The unexpected success that was the Orioles’ 2022 season came to an end earlier this week. But that marked the start of what could be an offseason with an equal amount of excitement.
With Baltimore coming off an 83-79 campaign that concluded with it being the best team in the American League to not reach the postseason, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has promised an increase in payroll in 2023, saying he’ll seek additions both through free agency and trades. It would mark the first time in nearly five years at the helm of Baltimore’s baseball operations department that resources have been heavily devoted to immediate improvements to the major league portion of the organization.
“Bottom line in this league is talent wins,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We’ve gotten a lot more talented, and we’re going to continue to get more talented.”
But before moving on to an offseason that will build on the 2022 season, let’s take a look back at it. Here are five things we learned from the Orioles’ first winning season since 2016:
Adley Rutschman is the real deal …
Adley Rutschman’s ability to uplift those around him was among the lead factors in his selection atop the 2019 draft. His ability on the field, of course, also led to that decision, as well as his rise to being the game’s No. 1 prospect. Those statuses — as the top draftee and top minor leaguer — meant he carried a bevy of expectations with him to Camden Yards when he joined the Orioles in late May. Somehow, he lived up to them.
The 24-year-old catcher hit .254 with an .807 OPS, setting a record for Baltimore rookies and catchers with 35 doubles, with his 65 walks being the most by an Oriole in his first major league season since 1965. Eight games under .500 when Rutschman debuted, the club went 67-55, an 89-win pace for a full season, with him on the roster. In games he was their starting catcher, the Orioles were 50-34, which equates to 96 wins across 162 games.
Rutschman changed the 2022 Orioles, and the 2023 team will get a full season of him.
… but he won’t do this alone.
Rutschman got most of the headlines, but the Orioles wouldn’t have had the success they did without a massive rookie class. Gunnar Henderson, who followed Rutschman as the game’s top prospect, joined Kyle Stowers and Terrin Vavra in populating the Orioles’ late-season lineups, and each could be in for larger roles in 2023. The first highly ranked prospect to debut this year, right-handed starter Kyle Bradish shook off a disastrous first half for a largely dominant second half. In the bullpen, right-handers Félix Bautista, Bryan Baker and Joey Krehbiel played key roles throughout the year, and left-hander DL Hall pitched extraordinarily well down the stretch to position himself for a rotation spot next year.
This season also showed that more talent is on the way. Grayson Rodriguez, the sport’s top pitching prospect, was on the verge of a promotion when he suffered a Grade 2 strain to his right lat muscle. He returned to position himself for a late-season call-up, and although the Orioles held off, Elias said Wednesday there’s a “very high likelihood” Rodriguez begins next season in their rotation. Infielders Jordan Westburg, Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz and outfielder Colton Cowser each had impressive seasons to reach Triple-A, and each could arrive in the majors next year.
“We had a No. 1 overall pick make a very successful, very impressive debut this year,” Elias said. “We had the No. 1 prospect in baseball come up and make a successful major league debut. And our top 10 prospect list is as deep as I’ve ever been around in my career, so we’re very excited about that.”
The pitching program is taking effect.
The Orioles’ pitching turnaround featured two types of players: new faces, many of whom were receiving their first extended major league opportunities, and returnees who improved greatly on their experiences.
The aforementioned relief arms and left-hander Cionel Pérez made up the core of the Orioles’ bullpen in 2022. All but Bautista came to Baltimore on waivers, and the massive right-hander became the Orioles’ closer after being released by the Miami Marlins as a teenager amid a nearly decadelong minor league career. Austin Voth went from having a 10.13 ERA as a reliever for the Washington Nationals to posting a 3.04 mark, largely as a starter, after the Orioles claimed him. Even veteran Jordan Lyles improved in his first season in Baltimore. While serving as a mentor to the rest of the staff, he finished an inning and two strikeouts shy of his career highs of a year ago, with 12 fewer home runs allowed and an ERA more than 70 points lower.
Among returnees, Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells and Spenser Watkins each took a step forward as they spent much of the year in Baltimore’s rotation. Kremer and Watkins each shaved more than three runs off their 2021 ERAs, while Wells followed an unexpected stint as the Orioles’ closer a year ago by being perhaps Baltimore’s most consistent starter when healthy.
Factor in that a pitching lab opened this summer to get the best out of their pitchers — in terms of both performance and health — and the Orioles could be trending toward more success in 2023.
Brandon Hyde showed his managerial muscle, but depth remains an issue.
“We have, in my mind, two Rookie of the Year candidates,” Elias said Wednesday, referring to Rutschman and Bautista. “I think we have the Manager of the Year candidate here sitting next to me.”
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Brandon Hyde’s fourth season as the Orioles’ manager elicited plenty of praise in and out of the team’s clubhouse, but those who experienced Hyde’s efforts as the team went 131-253 across his first three seasons have said he hasn’t done all that much differently this season. Instead, he’s had better pieces to deploy.
“My confidence wasn’t shaken, even though we had such really rough years the last three,” Hyde said. “Tried to stay as consistent as I possibly could with everything. It’s not easy to do. But try to match up as best as I possibly can, try to win as many games as I possibly could, and this year, we just had more talent. We had guys produce and had bullpen guys get outs. It became a lot more fun, honestly, and I’m ready for more fun like that.”
But the Orioles’ struggles this season, particularly late in the season, showed that more are needed. The midseason trades of Trey Mancini and Jorge López shortened the lineup and bullpen, leaving Hyde with fewer reliable options on days regulars rested or key relievers were down. Offensively, the club particularly struggled against left-handed pitchers, ending the season with Austin Hays’ modest .703 OPS off lefties being the Orioles’ third best among hitters with more than a dozen plate appearances. The bullpen had a 3.05 ERA entering August but posted a 4.37 mark over the last two-plus months as primary arms seemingly wore down.
The AL East remains a beast.
The Orioles greatly improved their divisional performances from past years, but they still finished with a losing record against each of the other teams in the AL East, going 9-10 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto and 7-12 against division winner New York. This year marked the third straight season at least three of the teams in the division reached the postseason, with every team but Baltimore earning a berth in that span.
“We’re not where we want to be or need to be in our division. It’s very daunting looking at these other four not only teams, but organizations in our division and picturing having to beat them to make it to the playoffs next year,” Elias said. “But that’s our goal, and we feel that the organization is in a position now to realistically pursue that goal for next year.”
That aggregate 34-42 record is a massive improvement from 20-56 a year ago, and the Orioles will get the added benefit in 2023 of a new schedule that features 13 games against each divisional opponent instead of 19. But improved performance in those 52 games — still nearly a third of the full schedule — will be helpful in reaching the postseason next year.
“I think we took huge steps this year, and we’ve just got to continue to get better,” Hyde said. “I thought we played our division tough this year. I thought our games were more competitive against our division. They’re going to continue to be going forward. We had a young club. We got a lot better. Just gonna continue to improve, and hopefully, I think Mike and their group will add pieces. It’s a great division. We’re getting better, and we will continue to.”