East with a 74-88 record — nearly 10 wins worse than their 83-79 mark in 2022.
That’s in line with the betting market, as most sportsbooks list the Orioles’ over/under at 76.5 wins.
And, historically, teams that shatter the glass ceiling like the Orioles did last year almost always regress the following season. Of the 13 clubs since 1969 that improved by 27 or more games in a single campaign, all but one had a worse record the following year, according to MLB.com.
“I’d like to think that the Orioles are going to be as good as they were last year, but they’re so young,” said Jim Palmer, a pitcher on the 1983 team and now a broadcaster for the team-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. “This whole club, with a couple of exceptions, are guys trying to make their names. [Former Orioles manager] Cal Ripken Sr. used to tell me there’s suspects and there’s prospects. When you come to the big leagues, you’re still suspect until you’ve proved you can play at the big league level.”
There’s nothing wrong with high expectations, Palmer said, but he also knows young teams don’t become World Series contenders overnight.
“I’ve been in Baltimore since 1965. I realize how passionate our fans are,” Palmer said. “But let’s give the team time.”
This offseason, despite the excitement, wasn’t without its deflating moments.
Despite Elias declaring “liftoff” after the 2022 trade deadline, the Orioles didn’t sign any of their young stars to long-term extensions or acquire any marquee players via trade or free agency. Instead, the club made smaller moves to bolster the roster — headlined by the $10 million contract given to opening day starting pitcher Kyle Gibson, the largest guarantee Elias has handed out with the Orioles. Baltimore’s $61.8 million projected payroll is approximately 40% higher than last season, but it still ranks 29th out of 30 MLB teams and far below the median payroll of $175.6 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
There’s been off-the-field distractions, too — the legal dispute involving the Angelos family, which owns the Orioles; the unsettled lease situation with Camden Yards; and head-scratching comments made by Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos.
Since last year, John Angelos and his brother, Louis, had been engaged in a legal battle over personal and financial dealings stemming from the incapacitation of Orioles principal owner and patriarch Peter Angelos — a feud that was settled in early February. However, the long-standing fight between the Orioles and Washington Nationals over MASN and television revenue continues, with the parties appearing in a New York court earlier this month.
The Orioles still haven’t signed a long-term lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority to remain at Oriole Park, instead declining a one-time option in early February that would have extended their current lease, which expires Dec. 31, by five years.
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Despite John Angelos’ repeated promise that the Orioles will remain in Baltimore, the angst of a fan base with scars of the NFL’s Colts leaving in 1984 persists. In January, Angelos cited Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a reason not to answer questions about the future of the Orioles in Baltimore.
“I block it out,” Scott said about the Orioles’ behind-the-scenes drama. “But it’s hard to.”
For Nicholson, it’s easier to ignore the goings-on of the Angelos family, the MASN lawsuit and the lease situation from his new home in Venice, Florida, where he’s lived for the past 13 years. At the Orioles’ penultimate spring training game Sunday, Nicholson, 81, said he still yearns for another World Series, describing his favorite memories of the 1966, 1970 and 1983 championship teams.
As a lifelong fan, Nicholson still has a soft spot for the 1954 Orioles. They were bad, but he was 12, and he finally had a hometown team and Sunday doubleheaders to attend.
Those positive memories made Nicholson an optimist. He gets his hopes up every season — convincing himself that “this is going to be the year,” only to be let down.
His goal for the Orioles — in 2023 and beyond — is the same as it’s been since the moment after Cal Ripken Jr. caught the final out of the 1983 Fall Classic.
“I want to see the World Series again,” Nicholson said.