After a 2020 season shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic, a 2021 season that dealt with its lingering effects and a 2022 season delayed by a work stoppage, 2023 figures to be Major League Baseball’s true return to normalcy.
That’s welcome news for the Orioles, who will start the campaign trying to contend for the first time since the rebuild began. As with every new year, there’s optimism to go around, but the Orioles’ long-discussed bright future has never felt closer to the present after an unexpected 83-79 season that fell just short of a playoff berth.
It helps that Baltimore’s turn toward legitimacy comes at the same as MLB’s new scheduling format, one that will allow the team to play the American League East’s other four playoff-hopeful teams 13 times each instead of 19. Here’s what Orioles fans have to look forward to in 2023.
1. A full year of Adley and Gunnar
In 2022, the Orioles played 122 games with catcher Adley Rutschman on their roster. Infielder Gunnar Henderson was in the majors for their final 34 contests. They didn’t get 162 games combined out of the pair of young phenoms.
If health allows, Baltimore will enjoy a whole year of two players who have both been ranked as the top prospect in the sport, and that extra season’s worth of games alone could improve the team enough to push it into the postseason.
FanGraphs projects the Orioles’ first two draftees under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias to account for more than a third of Baltimore’s wins above replacement for position players. Rutschman is forecasted to earn 5.2 WAR, with Henderson at 4.0; no other Oriole is projected to be worth 3 wins.
They might not be alone, either. Kyle Stowers, Kyle Bradish, Terrin Vavra, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez — all of whom have also ranked among the organization’s top 15 or so prospects — are all lined up for their first full major league campaigns.
2. Plenty of debuts
Regarded as the sport’s top pitching prospect, Rodriguez might be Baltimore’s only debutant on the team’s opening day roster, with Elias saying there’s a “very high likelihood” of him breaking camp in the Orioles’ rotation. It won’t hurt that, with Henderson, Hall and Rodriguez likely to be ranked among the game’s Top 100 prospects overall, including them on the season-opening roster gives the Orioles a shot at an extra draft pick should any of them become American League Rookie of the Year.
But 2023 should see several prospects debut, should they make it through the rest of the offseason without being part of a trade package. For Rule 5 draftee Andrew Politi to remain in the organization, he’ll have to be in the majors all year. Infielders Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby reached Triple-A last season, as did outfielder Colton Cowser. Pitchers Drew Rom and Noah Denoyer joined Rodriguez and Ortiz in being added to the 40-man roster in November. Perhaps Coby Mayo echoes Henderson by beginning the season in Double-A and ending it in the majors as a 21-year-old infielder.
3. The return of John Means
For much of the Orioles’ rebuild, the only games to look forward to were those Means started. With the left-hander continuing to rehab from last year’s Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, “John Means Day” won’t be celebrated again until the summertime, and the wait should make it even more of a special occasion.
From 2019 to 2021, only seven pitchers who threw as many innings as Means allowed a lower on-base percentage to opposing hitters than he did. Baltimore came three games shy of the postseason in 2022 despite getting only eight innings from Means before his left elbow gave out. His midseason return will undoubtedly offer a boost to the Orioles’ rotation.
4. More ninth-inning light shows
One pitcher hasn’t been responsible for more than half of the Orioles’ saves since 2017, and even then, Brad Brach narrowly managed to do so by recoding 18 of Baltimore’s 35. Inconsistency in the ninth has been a hallmark of recent seasons, but thanks to Félix Bautista, that figures to change in 2023.
Unexpectedly handed the role to open 2022, Jorge López handled it well, becoming Baltimore’s lone All-Star before being traded to the Minnesota Twins for four minor leaguers. Bautista took over the ninth from there and did so with aplomb, with the Orioles welcoming him to the mound at Camden Yards with Omar Little’s signature whistle from “The Wire” and a subsequent light show. Now, manager Brandon Hyde will head to spring training with a clear closer for the first time in his five-season tenure.
After the López trade, Bautista converted 12 of his 13 save opportunities, with the lone exception accounting for half of his earned runs allowed in that time. Beyond that outing, he gave up four runs in 21 innings, a 1.71 ERA, and struck out 30 of the 80 batters he faced. FanGraphs project him to be responsible for more than half of the WAR the Orioles will get out of their bullpen, but the arms who will set him up — Dillon Tate, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker and Mychal Givens — should be valuable, as well.
5. A new long-term lease
Since first declaring in September 2019 the Orioles will play in Baltimore “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor,” team CEO and chairman John Angelos has reiterated that stance both publicly and privately. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred echoed it last month. Throughout the 2022 season, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias hinted at upgrades planned for Camden Yards in the coming years.
But the organization enters 2023 with its lease to play at the ballpark set to expire at the end of the year. That upcoming deadline, though, offers hope for resolution. The Orioles have less than a month to exercise a one-time, five-year extension, and if Feb. 1 comes and goes without them doing so, their agreement with the Maryland Stadium Authority will end Dec. 31.
Comments from organization and league leaders suggest the team won’t reach that date without a long-term lease. In that sense, 2023 figures to be a big year for the future of the Orioles regardless of what happens on the field.